Semang - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Until recently most Semang lived by hunting and gathering wild foods and trading forest products for cultivated foods and manufactured goods. Some groups, such as the Batek Dè', still live this way. Yet even the most nomadic groups plant a few crops from time to time, and most work temporarily for outsiders (e.g., helping Malay farmers harvest rice in return for a share of the crop). This economy is characterized by frequent switching of activities as opportunities change. Collecting forest products for trade is usually the most favored activity, followed by wage labor, subsistence foraging, and horticulture. The Lanòh, Mendriq, and Batèk Nòng have been semi-settled swidden horticulturalists since early in this century. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has attempted to persuade all Semang to live in government settlements, where occupants are trained in commercial crop production. Many Semang who move to these settlements—after being displaced by dams, logging, or development projects—resist full-time farming, opting instead to collect forest products for trade. The staple carbohydrate of the foraging economy is wild yams ( Dioscorea ) of at least twelve species, which are found in relative abundance year-round. Other wild foods include bamboo shoots, nuts, seasonal fruits, and honey. Hunting with blowpipes and poison darts provides most of the meat, mainly from arboreal animals such as monkeys, gibbons, and birds. Digging bamboo rats out of their burrows and fishing with hook and line, nets, poison, and spears also provide animal protein. Some Semang formerly used bows and arrows to kill larger game, but this practice disappeared, for no obvious reason, early in this century. Semang seldom set traps. Slash-and-burn horticultural crops include dry rice, cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes. Foragers share foods throughout the camp; among horticulturalists food sharing is concentrated within extended families.

Some nomadic Semang keep dogs, valued as watchdogs but useless in blowpipe hunting. Young monkeys, birds, etc. may become pets. Settled groups sometimes keep dogs and cats as pets and raise chickens for food or trade.

Industrial Arts. Semang utilize forest materials, such as bamboo (for blowpipes, dart quivers, cooking vessels, water containers, combs, sleeping platforms, rafts), wood (for knife handles, sheaths, meat-drying racks), pandanus (for mats and baskets), bark (for baskets and, formerly, bark cloth), and rattan (for bindings, baskets, ladders, belts). They use metal knives and axes obtained through trade and rework metal scraps into harpoon points, spear tips, and digging-stick blades.

Trade. The Semang have traded forest products for cultivated foods and manufactured goods at least since the early nineteenth century and probably since the advent of agriculture in the peninsula. Their survival does not depend on trade, however, although life would be much more difficult without iron tools, for example. Many items obtained through trade are luxury goods, such as tobacco, or substitutes for natural foods and materials, such as rice and flour for wild tubers, sugar for honey, cloth for bark cloth. Semang have lived without trade during periods of hostilities: during intense slave raiding, the Japanese occupation, and the 1948-1960 Communist insurrection (known as "the Emergency"). Forest products collected by Semang for trade—resins, wax, thatch, plant medicines, honey, rattan, and resinous woods—vary according to demand. Trade partners include both Malay and Chinese wholesalers and shopkeepers. In the last century some Malays established patron-client relationships with groups of Semang.

Division of Labor. A division of labor by gender exists, but it is a statistical tendency apparently resulting from practical considerations rather than norms or ideology that define certain tasks as appropriate only to one sex. Most activities are done by both sexes, often working together in mixed groups or husband-wife teams. For example, both men and women dig tubers and care for small children, but women spend more time on these tasks. Most blowpipe hunting and making and repair of hunting equipment is done by men, but women may hunt and own blowpipes. Men generally do tasks that take great strength (e.g., felling or climbing large trees) or mobility (blowpipe hunting) or that are incompatible with child care, and women do tasks that take less strength and mobility (because they have to carry babies), such as digging up tubers and bamboo rats, fishing, and weaving pandanus. Individual specialization is almost entirely absent except in the religious sphere.

Land Tenure. Each group regards a certain area as its home (the saka' ), although claims of exclusive rights to an area vis-à-vis other groups (Semang or others) are seldom made and, in any case, are unenforceable. People have access to all wild resources found in their group's area and have the right to clear any land for planting that is not already in use. Crops, but not the land, are the property of the conjugal family that planted them, although food-sharing rules apply after harvest. Western Semang allow individuals to own poison trees and perennial fruit trees they plant or discover (a concept similar to that of the adjacent Temiar Senoi), but Batèk Dè' regard such trees as free to all. The Malaysian government does not recognize any traditional Semang rights over land or resources.

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Helmut Lukas
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Oct 12, 2012 @ 3:03 am
There is, however, one Semang group (Maniq of Southern Thailand) exclusively living on hunting and gathering. cf. Helmut Lukas: Can "They" save "Us", the Foragers? Indonesian and Thai Hunter-Gatherer Cultures under Threat from Outside (you can see this paper on the internet page of the Austrian Academy of Sciences)

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