Shahar “Shaq” Koyok is descended from the Temuan people, one of the largest tribes of Malaysia’s Indigenous peoples, or Orang Asli (which means “first people” in Malay).

An artist and Indigenous rights activist, Shaq almost exclusively paints members of his tribe, to earn a living and to tell the story of their struggles.

Indigenous peoples in Malaysia face a range of threats to their traditional way of life, not least the loss of the forests they call home.

Last year, Malaysia lost 123,000 hectares of natural forest. This is equivalent to 87 million tonnes of carbon emissions – and thousands of Indigenous people’s source food, energy and way of life.

The 37 year-old artist grew up in a Temuan village in Banting, about 20 kilometres from the reserve. From modest beginnings in a one-room house without running water or electricity, Shaq became one of the first Orang Asli to attend the Universiti Teknologi Mara in Shah Alam, where he studied fine arts.

In this interview, Shaq talks about the perils of defending Indigenous rights in Malaysia, his feelings about the recent death of the Queen, carbon credits, and finding a balance between modern and traditional life.

What effect did the victory in protecting the Kuala Langat nature reserve have for your community?

It was really empowering. For me, it showed that people power really works. And it showed how a community can work together. For generations, Indigenous people have had to fight for our forests on our own. But we are not alone anymore. The authorities tried to fight us from many angles, but the campaign brought us together as a community. A victory like this is rare in Malaysia.

For us, the forest isn’t just our livelihood. It is our way of life, our identity, our culture. But this narrative is not taught in school. Our story is not told in history books. The campaign to save Kuala Langat forest helped to tell our story, and people who didn’t know our story rallied to help us. More importantly, they wanted to learn about our existence and way of life.

A lot of campaigns to save forests around Southeast Asia are not successful. How come your campaign worked?

It helped that the forest was close to Kuala Lumpur, where many non-government organisations are based. It was easy for me to take other activists, artists and friends from the city to the forest to show them what was at stake, and what we could lose. They made a connection with the forest. Then our fight became their fight. Too many forests have been lost because Indigenous peoples have had to fight alone.

Read the full interview with Shahar Koyok by Robin Hicks at Eco-Business.