As It Happens

Mysterious, deadly illness plaguing one of Malaysia's last Indigenous nomadic tribes

One of Malaysia's last Indigenous, nomadic communities has been hit with a wave of illness and deaths that nobody has been able to explain — but a doctor who recently visited the tribe says neglect and overdevelopment are to blame.

Dr. Steven Chow says the deaths are likely the result of years of neglect and overdevelopment

A family from the Batek tribe walk to their village next to the entrance of Kuala Koh National Park in the northeastern Peninsular Malaysian state of Kelantan Oct. 21, 2009. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

Read Story Transcript

One of Malaysia's last Indigenous, nomadic communities has been hit with a wave of illness and deaths that nobody has been able to explain — but a doctor who recently visited the tribe says neglect and overdevelopment are to blame.

According to the Guardian, 14 people from the Batek tribe in a village in northeastern Peninsular Malaysia have died in the last month, and more than 50 have been taken to hospital. At least two of those deaths have been attributed to pneumonia, but it's not yet clear whether that was a secondary infection. 

"I am very worried," a villager, Adidas Om, 32, told reporters after bringing his two children to hospital with breathing difficulties. "Apart from my children, my neighbours are suffering from the same disease and some have died."

Dr. Steven Chow, head of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners' Associations Malaysia, visited with the tribe in April. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he saw. Here is part of their conversation. 

Dr. Chow, how devastating is this wave of deaths for this tribe in Malaysia?

To me as a doctor, this is very, very tragic. It should not occur. And I'm really devastated by what has happened ... to a community that has been very, very decimated by the changes around it — the changes of so-called development.

Can you just tell us a bit about the Batek people and where they live and what their way of life is?

They are a nomadic tribe. They move from place to place in the jungle.  ... These are one of the few nomadic Indigenous populations in Malaysia.

And what's threatening that lifestyle now?

Overdevelopment. When you take away forests, they can't live anymore because they live from the land. You can offer them a job in the plantations or whatnot, but that is not sustainable for them or the lifestyle they live.

Families from the Batek tribe gather outside their homes in a village next to the entrance of Kuala Koh National Park. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

For some time now they have been losing their land, losing their access to their way of life. Why do you think now that we're seeing so many people just in one month, 14 people from one community, who suddenly become ill and die? You've seen them. What's causing that?

I think there is a big picture behind it. And the big picture is the failure of the system that they're supposed to compensate for taking over their land to provide them with a kind of nutrition, a good supply of water, potable water, and a source of food.

I mean, they cannot live in an environment where the natural forest is already degraded and deprived of. For instance, if they need to hunt the wild boar, they could get a wild boar. But now there's no more wild boars. There are no more animals for them to hunt, there's no place for them to plant their ... cultivation and there's no water supply.

How are they going to survive? They will gradually become a community with a weakened resistance, malnutrition and an inability to fight any infections. And they will gradually die off. 

Children from the Batek tribe play. (Zainal Abd Halim/Reuters)

And it's infection that is attacking them, right? Chest infections, gastrointestinal infections, skin infections, all at the same time. Is that what you're seeing?

When we went in in April this year, we found kids with multiple infections ... skin infections, gastrointestinal infections, upper respiratory infections and some even lung infections.

Now these kids won't survive. It's just a matter of time, they will succumb. And this is exactly what happened. Not only to the kids, but also to the parents as well. This is a sad situation. But, unfortunately, it happened.

We are appalled. We are really appalled.

You haven't been able to identify any specific new disease?

There's no new disease. There's a big picture behind it and there's a small picture. The small picture essentially that you see the final event or the fatal event.

There are discussions that it's possibly an iron ore mine that's nearby that is polluting their water. Is that something you are aware of?

We are aware of that but we were not able to confirm the existence of this mine because our mission there was merely to see and to treat.

I hope the authorities will conduct a full-scale, multi-agency investigation and then come to a conclusion. If, indeed, there was a poisoning from a mineral or mining activity, that has to be addressed immediately. It can't go on.

How likely is it that the government of Malaysia would investigate these deaths given that it might expose industries like mining or foresting industries to scrutiny? Do you think they are willing to do that kind of an investigation to get to the bottom of this?

Certainly with the new government ... we are hopeful that this will, indeed, be investigated properly and proper action be taken.

I do believe and I do hope that the new government will know what to do. Because we have made this commitment that we shall not leave anyone behind. And we made this commitment in the early part of this year that no community shall be left behind as Malaysia develops further into the year 2025. We are supposed to be a developed nation by then.

Dr. Chow, just finally for yourself, when you tried express to people, government or whatever, what you saw when you and the others went to investigate these deaths, what do you say? What were your own feelings and impressions about what you saw?

I think we've failed. As a nation, we have failed these people.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited and condensed.