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Project January 15, 2020

End of Times for Malaysia's Batek?

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As rainforests burn in the Amazon and in Southeast Asia, Indigenous inhabitants are being wiped out by the consequences of unfettered resource extraction.

Recently, a mysterious illness took the lives of 15 out of 180 members of a clan of Malaysia's last hunter-gatherers, the Batek — precisely the same clan I received a Pulitzer Center grant to document in 2011.

Only 20 members of this malnourished tribe were NOT sickened. The government claims it was measles — locals call this claim a whitewash. A new manganese mine, they say, is leeching toxins into the river, the main water source, sickening the Batek.

The Batek, a Negrito people, are a remnant of the very first wave of humans out of Africa, yet they look as if they never left. Over the course of four decades, massive oil palm expansion has slowly eaten up their entire rainforest — a vast, living carbon sink. The 2015 project "Plotting the Course of Extinction" documented the clear-cut of this group's last remaining parcel of rainforest, adjacent to a national park, without their consultation or consent. Recently, the Kelantan state government's made it illegal to enter state forests. Several Malaysian indigenous rights advocates and journalists have been arrested. The atmosphere there is tense.