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October 10, 2012

Saving Jungle People A Different Perspective

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Throughout the popular press, and with some well-meaning environmental groups, a movement has arisen where hunters and gatherers should be allowed to continue their nomadic lifestyle. They portray these individuals in an idyllic manner, living in a Garden of Eden, wandering half-naked in the jungles.


The jungle, or Tropical Rainforest, is neutral. Fruits do not hang from tress ripe for the pickings. Animals do not lie down and jump to a spit to be roasted over an open fire. The search for food is the primary job of these people, a very arduous task. Animals must be tracked and more often than not, they get away.


Women usually stay back at the base camp. This has nothing to do with male domination. A critter cannot be followed with a squalling infant in tow. While taking care of the children, the ladies dig for roots and search the immediate area for anything edible. Usually thrown together in a stew pot, this will probably be the only meal of the day. Meat can be added if the hunter was successful.


The fruit season is a time of plenty and usually lasts for three months. The trees erupt and attract the animals. Both meat and vegetables are bountiful. However, after this period ends, the subsistence grind begins again.


Nature film makers arrive in an area on a very strict budget. They need and want action photos and there is not a better time than during that of plenty. A great picture of a blowgun being used, happy ladies collecting plentiful fruit and fat children, bloated by food, make for great programming back home.


Truth be told, these people are miserable. The life expectancy is around 40 years. Infant mortality, although difficult to quantify, is high. Diseases and plagues can wipe out an entire group. Starvation can occur if the rains don’t come, or a talented hunter dies.


A cause of disease is simple lack of knowledge. For example, a people may bathe and clean themselves using a clear sparkling stream as a toilet. But the human waste moves downstream to sicken the group below. Stricken people cannot hunt or search for tubers.


Many of the people I have met do not want their children to continue the wayward life of the forest. Like all parents they want better times for their children. They know education and modernity will provide an end to starvation, sickness and death.


Of course, they all do not feel that way. These few are often sought out by the camera crews to feature in films. The glorious jungle life is often praised by them.


There are problems. Blow guns and root digging are not skills needed in a modern society. With food provided, many find it difficult to adjust to a sedentary life. There are those few who are exploited and some women who are taken in by the starry, starry nights of the big cities, villages to us.


Others conform brilliantly to their new vocation of farming, the closest vocation to jungle wandering. Most watch with pride as their children wear their new school uniforms and begin their education. They know the horrible childhood diseases are eradicated with inoculations. The people learn their new-found rights and deal with a political system completely foreign to them.


The reality, no matter how soft-eyed western dreamers wish it weren’t true, is that most want modernity and are adjusting brilliantly to their new found lifestyle. Instead of wanting to keep them in the forest, we should all applaud their efforts in this difficult transition and wish them well on their journey into the 21st Century.


. . . . .Life is good. . . . .


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