The Penan are an ethnic group of nomadic forest hunters that live mostly in Sarawak but also live in smaller numbers in Kalimantan and Brunei. They have traditionally lived a nomadic life in the forest while Dayaks were more settled. The Penan are also known as Punan, Pennan, Poenan, Poonan, Pounan. Punan is often used as a general term for Bornean forest dwellers. In two dialects in East Kalimantan punan means "to gather," "to collect," and "to assemble things or goods."
The Penan recognize two main groups: the East Penan and the West Penan. These two groups are culturally distinct and geographically separated by the Baram River. There are believed to be only around 70 Penan groups, with a total population of between 10,000 and 15,000, with only about 300 living a completely nomadic life. The Penan have traditionally lived alongside other groups rather than in their own distinct territory. Some of the last groups of nomads are found in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.
The Penan are similar to but more solidly built than most Dayaks, a reflection perhaps of strength built up from a hard forest life. On their lifestyle in the modern world one Penan elder told Bruno Manser, “Our land provides us with food for free, and so, without a sen in our pockets, we have enough. What is it about the the people in the town with their shops? What do they have to install fans and air -conditioning n their apartments? They live in the heat because they have destroyed their forest. Here under the big trees, is cool shadow, We don’t want to change places with them.”
Book: Voice n the Rainforest by Bruno Manser. The anthropologist D.B. Ellis wrote a paper about the Penans in 1972.
History of the Penan and the Decline of Penan Nomadism
Little is known about the history of the Penan before the early 19th century, when they occupied settlements on the Hiahm Suai and Buk rivers. They are believed to have arrived at that location by traveling through the Lio Matu area from Pejungan. They have been encouraged for long time towards settlement by colonial and present-day governments.
In the 1950s, the anthropologist Tom Harrison of the Sarawak Museum proposed that the Penan were not a separate ethnic group but are descendants of villagers who became nomads to escape headhunting raids by the Kayan and Iban in the 19th century. Studies have shown that languages spoke by the Penan vary somewhat from group to group but are related to those spoken by non-Penan villagers in the area where they live.
In 1970, there were 13,000 nomadic Penan living in the forests of Sarawak. By the early 1990s only 350 remained. The remainder were either settled or semi-settled in up river villages, where they farmed rice, bananas and tapioca. Many still hunted and gathered food in the forest but only a few hundred practice nomadism.
The Penan’s rain forest home remained relatively undisturbed until the 1970s when logging roads penetrated the Sarawak interior. They lost food sources, ancestral graves and rattan palms which they used to make mats and baskets.
The Malaysian government argues they are doing the Penan a favor by bringing them in line with the modern world. One leading official in Sarawak said, “How can we have an equal society when you allow a small group of people to behave like animals in the jungle.”
Twenty-seven of the inland tribal groups of Sarawak are collectively called Orang Ulu or upriver people. A total estimated population of around 100,000 people belong to tribes varied in size from 300 to 25,000 individuals. Arguably Borneo's most artistic people, their large longhouses are ornately decorated with murals and superb woodcarvings; their utensils are embellished with intricate beadwork. Traditional tattoos are a very important part of their culture; aristocratic Orang Ulu ladies also cover their arms and legs with finely detailed tattoos. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]
The aboriginal Penan people are also included as Orang Ulu by government census but the Penan are traditionally nomadic people living in small family groups constantly moving from place to place within the rainforest. Today most of the estimated 16,000 Penan people have settled in longhouse communities where their children have the chance to go to school. Like the Iban and Bidayuh, most of the Orang Ulu have converted from animism to Christianity or Islam.
The Penan believe in a creator god named Peselong and rely on shaman to cure illnesses by removing illness-causing spirits. They have sacred mountains like Batu Lawi, a pair of male and female peaks in the middle of the Bornean jungle. Rivers have mythological names and connections to ancestors. The Western Penan believed their society originated in the upper Lua river region. Christianity has been spread since World War II.
The Penan believe that natural phenomena, spirits and magic are all interconnected. Thunder is a manifestation of balei ja’au, powerful magic of the forest. Trees bloom in response to the sound of peacock songs. The calls of some birds bring good fortune while the calls of others brings bad luck. Their universe is divided into the land of shade, the land of abundance and the land that has been destroyed.
