Biodiversity, Local Livelihoods and the link with Culture, Politics and Development

Published: 06 November 2006



and the link with Culture, Politics
and Development


Colin Nicholas

Paper presented at the 10th International Congress for Ethnobiology organised by the International Society of Ethnobiologists, 6–9 November 2006, Chiang Rai, Thailand. By invitation and sponsorship of  the Center for Integrated Area Studies (CIAS), Kyoto University, Japan.


When an Orang Asli clears a part of his forest to plant food for himself and his family, he is accused of destroying the forest. When a researcher burns non-renewable fossil fuel to reach his study area and churns out reams of reports on paper that were once trees, this is accepted as a proactive effort towards forest conservation.


A majority of the Orang Asli live in areas that are rich in biodiversity. Their indigenous resource management, with its set of intricate knowledge gained over generations, has been central to the conservation of resources in their traditional areas. This is because the Orang Asli, like other indigenous communities, have more than an economic attachment to the land and forest. The spiritual, ancestral and linguistic ties they have to the land are rarely shared by others – including the loggers, settlers, developers and politicians – who seek to exploit the most of tropical forests differently.

Orang Asli as Conservationists
That is to say the Orang Asli maintain a symbiotic liaison with their habitat. Their survival – physically and culturally as a people – depends on their ability to creatively live off nature even as they help sustain it. This creativity is reflected in the body of knowledge they have developed to conserve and carefully utilize the rich biological diversity that abounds on their land.

The knowledge of the Orang Asli is enshrined in daily living, ritual and taboo underlining how culture, language, religion, psychology and spiritual beliefs cannot often be separated from their understanding of the natural world. This knowledge has passed through generations and assures not only the survival and sustainability of the forest but also the people and cultures dependent upon it and the ecosystem as a whole. The ethos, as such, of Orang Asli knowledge is holistic and ecological. It takes into account, and relies upon, the complexity of interrelationships of all that exists.

It is understandable therefore that people-oriented anthropologists and conservationists (e.g. Nations 2001: 462) subscribed to the once widely-held ‘truism’ that a positive correlation exists between indigenous peoples and conservation. That is: “where there are indigenous peoples there are tropical forests, and where there are tropical forests there are indigenous peoples”. Or in the other ‘truism’ that in time to come, most of the tropical forests that remain on earth (and thus the largest repositories of biological diversity) will be those under the control of indigenous peoples.

Today, the idea that indigenous communities can automatically be equated with conservation is no longer widely held. In fact, Redford (1991, cited in Nations 2001: 468) has called this notion, “the myth of the ecologically noble savage”. The reality is that the priority of many indigenous peoples is not conservation, but survival and economic pragmatism.

Indigenous Peoples are Pragmatic Survivalists
Economic pragmatism (a very down-to-earth approach to procuring maximal return to labour) and opportunism (a flexible posture toward seizing opportunities) seem to be the rule which traditional communities such as the Orang Asli apply in the management of their environments (Sellato 2005: 62). This approach is neither conservation-oriented nor destructive.

Indeed, as Sellato notes of the traditional peoples of Borneo, extractivism – brought about by economic opportunistic behaviours leading to deliberate decisions to collect products with the most profitable return on labour, and to frequent switches from one product to another following the whims of regional or global market demands – have led to the depletion or near-extinction of particular animal and plant species, from the Sumateran rhinoceros to the eaglewood tree or the edible birds’ nest.

Similarly, the Orang Asli display contrasting behaviour and management practices vis-à-vis subsistence resources, on the one hand, and trade resources (such as non-timber forest products like rattan and gaharu) on the other hand. This is not surprising as people take better care of things that they own than they do of things that do not belong to them. As such they naturally feel a stronger sense of ownership over their subsistence resources, on which their daily life has depended for centuries, than over trade resources, for which demand changed, rose and sank, in the course of time. People worldwide, and not just indigenous peoples, behave in the same way (cf. Sellato 2005: 68).

