Research findings that traditional methods of farm cultivation of indigenous communities support biodiversity are fuelling calls from conservationists not to relocate them outside Malaysia’s thinning patches of rainforests.
The study by scientists at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus looked at practices of the Chewong community within the Krau Wildlife Reserve in Pahang, Malaysia who maintain some of the naturally occurring tree species and plant additional native fruit trees such as durian, mango and rambutan.
Camera traps were placed alongside animal trails in seven fruit gardens and eight control plots within the reserve.
Although no difference in the overall number of mammals was recorded, the results showed a higher number of larger mammals and species of conservation concern frequented the fruit gardens — including one endangered, five vulnerable and two near-threatened species.
The Chewong are now performing ecological roles normally associated with elephants, says Markus Eichhorn, a forest ecologist in the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences in the UK who worked on the study published in Biological Conservation this February.
The Chewong are now the main seed dispersers for many fruiting trees and a source of turnover in the forest canopy, replacing traditional dispersers such as the Asian elephant and Sumatran rhino that have totally disappeared from the area due to hunting and habitat fragmentation.
“The long periods, often seven or more years, between tree fruiting events mean that the supplementary fruit generated by their gardens play a major role in supporting animal populations. Should they leave the forest, important processes would halt and the dynamics of the forest would change,” Eichhorn notes.
For Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, the study confirms what researchers all over the world have been saying: “The occupation of territories within national parks and conservation areas by Orang Asli (the Malay term for indigenous people) do not reduce thebiodiversity or quantity of plants and animals.”
He stresses the findings hold particular relevance because of recommendations to relocate the Chewong within the reserve’s boundaries to Kuala Gandah and other resettlements where the majority of Peninsular Malaysia’s remaining Chewong now reside.
“The 15 or so families who live within the reserve are among the few who still practice this traditional way of life, so this would be a very strong argument for not removing them,” says Nicholas.
Both Eichhorn and Nicholas hope the new research will prompt a shift in attitudes.
For example, the Jahai, a group of nomadic foragers living within the Royal Belum State Park in Malaysia, currently face many restrictions. Nicholas points out: “The attitude there is that conservation means non-use as opposed to wise use.”
However, by clearing small patches of forest for habitation and selectively allowing fruit trees to emerge from the forest floor, their presence may help increase food resources within the forest, he says.
Eichhorn notes that blanket approaches that fail to consider how traditional agricultural methods impact the conservation management of the rainforest are counter-productive. He says it is better to engage with people who are capable of supporting conservation goals rather than treating them as part of the problem.
“The Orang Asli have a close cultural connection to natural systems that makes them our allies. It is only through their cooperation that we will have the greatest chance of success,” Eichhorn says.
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