The Penan believe they have two souls: one that is physical and emotional and the other, a "dream wandering state" that is experienced during sleep or a trance when they see through they eyes of animals or spirits. They also believe certain plants can give their dogs special hunting skills.
Penan Creation Myth
In the beginning, according to the Penan creation myth, there was only sky and water and a sun and moon that didn't move. After eons and eons rocks fell to earth and later came rain which pulverized the rock into mud. Worms emerged from the mud are bore holes in the rock which allowed mother earth to break through the ground. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday & Co, Garden City, New York, 1987, <*>]
Later still the sun dropped a female tree trunk and the moon deposited a male plant which gave birth to a pair of legless humans with roots instead of legs. Their offspring also didn't have legs but they made a deal with the animals who supplied the human hybrids with legs in return for a promise that they wouldn't hunt the animals. The first people honored the pledge but their descendent didn't and the animals demanded their legs and when the humans refused a bitter fight ensued. Wit the help of the forest a new deal was struck: the people would only hunt what they need for food and the animals would sacrifice a certain number of victims if the hunters blessed their souls. In memory of their original ancestors the Penan bury their dead in the trunk of a tree. <*>
The first man and women stood in the forest while two large trees blew around in a windstorm. They didn't know about sex. As the watched the trees in the storm a branch from a tree entered a hole in another tree, giving the first man and woman an idea. Their first child was the result. <*>
Penan society is organized around nuclear families and camp groups. The Penan have no descent groups and headmen if they exist have little power. Patrilineal lines are more important than matrilineal ones. Children take their father’s name. Penan live under a set of customs known as molong that are geared in part for maintaining a balance and harmony with nature and preserving resources for future generations. People who have spent long periods of time with the Penan have never seen them argue.
Marriage is usually done without a ceremony, preferably to member of one’s group, and used to be sealed with a the payment of a bride-price of blowguns, swords or money but now this is rarely done. The East Penan allow marriage to first cousins; the West Penan do not. Polygyny is allowed but rare. Divorce can be initiated by either party. Post-marriage residence is generally with the wife’s group if it is different from the husband’s group.
Women are believed to be born without a soul until they are married. Until they possess a soul they are not responsible for their actions and thus they can lead an uninhibited sexual life until they are married. Women are not supposed to have children until they have a soul. Unnwanted pregnancies are aborted using special plants. When a women is ready to get married it is up to her prospective husband to procure her soul. To get one the husband must hunt himself a head. <*>
Penan Forest Etiquette
If one group goes ahead of another group messages are lft behind as to where they going with patterns made with sticks and leaves. Messages are left to warn others of possible dangers.
Some customs such as 'The walkabout" are shared by the aborigines of Australia. One biologist told the New York Times, “It is their credo to take care of the weakest one...I was always the slowest in our group. But whenever I lagged behind, there would be some Penan person lurking behind a tree, making an excuse that he needed a cigarette or a rest.”
Some Penan greet each other by touching fingers and then touching their hair. Calling someone padee, or brother, is a proper salutation. Their language has one word for “he,” “she” and “it” and six for we. Sharing is an obligation so there is no word for thank you. Thee are hundreds of words related to trees but no word for forest.
Among the Penan food has traditionally been shared: The staple of nomadic Puna's has traditionally been sago, a paste derived from Sago palm trees, which grow extensively in the swampy lowlands and sporadically in the hills, and fruit from rain forest trees. They also have hunted bearded pigs, bear, snakes and several species of deer and monkey. Fish are caught with a hook and line or poison made from derris root. The West Penan make iron tools.
The Penan smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and cook fish and monkeys over an open fire and keep monkeys on chains as pets. Only some fruit is harvested from a tree at one time to make sure there is some left behind for other Penan, and animals. Sago pulp is trampled under foot while water is added and strained through a rattan mat and then dried into a powder.
The Penan have traditionally traded with the Kenyan people at their longhouses three times a years, providing them with things like wild latex, hornbill feathers, mats and pangolin scales in return for spearheads, knives, cookware, jewelry and matches. Goods the Penan receive in trade are not shared. Land is not owned but there is a sense of property when it comes to possessions.
