The Batek Group


The Batek are a group of people that resides around Taman Negra National Park, in the western part of Malaysia. They are about 350 in number and generally live in camps which compose five nuclear families. These families are mostly found in the rain forest regions of the Kelantan state. The Batek are believed to be engaged in trade of the forest products (Schebesta, 1928). They are hunters and also practice gathering (Taylor, 2010). In the present days, this community is being choked by the mounting pressure from the modern part of their country. The Malaysian government wants the members of this community to change their nomadic lifestyle (Faulstich, 2010). This paper is going to look at the current way of life and effects of the changing environment on the lifestyle of the Batek group of people in Western Malaysia.

It will be realized that gender differences are in reality not ethnically instilled with prejudiced, irregular symbolic messages. Therefore, the Batek’s life extends to include sex relations that are of egalitarian manner. One can describe the relation between the male and the female in this society as equal. Both men and women in the family are involved in search of food and bringing it to the family for sharing (Goody, 1995). However, the mode through which they find food for the family is different between the sexes. None of these methods is considered more important, as compared to the other in this community. Women are involved in gathering, while men hunt (Lampell, 2010).

Among the Batek, there is the role of a specialist in healing known as Shaman. Unlike other groups that are also hunters and gatherers, these are usually females. This group associate sickness with strong emotions and that healing may be achieved through offering apologies to those who are considered aggrieved by the sick person. If a member of a camp is seen as the cause for a sickness affecting many people, then he or she can be expelled in order to achieve healing (Fabrega, 1999).

The Batek also believe that when a person is angry with another, he or she can make that person become sick. For example, they refer to the disease, named ke’oy, which has fever symptoms and inability to breathe properly. In this case, the person who has been made angry is asked to suppress this emotion. Some spells are used for treatment, while others various traditional songs are used for the affected individual to recover (Peaceful Societies 2013).

The foraging lives give the Batek freedom of moving from one place to another at any time and engage in any economic activity. The problem that the Batek face arise from the Malaysian government as a result of its development schemes and logging operations, which truly reduce the total virgin forest, which helps in encouraging the Batek’s hunting and gathering lifestyle which they mostly prefer. The Batek believe in sharing food even if people are not from the same family or live separately. Their morals also forbid them to act in a violent or aggressive manner towards members of their own community or others from outside (Gray, 2009). Their belief is that such behaviour is for immature people who behave like children. It is even forbidden to hit others, since this could lead to the punishment from a god, who they believe to control a thunder (Endicott, 2011).

Aboriginal Affairs is a government department that is aimed at ensuring that the Batek cease the nomadic way of life and live in the resettlement farms where they will practice agriculture. In the settlement schemes, the government provides the Batek with rations, technical assistance, tools, and seeds. This, in turn, makes them be able to clear the fields and plant several crops. These schemes become operative in the lower Lebir, but in the other areas they totally fail, and most of the people actually return to the forest where they continue their nomadic foraging way of life (Lampell, 2010).

The Aboriginal Affairs Department encouraged and helped the Batek to plant large parts along the Aring River with many crops, such as rice, during mid-1970s. This actually violated the customary Batek principles of sharing and ownership, because this kind of agriculture was considered unsuitable (Woodburn, 1982). The itinerant Batek perceived the food that they obtained from the cultivated land to be equally the same as the wild fruits that they collected from the forests, and, therefore, it was supposed to be free to everybody. The nomads flocked to these farmers during the times of harvest and share the food with them, because according to their traditions, they believed that they had the rights of eating the crops. Those nomads who arrived late were obliged to share with the farmers. This caused plenty of problems to the farmers, and they fled away in fear of the nomads.

The farmers moved to the lower Lebir, which was a settlement that was sponsored by the department. These Batek who lived here had earlier started farming, and agriculture had increased, because they planted large stretches of land with various crops. These farmers had power to own their property and had the ideology that they should benefit from their labors. In order to fully benefit from their labors, they proceeded and adopted the idea of private owned farms. These farms ensured that they could not share any food with nomads. The Aboriginal Affairs Department, therefore, caused the differences within the Batek. In general, these changes from the department trigger continued misunderstandings and conflicts that arise from the two followers in the economic system, because the farming and foraging ways of life actually require contrasting doctrines of distribution and ownership (Endicott, 1974).