The Influence of Others
Indigenous resource management is only a part of an inter-linking system governing the way of life of induividuals that also ensures the continued survival of indigenous communities as a whole. Without doubt, indigenous systems – encompassing the judicial, social, economic, cultural, political, belief, agriculture, technology, health and the arts – are crucial in ensuring the holistic development and well-being of the community.

Thus, in the case of the Orang Asli, internal conflicts – such as disputes on land ownership and control, and violation of community regulations on resource management – are within their experience and capacity and are consequently dealt with easily using customary laws and indigenous traditions. However, their resource management is no longer being dictated merely by internal factors but are instead being increasingly affected by external ones. 

External conflicts, however, are more difficult to resolve as they involve outside actors who challenge the rights of Orang Asli communities to control and manage these resources. These outside actors encroach on, and often appropriate, Orang Asli lands thereby posing a direct threat to the continuity and viability of their indigenous social systems and the sustainability of their traditional resources. With an increased opening up of the traditional territory (roads) and society (ethnic mixing), a frontier situation has been created, in which members of the local communities and outsiders compete in a race to get products first (Kaskija 2002, cited in Sellato 2005: 69).

The external actors are not limited to those desiring only the commercial exploitation of the natural resources of the Orang Asli. Governments, through their policies, programmes and endorsement of an ideal ‘mainstream’ that the Orang Asli are required to aspire to – a mainstream based on the consumerist/capitalist model –  further hasten the demotion and destruction of the Orang Asli indigenous systems. The process is further hastened when one considers that the policy of assimilation and integration for the Orang Asli invariably include programmes that seek to change Orang Asli cultures, languages, leadership and even spirituality.

The resulting diminished resource base and changes in their value systems invariably heightened the traditional levels of commercialization and extractivism present in the Orang Asli community – giving credence to Redford’s “myth of the ecologically noble savage”.

Divergence between Western and Indigenous Systems
of Conservation
For lack of a better term, the values, methods and philosophy behind the management of forests and protected areas in Malaysia (some would call this ‘scientific conservation’) can be termed as ‘western-based’. In such western-based conservation paradigms, ecosystem protection and the legal process hold centre stage. The inclination was to separate nature and culture to produce the concept of wilderness with all of its many associations (Castagna 2005: 156).

On the contrary, for the Orang Asli and other traditional peoples, indigenous conservation systems are often founded on traditional use and guided by social and spiritual obligations. This involves, among other things, respect for traditional leaders, human dignity, and the observance of cultural norms or adat.

As Cox (2000: 330) notes, issues of justice and conservation are also often seen differently through western and indigenous eyes. In fact, in perceiving the presence of the Orang Asli (and their ‘unsustainable’ extractive practices) as the problem in the conservation of protected areas, western-based conservationists tended to take the approach of excluding the Orang Asli altogether from these areas, even if those areas included the traditional territories of the Orang Asli. This has frequently resulted in heightened tensions and conflicts, often resulting in the Orang Asli retaliating by causing even further damage to the environment.

Furthermore, western-based conservationists tend to favour phrases and objectives containing the term sustainability. As Tainter (2001: 347) advises us, because the term sustainable is rapidly filling the niche once occupied in popular discourse by ecological, we must always insist on asking: Sustainability of what? For whom? For how long? And at what cost? This is because, in the absence of clear definitions and limiting conditions, sustainability is a carrier of social, political, personal, and even commercial meanings that we project on it.

Sustainability as such can mean better wages and work conditions, improved health, recycling, and spiritual-wellbeing. Politicians will also be able to endorse sustainability as a concept while denying that it calls for concrete action. They also tend to define the terms of the sustainability debate as consumption and employment versus sacrifice and unemployment. We therefore need an understanding of sustainability that is both more concrete and more nuanced (Tainter 2001: 348).