The Penan can tell time by the behavior of animals. One kind of monkey drinks at 5:30pm. A type bird calls at 5:00am, noon 6:00pm and 8:00pm. If they became ill they knew what plants to take. They bound and sutured their wounds and women gave birth in the jungle.
Some Penan use beads for currency. Some beads are hundreds of years old, collected over the generations from Portuguese, Chinese, Arabian and local traders. Sometimes a bride's entire dowery is made up of beads, and some of the beads worn today are believed to have been excavated from 2,300-year-old Mesopotamian graves. <*>
Eastern Penan have traditionally built semi-permanent camps inside a given territory and radiated from them using temporary camps. The base camp was used as a storage area. Western Penan, by contrast, settled for as long as two years with one or two families spreading out from the camp into forest to gather forest products, leaving the sick and elderly behind. The Eastern Penan build their houses on pilings. The Western Penan build their houses on the ground.
Some Penan live in longhouse settlements in different locations that are occupied and abandoned depending on the season. After a two week trek through the rain forest, the Blair brothers visited one these settlements in the 1980s along a whiskey-colored stream that was occupied by 35 families. The longhouses are built on stilts for protection from insects. Many families keep hunting dogs. ♢
Instead of using tents, every night Penan nomads set up camps with houses that, in twenty minutes, are built "entirely from scratch.” The floor, frame, stilts are built with saplings and bamboo poles. The roof and walls are made from overlapping palm leaves. The insect-repelling bark from a particular species of tree is used for the floor covering and palm leaves are draped on top of the frame to keep rain out. Nomadic Penan live in these makeshift houses of sticks and palm leaves for a short time and move on to new locations. ♢
The possessions of typical nomadic group includes a kettle, a wok, an ax, some ragged clothes, a tin box and a key, two flashlights, a cassette player, three tapes, eight dogs and two monkeys. [Source: National Geographic]
Penan Forest Gathering
The Penan have an expression: "From the forest we get our life.” The forest also provides the Penan with gahara (an aromatic wood used as an incense and in medicine in China), bezoar stones (monkey gallstones used in Chinese medicine), rattan, edible birds nests, heart of palms, wild mushrooms, buaa nakan fruits, wild ferns, wild-bee honey, and camphor tree resin. Some of these items are traded for clothes, cooking pots, shotgun shells, iron tools and fabric.
Penan nomads do not wander aimlessly through the forest, their journeys are carefully thought out along well-established tracks that connect areas with rich game and fish with stands of wild sago palms. They also have a practice, called molong, of claiming ownership of wild plants and trees.
Describing an outing in the forest with semi-nomadic Penan, Eric Hanson wrote in Natural History magazine, "Katong picked jackfruit, marked a tree that held honey a beehive full of honey, and stopped to a replant a durian seedling in a sunny spot. Paya collected rattan to make a backpack and a lump of tree resin to use as a light at night. Tingang...cut a vine that contained drinking water that tasted of sassafras. He showed me a leaf used as sandpaper and another one, combining properties of stinging nettles and poison oak.
"There was a root used as an anti-inebriant and for curing hangovers, a slender root that serves as an antidote for scorpion and snake bites, a fleshy stem that is chewed as a cure for headache or upset stomach, and an aromatic leaf applied to sore joints. Paya also gathered a leaf that produces fragrant soapy bubbles when crushed and rubbed between the hands with water. [Ibid]
"As we moved through the forest , Katong identified birdsongs, interpreted animal tracks, predicted what month the diprocarp trees would begin to drop their seeds this year (and attract the wild boar), and estimated what time it was (within ten minutes, according to my watch) by the sound of the cicadas. By the time we arrived in camp, the Penan were loaded down with enough food and supplies to last for several days." [Ibid]
The Penan hunt with spears, blowguns outfit with poison darts and, when they are available, fire arms. Mostly they hunt gibbons and macaques, although wild pigs are the most desired prey. They also take snakes and monitor lizards. Hunting is done by male hunters, who leave their women and children in villages and head off into the rain forest, sometimes for months at a time. They sweep out of the villages in larger and larger concentric circles, sleeping in shelters along the way and subsisting on berries, fruit and game. ♢
Penan men hunt with blown guns carved from a heavy wood resistant to jungle humidity which bows lesser woods out of alignment. The eight-foot-long blowguns have a metal blade attached to one end which helps the hunters aim and claim big game when the blowgun is used as a spear. The darts are tipped with tadjun, a poisonous plant, which kills the animal, or the strychnos fruit (the source of strychnine), which in the does they use only paralyzes the animal, or a poison from the Ipoh tree. ♢
Most Penan hunters work alone, but on occasion they work together in group to track and flush out large game. One of the problems with hunting with a blowgun is that even if you hit a monkey sometimes it will get lodged between a branch and won't fall all the way to the ground.