The rising importance of trade that mushrooms in the economy of Batek is another area that creates a potential conflict. It is essentially evident that the Batek’s economy started to grow due to the trade, which had started during early 1980’s. During this period, the price that was allotted to the gaharu wood rose. Gaharu was a resinous wood and was mostly used in incense. Its demand in the Middle East grew, which, in turn, led to an increase in the prices. This raised the financial status of the people, which meant that they could purchase several commodities (Endicott & Endicott, 1987). As for the young Batek, they were able to posses several luxury goods, which extended to include cassette recorders, which helped them in the strenuous process of searching and felling down these trees. They made their work be seemingly easier. It will be realized that the benefits that arose from high prices which were obtained from the gaharu wood were unevenly spread in the whole population.

The trade led to rise of some merchants in the Batek, who were geared at purchasing the wood at higher prices than the Malay traders. This made the Batek cut down more trees and trade with these merchants, because they were not exploitative in terms of the prices. These middle men made the trade to expand throughout the whole region of the Batek, as most of the people, both the young and the old ones, fully participated in this deal. At the time when the business was at the peak, there were no bad feelings towards these merchants, but later, there developed some potentiality in the source of conflict and jealously. Frequent fluctuations that arose in the prices that were allotted to the produce which was obtained from the forest caused differences within the people due to unequal distribution of wealth. Another cause of difference within the people arises from the fast disintegration of the goods that are bought as a result of the trade (Endicott, n.d).  Another drastic effect is an excessive forest destruction, which will bring to an end the traded forest produce and the foraging economy. This will eventually force the Batek to subsist as peasant farmers in the resettlement projects that were set up by the Aboriginal Affairs Department. This may, in turn, result to common poverty levels. Future wealth differentials may also arise as a result of the salaries of young Batek, who have in recent times joined the army and could help to replace the trade.

The Batek community has suffered much in terms of interference by the Malaysian government and the modern world with its high globalization pace. All this has created tribulations for the Bateks. Seemingly, this community is in search of suitable solutions to the troubles emanating from the modern world. They have resulted into following their interests of flexibility and more so maintaining mobility, which has seen them consider minor entrepreneurship endeavors rather than just going the way of subsistence farming. Although many of them still argue that their customary way of life is the best, the present century has made hunting and gathering a hard task, and more so, the population of wildlife has dwindled vastly over the years. Likewise, agriculture is quite involving, expensive, and time consuming, and the people, therefore, prefer to undertake daily wages which, as they argue, are better off (Tacey, 2013).

To some extent, this reveals that the Batek community has embraced change, modernization, and generally globalization but has also fought to maintain quite a number of their culture beliefs. For instance, witchcraft and sorcery, supernatural beings, traditional narratives, and folk botany amongst others are still in practice, even though the cropping up of western cultures has made some of them question the types of customs which the community practices. Moreover, the Malaysian landscapes have been transformed by globalization, and since quite a number of the Batek community group have been left without their territories, this has forced them relocate to forest peripheries, which has made them come into contact with the other communities. This has regularly stressed them into abandoning their religious inclination and switching to global religions, predominantly Islam. Nevertheless, even though some still practice their custom, the Batek religious practices and beliefs have continuously been restructured by the mounting encounters with worldwide flows of people, capital, objects, technologies, and ideologies.


The present government policies seem not to favor or even lend a helping hand and protect the culture of the Batek people together with their homeland. Apparently, the forceful expulsion from their ancestral lands, coupled with the deficiency of workable economic alternatives favoring this community, has placed them in a weak wanting position. Other indigenous communities all over the world have received national and even global recognition, and more so, the respective governments have presented mechanisms and policies that are aimed at protecting them. Therefore, the Malaysian authorities ought to eliminate forceful relocation and mistreatment of the Batek community and put in place subsistence strategies and policies that are aimed at protecting the community from mistreatment. The government should also educate them on the significance of integrating with the bigger Malaysian society. The final decision must be left to the Batek, and if they still desire to continue hunting and gathering in their ancestral lands, then their plea has be respected (Tacey, 2013). 

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