Inevitably Political
Increasing cash needs and population pressure on diminishing resource bases are changing the Orang Asli‘s relationship with the ecosystems they inhabit. However, the Orang Asli can still be one of the best hopes for maintaining large landscapes in a more or less natural state. But to benefit from this hope, conservationists must address the priority issues of indigenous peoples: land, resource rights, education, and healthcare (Nations 2001: 468, citing Stearman 1996: 24) – because indigenous biological diversity may only be conserved in traditional indigenous communities where these rights are recognised and protected.

It should be clear that whether the management of the subsistence resources is sustainable or not depends on the special status of the primary survival needs and the special sense of ownership and continuity developed in relation to them. Strict, unchallenged ownership (in the hands of the Orang Asli) certainly allowed for sustainable exploitation (Sellato 2005: 69).

We also need to better understand how internal, behavioural factors have been instrumental, along with external more global, economic factors, in shaping environmental change patterns in the last few centuries. In fact, as Zerner (2000: 6-7) notes, in an era in which thought and action are dominated by economic models, metaphors, and material flows, it is incumbent that conservationists deploy the analytical methods of the social sciences and humanities – including revitalized area-studies and cultural analysis – to conceptualize, plan, and evaluate market-linked environmental management projects.

That is, they need to be seen through the lenses of culture and politics. To ignore these perspectives is to invite undesirable outcomes, farce, and possibly tragedy in planning and implementing project interventions. After all, all nature conservation and environmental management efforts are inevitably projects in politics.

Removing Obstacles
We should therefore accept that sustainability is not achieved by respecting physical and cultural constraints alone, but that the social and political aspects of the societies involved are equally important. Needless to say, each kind of diversity, be they cultural or biological or physical, broadens the range of choices that are available at any time that decisions have to be made. Therefore, cultural diversity can be considered as a resource just as biodiversity is a resource. We should thus recognize that not only is biodiversity being threatened today, but that cultural diversity (and traditional knowledge) is as much under threat today.

Perhaps therefore the most important first response required of others, including governments, is to affirm the Orang Asli’s right to exist as a people with their culture and practices intact. This affirmation must be both formal (as in fundamental constitutional guarantees) and real (as in the removal of all conditions that threaten their culture and survival; and that establish measures of support for the preservation and enhancement of their culture and practices).

One of the impediments to their cultural survival is the lack of secure tenure of land. In Malaysia, native customary land titles are being extinguished at an accelerating pace to allow such lands to be parcelled out to often questionable ‘unsustainable’ commercial enterprises. And yet, the Orang Asli are the ones who get the blame for causing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. Now is the time for researchers to redress this situation.



Castagna, Chris (2005), Building wilderness: a textual analysis of the management of Te Urewera National Park. In: Cant, Garth, Anake Goodall and Justine Inns (2005), Discourses and Silences: Indigenous Peoples, Risks and Resistance. University of Canterbury, Christchurch, pp.153-169.

Cox, Paul Alan (2000), A Tale of Two Villages: Culture, Conservation, and Ecolonialism in Samoa. In Charles Zerner (Ed.), People, Plants & Justice: The Politics of Nature Cionservation, 330-344. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nations, James D. (2001), Indigenous Peoples and Conservation: Misguided Myths in the Maya Tropical Forest. In: Luisa Maffi (ed.), On Biocultural Diversity: Linking Language, Knowledge and the Environment, Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 462-471.

Nicholas, Colin and Jannie Lasimbang (2004), Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Malaysia. Summary proceedings of the National Roundtable on Indigenous Knowledge and Biodiversity held at the Law Faculty, University of Malaya, 7-8 March 2001. COAC/JOAS, Subang Jaya.

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Tainter, Joseph A. (2001), Sustainable Rural Communities: General Principles and North American Indicators. In: Carol J. Pierce Colfer and Yvonne Byron (ed.), People Managing Forests: The Links between Human Well-being and Sustainability, Resources for the Future, Washington DC & Center for International Forestry Research, Bogor, pp. 347-361.

Zerner, Charles (2000), Toward a Broader Vision of Justice and Nature Conservation. In: Charles Zerner, People, Plants & Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation. Columbia University Press, New York, people. pp. 3-20.