Raising domesticated animals is a concept that is revolting to nomadic Penan. They hate the idea of killing animals they have allowed into their circle They never kill animal unless they need them as food and never kill adult animals that are accompanied by young.
The Penan hunted heads primarily for ceremonial purposes. The heads are believed to possess magical powers and even today are sometimes brought out during important weddings, births and funerals. ♢
In the old days, when a prospective groom returned with a head he tied it to the head of his bride. During a three day ceremony animals are sacrificed, rituals are conducted and the organs of sacrificed animals are read for omens by a shaman. If the readings are satisfactory the shaman proclaims the transfer of the soul a success. If not the prospective husband must come up with a new head. ♢
When the Penan moved they always took their hunted heads with them. Occasionally the heads are rolled in ashes to make sure that their soul doesn't leave and torment the hunter. ♢
Penan Ornamentation and Tattoos
The men cut their hair "bowl style" and sport long ponytails. Their ears are pierced with two holes: one at the top of the ear for wart hog tusks or wads of tobacco and a lower one for metal hoops. Their earlobes are stretched from infancy with gradually increased weights added as they get older which sometimes pull their earlobes down as far as their shoulders. Shaman and elders sometimes wear loincloths headdresses made from rattan and hornbill feathers and have tattoos and distended pierced earlobes. ♢
The women shave the hair on their upper forehead and temples and pluck their eyelashes and eyebrows to enlarge their forehead which is seen as a sign of beauty. They generally don't stretch their earlobes with hoops although some Dayak tribes do. ♢
"For the major experiences of a Penan's life," Blair writes, "whether an inner dream or an outer experience, are commemorated with a ritual tattoo. Most of the men wore tattoos on their chests, throats and arms, and the women on their wrists and legs...[Tatoo masters] always work as a couple—a man (for whom it is taboo to draw blood, except in anger) to trace the symbol, and a woman laboriously to open up the wound and hammer in the dye. Out tattooists took less than half an hour to paint the design on our chests, but their partners took closer to six ours to make it permanent. I thought it was finished after three...but there was only a patterned pink wound, an eighth of an inch deep, into which she went on meticulously to beat the carbonized wood dye. This was achieved with a strip of bamboo tipped...with two semi-straightened fish hooks...tapped by a secondary hammer with the unwavering precision of a sewing machine. During the more painful moments, our skilled tormentors would cluck commiseratingly into our ears." ♢
Penan Music and Culture
At night the Penan, clad in hornbill feathers, sing and dance to"Borneo bluegrass" music produced with bamboo nose flutes, vine stringed instruments made from animal skins and sing from toothless howling old ladies. Young boys flirt with girls by wiggling their ears and when couple pair off they sometimes head to the river to make love. During important festivals shaman go off into a "dream wandering" trance in which they speak in a language that only the gods can understand. ♢
"The mysterious Penan water music," Blair wrote, "which few had heard and none could describe, [was] and alluring symbol of lost forest maidens." The syncopated rhythms are played by a half dozen or so children using cupped hands. ♢
The Penan also have a rich tradition of stories.
Penan and the Modern World
Traditionally, the Penan were nomadic hunter-and-gatherers, but today most live in settled villages, but still depend on the forests for their livelihood. Many Penan were not introduced to the idea of the cash economy and day labor until the 1970s. They have traditionally bartered forest products for manufactured good traded to them at great profit by settled people.
The government has tried with great difficulty to get the Penan to change their nomadic ways. The Penan are known for their distrust of outsiders. In some places the Penan are prevented from hunting by some government laws. Workers from logging companies have harassed them and killed animals in their hunting grounds for sport.
