PROMOTING THE SENOI TRADITIONAL
KNOWLEDGE OF FOREST RESOURCES
by Teoh Phaik Yuh
[Master of Architecture 2021, Universiti Putra Malaysia]
The Senoi Ethnic Group
At an altitude approximately 500 meters above sea level overlooking the contour of the forest valley, there is a community called Senoi, a group of people classified among the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. According to the Malaysia Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA), the Senois represent the largest ethnic group (around 54%) among the three major ethnic groups of Orang Asli. They are the descendants of the earliest inhabitant that migrated to the Malay Peninsula approximately 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The majority of the Senoi tribes live at the forest fringe in response to the current development.
Since the 1980s, the rapid development and globalisation in Peninsular Malaysia have placed pressure on the livelihood of the Senoi tribes. In addition, the socio-economic and cultural marginalisation and social inequality have affected their livelihood security to meet their basic needs. In line with this realisation, the Senoi tribes need to overcome the rapid changes by looking into a strategy to strengthen their self-sufficient livelihood to sustain their future.
The Community’s Living Expression
The native dwellings of the Senoi tribes are surrounded by natural resources that become the subsistence base for their basic needs. These natural resources are utilised to build their settlement and make small products such as handmade utensils. This creativity and innovation reflect their strong sense of organic and geometry theory. Indeed, their native surrounding inspires their creativity and innovation to become a part of their identity.
They define creativity as a design with no limits, no shape, highly personal, vividly patterned, and coloured. Moreover, they do not have a particular guiding style. All they know are through the indigenous knowledge to pass on from their ancestor. Throughout the times, they adapt to their surroundings, changing and manipulating them accordingly to their needs. This phenomenon shows that their living composition and expression are created by the time and changes they have gone through.
Therefore, their parametric building form also represents a continuity of the tribes’ living expression. The manipulation of the dynamic form and journey within the spaces and the contours of the forest sites symbolises the tribes’ discovery trail of medicinal plants while gathering in the forest. It also carries out the tangible and intangible relationship between the biodiversity, ecology and symbiosis livelihood of the Senoi tribes with the forest. A such, the transition and intersection of space planning should connect the following aspects: (1) the historical background of the tribes (i.e., traditional knowledge), (2) the current challenges faced by the tribes (i.e., cultivation of medicinal plants), and the way forward (i.e., medicinal research).
The Senoi’s Architectural Language
Bamboo is one of the indigenous materials commonly used by the Senoi tribes in their daily lives, especially on settlement construction. Bamboo represents the tribes’ architectural language due to their deep understanding and familiarity with the species, treatment and usages of the native materials. Hence, the possibilities of integrating bamboo architecture with other native building materials and technology should be explored to prolong the building structure and community values.
One of such possibilities is an exploration of a bamboo space frame. It is an approach whereby the parametric external building form generated along the sloping site contour acts as a shelter and shading for the functional spaces underneath. Conceptually, it symbolises the memory of the tribes’ giant open weave bag raga to carry their harvest, wild medicinal plants or firewood. Architecturally, it is also an extension of knowledge in terms of the character and detailing of bamboo to assist the Senoi tribes in continuing to manifest their building technology. Moreover, it is also an approach to uphold the Senoi resilient livelihood and sustainable architecture that responds to the global environmental issue.
Gateway of Social Connection
The Senois are known as a community that loves to learn, explore, and gain knowledge through their native surroundings and others. They then manipulate the knowledge for self-sustaining or survival while waiting for external support and assistance for their socio-economic growth. Therefore, they adapt and look forward to getting a connection with the public without losing their identity. Sadly, however, there is still a lack of knowledge in this modern era on their challenges and needs. Moreover, there is still a barrier of social connection between the Senoi tribes and the general public.
The Proposal’s Focuses and Expectations
What has been said earlier points to the evident fact that a community-based laboratory is needed for the Senoi tribes as an alternative community self-reliance scheme. This laboratory aims to promote the Senoi traditional knowledge in medicinal plants to empower the community to reveal their community values. It acts as a gateway for social connection by re-introducing the native people’s identity and capabilities to the general society. The proposed self-sustained community-based laboratory is a way to represent the independent ability and characteristics of the Senoi tribes in managing their livelihood. They care for their social sustainability or their social rights, which could be preserved if an opportunity is given and the rapid development is balanced.
In summary, there are three aspects that the laboratory needs to focus on:
Cultivation: to multiply the availability of medicinal plants, which are gradually dying out in the forest;
Documentation: to manifest the Senoi traditional knowledge in medicinal plants before they disappear; and
Research: to discover the possibility of the Senoi therapeutic contributions to society
It is hoped that the proposed community-based laboratory could contribute to strengthening the Senoi community resilience and livelihoods. Furthermore, this initiative could drive the socio-economy growth in line with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 “Economic Growth And Decent Work”, and SDG 10 “Reducing Inequality”.
To conclude, below is a message about the native people inspired by “Mad Weave” & “Solastalgia Forest, Crafts and the People” by GERIMIS:
Before the development in;
They still can hear tiger raum raum,
Before the monoculture of plantation;
They weave giant baskets with huge wild pandanus leaves.
The rapid growth keeps on going from the north from the south from the east from west;
They guard, protect, and resist, but what else left for them?
Imagine the future of a world, controlled with programmes, mechanises and automation;
Imagine the future of a world with nothing to hold for a story to be told.
Everyone, every creature needs space to live, grow and survive,
From a sense of self to a sense of belonging,
From history to a tradition to a culture,
For what they believe they do, they practice. It speaks the true language of the land.
What they live for, rest for, and care for are not just for themselves,
But to the heart of the living rainforest that belongs to you and to the world.
Let the plants continue to breathe, continue to grow.
Let their indigenous knowledge continue to manifest, continue passing on.
For citation purposes: Teoh, Phaik Yuh. (2021). Promoting the Senoi Traditional Knowledge of Forest Resources. D-Zine Trend, Volume 1 (Issue 1). https://www.dzinetrend.com/v1-1-promoting-the-senoi-traditional-knowledge-of-forest-resources