Climate Voices

Deforestation and Indigenous Cultures

This month's contributor is Norliyana Menes. Norliyana is passionate about many things - minority rights, inequality, Bollywood, food, the list goes on - all of which are shaped by her experiences growing up and shuttling between New England and Southeast Asia. She enjoys good discussions and passionate debates, but only when everyone involved has good intentions and open minds. In her free time, Norliyana likes to travel, experiment with cooking, and spend time with her adopted cat.

Thoughts of a Third-Culture Child: Our Indigenous People and Our Rainforests

As I sit at my computer in my air-conditioned apartment, my concern currently being my overweight cat messing up the throw pillows on my new rug, I know that I am in a place of privilege. Specifically, the privilege of living in a North nation with a relatively good job. I don't often think about it. However, as someone who grew up in a developing nation, it is easy for me to remember times when I was not as privileged. I am someone who lives in a Western nation but understands the other side of the global coin.

Palm Oil Plantation

Old Plantation, Malaysia. Photo: Norliyana Menes

I grew up in a little village in Malaysia called Kampung Gubang Gajah surrounded by multitudes of the lush rainforests that make up the country. I spent most of my childhood in the village, Singapore, and Maine, so I got the unique experience of understanding what life was like in different places. My home in Malaysia was built by my grandfather, in accordance with traditional lower-class Malay architecture; it was small, made of wood and sheet metal roofing.

My family is descended from the Orang Asli, the Indigenous population of Malaysia, and part of my identity is in understanding and supporting Native populations. The rainforest was my home, and I loved to explore it. The air is moist and the world is so green. I grew up scaling mangosteen trees and chasing after monkeys. We didn't have running hot water, we used the traditional squat toilets for most of my youth, and I wasn't introduced to technology for a long time. I loved my childhood, scorpions in my pants, frogs in my shoes, and all.

I want to discuss the guilt and hypocrisy I feel, as an individual who depended on the rainforest in my youth but who now lives as an adult in a Western capitalist economy.

As a child I didn't understand what was happening to my beloved rainforest. As an adult, with degrees in criminology and anthropology, working towards my Master's in criminology, I have only begun to comprehend what is happening to both my cherished jungle and the wider world. In addition to my experiences in Malaysia, I have had amazing opportunities to work with Indigenous educators in the States, and the discussion always ties back to climate change.

The jungle that I knew and loved is much different for my nephews and nieces, but the rainforest is not the only victim of the climate crisis. Indigenous populations in the USA and their lands are consistently put in danger due to toxic dumping and ethically incomprehensible agreements to store radioactive materials on their land. Native populations in Alaska and Canada are dealing with melting ice and rising sea levels threatening their homes. Worldwide, traditional ecological knowledge and other Indigenous practices are being slowly introduced as countries work to save the environment.


Palm Oil Plantation, Malaysia. Photo: Norliyana Menes

Malaysia and other rain-forested areas like the Amazon are often referred to as the "lungs of the Earth," but deforestation has created massive problems. In Malaysia, rubber and palm oil plantations grow in vast amounts as corporations rip down the rainforest to make room for more. Entire sections of land behind my home, hundreds of acres, were destroyed to make room for rubber plantations. While in theory it may sound great to plant trees in place of trees, this practice actually removes the indigenous plants from the area, destroying habitats and creating issues around erosion and biodiversity. This land is often taken from the local peoples deceitfully, with corporations using English or difficult jargon on the paperwork.

Like Malaysia, the Amazon is also dealing with issues involving droughts, fires, and late rainfall. I can't even begin to go into the use of pesticides and chemicals outlawed in the west that corporations dump upon underdeveloped nations to try to still squeeze out some profit. These issues plaguing the Indigenous peoples and the world's biodiversity are essential in the conversation on climate change.

But the truth is my guilt feels selfish.

I don't live the most sustainable life. I'm not vegan or vegetarian, I purchase clothes through fast fashion, and I use single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. As I sit here with my air conditioning on typing about the issues I know are happening around the world, I am doing little to help. On the other hand, as someone going into the field of criminology, I know that resolving climate change is not an individual fight. Fundamentally, change will be found through the abolition of corporate monopoly. Capitalism and corporate greed are large factors in the climate crisis. So is my guilt valid? Knowing that companies I purchase from are contributing to the devastation of my beloved home: I would say yes. It is a privilege to be able to live sustainably, to go vegan, to not shop fast fashion. While I am trying, I have not completed my journey to sustainability. But I will continue to try, and I implore you, reader, to try as well.

Educate yourself, and try your best with that education to educate others. I am reminded whenever I return to my village just how much the rainforest has changed. Once flourishing greenery has been replaced by dirt so red it seems as though the Earth itself is bleeding. My grandfather was a very strong man, he was gentle and kind, but also the manliest of men in some of the most traditionally toxic ways. He never cried for as long as I knew him, but he would certainly shed a tear in secret if he saw his home now.