Beginning in the 1950s, Christian missionaries moved into Penan areas and began converting the Penan to Catholicism and Protestantism. Many have settled not because they want but because there are no animals and food in forest anymore
The Penan are quickly being assimilated. Most wear Western clothes. Many attend church on Sunday and send their children to government schools. Many Penan want their children to go to school and mix with non-Penan groups. They also want access to modern medicines and clinics. Many young Penan are attracted by modern life,
Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia once said, “There is nothing romantic about these helpless, half-starved and disease-ridden people and we will make no apologies for endeavoring to uplift their living condition. One of his ministers said, “We don’t mind preserving the Sumatra rhino in the jungle, but not the Penan.”
Bruno Manser and the Penan
Bruno Manser, a Swiss cowherd, went to the rainforests of Borneo and lived with the Penan for six years, from 1984 to 1990, and lived as the Penan did, hunting with a blowpipe, eating snake and monkey meat and running around without shoes and a shirt. He became so adept at climbing trees even his Penan friends marveled at as his skill. During his six years in the forest he nearly died twice: once from a nasty bout of malaria and other time from a bite from a pit viper that left behind a wound that became gangrenous and was operated on with a fishhook.
Manser became a leading advocate for Penan rights and a leader in their struggle to save their rain forest home from large timber companies. He gave lectures and organized protests and staged publicity stunts such as descending by motorized paraglider into Sarawak to give a minster there a toy lamb during a Muslim holiday. Prince Charles was among this who praised his courage. In Malaysia, his activities got him deported. Government officials in Sarawak claimed that Manser did the Penan more harm than good by slowing their assimilation into mainstream Malaysian life.
In May 2000, Manser slipped into Sarawak by crossing the border illegally from Kalimantan in Indonesia. That was the last time anybody knew his whereabouts. There is a chance he may have fallen or been bitten by a king cobra. Many who knew him think that is improbably and say it is more likely he was murdered by thugs working for the logging companies.
Penan Way of Life Threatened by Logging and Oil
The Penan have complained that their way of life is under threat from extensive logging of their traditional hunting grounds, oil exploration and drilling near their rivers and as well as the spread of palm oil and timber plantations. For decades the Penan people have seen their customary forests felled for logging, plantations, dams, roads, and other big infrastructure projects with the Sarawak government refusing to recognize their land rights.
Reporting from Data Bila, Sarawak, M. Jegathesan of AFP wrote: “Deep in the Borneo jungle, 70-year-old Ara Potong stiches a rattan mat and wonders how much longer he can continue to survive on the bounty of the fast-disappearing forest. The grey-haired Penan tribesman, with the stretched earlobes distinctive to his people, deftly slices the thin rattan to fashion a mat that will be traded for basic goods like rice, sugar, salt and oil. "Logging has damaged the jungles. Now it is difficult to find rattan. We need it to make mats," says Ding Liang, another elderly resident of the Penan settlement, as he watches Ara work. "Even wild boars and monkeys are becoming rare. We do not have enough to eat. Our river is murky. Please tell the world our plight," he tells AFP. [Source: M. Jegathesan, AFP, December 16, 2007 \^/]
“Data Bila is located 150 kilometres (95 miles) southeast of Miri, an oil-rich coastal town in Sarawak. Data Bila is part of the Ulu Baram region that was famous for its teeming flora and fauna, but where many species are now becoming threatened. It is also home to an indigenous population comprising the Penans, Kelabit, Kenyah and Kayans -- yet as the logging firms encroach ever further, their way of life is also in jeopardy. \^/
“The Penan were traditionally a nomadic people but many have now established settlements along the Baram river. Once it brought them fresh water and fish, but logging operations upstream have now turned it dark and silted. \^/
Logging in Sarawak
Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “About 70 percent of Sarawak is covered by forests, which are home to 24 minority indigenous tribes including the Penan. Timber is Sarawak's second biggest export after oil and gas. The state government began giving concessions to logging companies in the 1960s, and widespread cutting of trees began in the 70s and 80s. It was not until the late 1990s that the government issued strict guidelines on controlled felling of trees. The move was too late, said Abin who described bulldozers clear-cutting swaths of forests with trees as old as 500 years. According to the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss-based activist group, more than 90 percent of Sarawak's primeval rainforests have been logged in the last 30 years. Re-growth has restored the greenery but the new trees are not of the same quality.[Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, December 15, 2007 +++]
Much of the logging is done by Samling, Malaysia's second biggest logging company. Listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007, it earned $2.6 billion from wood exports in 2006. “The company insists it practices sustainable logging. It has also voluntarily agreed to oversight by the private Malaysian Timber Certification Council in a large section of its 1.4 million hectare (3.46 million acre) concessions that will expire in 2018. The council provides an internationally-accepted certification of good logging practices, which includes dividing a logging area into 25 blocks and harvesting them once in 25 years. This is supposed to give the forest time to regenerate. Experts say the gap should be at least 45 years. +++
"By and large, it is fair to say that logging in this region is not sustainable," said Junaidi Payne of conservation group WWF's Borneo program. "The rate at which the forest is being cut is way beyond the rate at which it is regenerating." Many of Samling's European customers of its plywood and sawn timber rely on MTCC's seal of approval, which expires in 2009. The MTCC certification also requires Samling to negotiate with tribes in the event of a conflict even though the company has the right to knock down the Penan blockade because it is on legal concession land, said James Ho, vice president of operations at Samling. "We never bulldoze any area. It is not our policy because we need a good relationship with all stakeholders," he said. "After all the forest is our life. We cannot possibly destroy it." +++
Impact of Logging in Sarawak on the Penan
Raymond Abin, of the Borneo Research Institue in Miri, said: "Many Penans have been forced out of the forest to settle in settlement camps. Their social and economic activities depend on hunting and sale of handicraft. Rattan is already depleted due to logging." Despite the "benefits" of development, malnutrition remains a big problem, the social activist says. "And if you look at the state development plan, it is very scary. The lowlands are for oil palm cultivation and the highlands for forest plantations. Hence, the indigenous people will be pushed further into the interior." \^/
Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: “But opinion is divided among the impoverished tribes, some of whom live in settlements so remote they can be reached only on foot after days of walking through jungle trails. To them, the logging roads are a lifeline to civilization. In the absence of development, they see the logging companies as the bearer of basic needs such as clean water, electricity, toilets, schools and transportation. "I want children to go to high school. I don't want them to stay here in the village where there is no school. Maybe when they come back they become doctor or teacher," said Seluma Jalong, a tribeswoman who taught herself to speak passable English. Jalong, 36, lives in Long Main village, which is reached from the logging road after a five-hour walk and boat ride.” [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, December 15, 2007]
Malaysia's Penan Stage Protests Against Sarawak Logging
M. Jegathesan of AFP wrote: “By the 1980s they had had enough, and began erecting blockades to highlight the damage the timber business caused. Most were demolished -- some violently -- but the protest goes on. A few weeks ago, Penans in the settlement of Long Benalih erected a new blockade across a proposed logging trail to prevent Malaysia timber giant Samling Global constructing a road into its concession area. The structure is only flimsy and could easily be swept aside, but it is a potent symbolic gesture, and one which can jeopardise certification needed to prove timber was obtained legally and sustainably.[Source: M. Jegathesan, AFP, December 16, 2007 \^/]
"We have the blockade to preserve and prevent damage to the land," Long Benalih's headman Saun Bujang said in a statement posted on the blockade, first set up in 2003 and periodically demolished and rebuilt. "We oppose logging and construction of the timber road because it destroys our way of life and the forest products we depend on." \^/
“Ajang Kiew, chairman of the Sarawak Penan Association, says most timber players in Sarawak have little regard for the native people and the forests, although Samling stands above the rest by selectively logging mature timber. "Logging destroyed my ancestral burial grounds in the 1980s and 1990s," the 54-year-old tells AFP. "If you come to my village you only see red soil. The water is murky," he says. Ajang is also worried about the disappearing sago palm -- a staple diet eaten with meat from wild boar or barking deer. \^/
“Ajang has been jailed three times in the past two decades and sacked by the government as village headman for helping build blockades. "The jungle is like a mother to us. It gives us food and protection. I am sad when the forest is destroyed. Our culture will disappear if the forests disappears. My heart bleeds when they cut the trees," he says. \^/
Logging Company Defend Itself
Samling told Associated Press it does not encroach on the customary rights of the tribes, and allows them free access to forage for food. It has donated nearly 2 million ringgit (US$588,000; €420,000) to the tribes as well as developing other projects, said Samling spokeswoman Cheryl Yong. She said Samling employs 11,000 people in Malaysia of which 33.5 percent are indigenous people. Ngau and Abin, the Malaysian activists, acknowledge that Samling has been more pro-active in helping the tribes than the other big five privately-held timber companies. "Since we listed globally we want to be transparent. We know we are under scrutiny," said Ho.[Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, December 15, 2007]
M. Jegathesan of AFP wrote: “Samling insists the allegations of forest destruction are baseless."We have tried to negotiate with Long Benalih community but we have not been able to make any progress. This blockade is being put up in our timber concession area and we have not started any harvesting in the disputed area," says spokeswoman Cheryl Yong.[Source: M. Jegathesan, AFP, December 16, 2007]
“Samling's vice-president of forest division James Ho, who is based in Miri, insists the sago plants and rattan vines so critical to the Penan way of life are not damaged in its concession areas. "Sago plants do not have commercial value. We don't touch such plants. We practice sustainable forest management. Only trees with commercial value of certain size are cut. We follow the laws," he says. "We do not destroy the forest. We only harvest mature trees. We are a listed company in Hong Kong and we want to be transparent." "Unfortunately by being transparent, we are subjected to more scrutiny," he tells a group of international media which the company brought to Sarawak to witness its activities. Ho says the Penan of Long Benalih are being influenced by outsiders, and that many others actually welcome the roads, piped water and other benefits of development that the logging brings.” \^/
Samling, a Malaysian timber company, has large concessions in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak. According to environmentalists it has been able to use the controversial MTCC-certification to deflect attention from its destructive logging and plantation activities in other areas. It should be reminded that the MTCC-certified area, which is often used as a showcase, covers less than 4 percent of Samling's logging concessions in Sarawak. If this area still has large tracts of primeval forest, it is mainly thanks to the persistent defiance of the loggers by the local communities. [Source: BMF, December 18, 2007]
Protests Against Logging by Sarawak Tribal People
Reporting from the rainforest in Sarawak, Vijay Joshi of Associated Press wrote: Like a slithering red snake, the dirt road cuts through the jungles shrouding an endless row of hills. At the first sign of humanity, the logging road stops abruptly: a crude barrier of branches tied together by dry palm fronds and a handwritten warning: "When We Say No, We Mean No." In the middle of the ancient rainforest in Borneo, this simple blockade erected by a jungle tribe has become the symbolic frontline in the battle to protect forests from a logging industry eager to harvest the bounty that feeds much of the world's thirst for timber. [Source: Vijay Joshi, Associated Press, December 15, 2007 +++]
"Logging has been the biggest disaster for the forests, and its indigenous people," said Raymond Abin of the Borneo Resources Institute in Sarawak. The blockade "is the last resort of the natives after all processes of negotiations and consultations failed," he said. Leading the campaign in Sarawak are former headhunting tribes, who say logging is destroying their ancestral lands and snatching their customary rights over the forests. There are other concerns that logging has damaged Borneo's multimillion-year-old ecosystem and is pushing rare plant and animal species such as wild orchids and clouded leopard toward extinction. +++
“The forests are "what you inherited from your ancestors. During the headhunting days they sacrificed their lives to defend it," said Harrison Ngau Laing, a lands rights lawyers who represents some of the tribes. Laing, himself a tribesman, said some 100 legal cases have been filed by the tribes against logging companies and the government. None has been resolved. +++
“Long Benalih, where some 28 Penan families live, is one community. The leaders of Long Benalih set up the blockade in November 2007 on the road being built by Samling. Ajaing Kiew, a Penan leader who lives in Apoh, a few hundred kilometers (miles) from the blockade site, said his area has already been flattened by logging."It is sad to look. There is nothing of the forest. That side is already red earth. At least there is forest left here," he said, accompanying two reporters to the blockade site. Kiew stopped to pick out medicinal plants. "This one," he said bending down to touch a two-leaf plant, "is to relieve back pain. And this must be placed on a wound. It sucks out all the poison in the body." "There is an urgent need to preserve the remaining old-growth forests for future generations," said BMF's Lukas Straumann. +++
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015