Lands of the Penan
Living in the rainforests of Borneo in Southeast Asia, the Penan people are one of the last indigenous groups in the world with members who still follow a traditional nomadic lifestyle, relying solely on their natural environment for material and spiritual sustenance. But in recent decades, logging has destroyed or altered the rainforest, forcing most Penan into a settled or seminomadic lifestyle marked by impoverishment and political marginalization. The Penan have received almost no compensation for the ongoing loss of their ancestral home and find it increasingly difficult to find their traditional sources of food in a diminishing rainforest. These circumstances have driven many Penan into activism that began in the 1980s with road blockades against lumber companies and legal battles over land rights. Today, the Penan are concerned that hydroelectric dams and a misguided race to plant oil palm plantations for biofuel and acacia plantations for paper pulp will finally obliterate their rainforest home. As a Penan man explained to the ethnobotanist Wade Davis, “The land is sacred; it belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, the few who are living, and the multitudes of those yet to be born. How can the government say that all untitled land ‘belongs to itself,’ when there had been people using the land even before the government itself existed?”
The Land and Its People
The island of Borneo has one of the most dazzlingly diverse ecosystems on the planet. The island’s tropical rainforests teem with plant and animal species, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Borneo is divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei; both Malaysia and Indonesia are considered megadiverse countries that sustain a critical number of species. The Penan people live in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, which by itself supports over 180 mammal species, 530 bird species, 10,000 insect species and 8,000 plant species.
While scientists are drawn to Borneo to study its ecological complexity, indigenous peoples who live intimately with the land have generations of inherited knowledge about the rainforest. The Penan are well adapted to nomadic life, understanding the ecological cycle of the rainforest, the habits of the forest animals, and the many uses of its plant life, which yield food, medicines, building materials, and tools for hunting. The Penan believe that the forest and its abundance is a gift from their creator, that the plants are sacred — thus, they have an obligation to use the forest in sustainable ways and to ensure its health for future generations.
Like several other indigenous peoples of Borneo, the Penan’s culture is relatively egalitarian. Although they recognize resource use rights, land ownership is a foreign concept. Community life is defined by an ethic of sharing — in fact, according to Davis, “the greatest transgression in Penan society is see hun, a term that translates roughly as ‘a failure to share.’”
Over the course of centuries, the Penan way of life has been influenced by cultures beyond Borneo, including Western colonization in the 17th century and present-day missionary activities and corporate resource grabs. Most Penan, for example, now practice Christianity and wear Western clothing. In the 1960s, missionary efforts combined with large-scale logging in Sarawak pushed many Penan out of the rainforest and into permanent villages sponsored by the logging companies or the Sarawak state government.
Today, there are roughly 10,000 Penan in rural Sarawak who continue to depend on remaining forest resources for their basic needs; many are seminomadic for at least part of the year, while very few live a fully nomadic life in the rainforest.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
Much of the rainforest in Sarawak has been commercially logged at least once. In flat terrain, forests are clear cut and converted to plantations. Between 1990 and 2005, Malaysia lost an area of forest cover equal to the size of Connecticut, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In the interior hills, forests are logged selectively for certain species, leaving highly degraded forests and a network of rapidly eroding logging roads.
This aggressive logging activity has resulted in soil erosion, water contamination, loss of animal habitat and the disappearance of mature rainforests traditionally roamed by the Penan, who responded with road blockades beginning in the late 1980s, and were quickly joined by other indigenous groups. While sometimes successful in halting logging, more often these blockades led to arrests, violent crackdowns, and possible murders of activists and indigenous leaders.
Though logging for tropical timber continues, another lucrative industry in Malaysia in recent years has been oil palm, a crop traditionally used in food products and cosmetics. Interest in oil palm spiked dramatically after it received widespread promotion as an inexpensive, environmentally friendly biofuel that would replace fossil fuels.
In a worldwide political climate in which the public is clamoring to reduce global warming, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and find viable alternatives to fossil fuel, oil palm has emerged as a popular crop for biodiesel production. Malaysia and its neighbor Indonesia dominate the world oil palm market, providing 83 percent of the world’s supply. To capitalize on the demand for biodiesel, the Sarawak government continues to grant leases every year for more plantations. Many of the leases overlap with indigenous peoples’ customary land.
But while oil palm emits less carbon than regular diesel when used as a fuel, the total oil palm production cycle actually increases greenhouse gas emissions. The clearing and burning of Borneo’s rainforests (and coastal peat lands) for plantations releases enormous stores of carbon trapped in the soil; decaying vegetation releases more greenhouse gases. Moreover, fossil fuels are burned during the planting, processing and transportation of the crop. Combined, the carbon released as greenhouse gas from the entire oil palm production cycle far outweighs emissions released by petroleum diesel.
Another criticism leveled against oil palm plantation is the killing effect such a monoculture has on biodiversity. One study showed that converting land from forest to oil palm results in an 80 percent decrease in species biodiversity.
But the political impetus in Malaysia for the continued granting of oil palm concessions is strong. Oil palm represents a significant sector in the Sarawak state economy and is highly profitable for a small group of Malaysians, including government officials with family connections to the industry. For indigenous peoples like the Penan, however, oil palm plantations have not brought any notable material wealth.
Large-scale acacia tree plantations, which provide the raw material for the paper industry, are also swallowing up tracts of forest. Such plantations boast high long-term profitability, as the trees can grow 45 feet in just seven years and are able to regrow from stumps.
Until now, the Penan have not been able to assert their rights to traditional lands in Malaysian courts. Logging and oil palm companies often receive “provisional” land leases with no consultation with the peoples already using and occupying the land. What’s more, to earn a living, many settled or seminomadic Penan are unable to find paid work outside of logging. “Smallholder” oil palm schemes promise a share in oil palm profits, but in reality they often employ migrant contract labor for meager wages. And Penan communities, with limited land rights in Sarawak, have seen no benefit from recent joint ventures between companies and indigenous communities holding land through customary rights.
In response to their escalating concerns about the environmental and socioeconomic effects of oil palm and pulp plantations as well as logging, many Penan communities are again resorting to protests in the form of road blockades, demonstrations and legal action. In 2009, many new blockades were erected. Protests by non-Penan Malaysians also occurred after allegations that multiple Penan woman and young girls were raped by logging camp employees; these allegations were affirmed a year later, when a leaked document from the timber giant Samling indirectly acknowledged that employees at its Sarawak timber camps were involved in the alleged rapes.
One hopeful victory for the Penan came in May 2009, when a Malaysian federal court recognized the legitimacy of broad indigenous definitions of communal property and land boundaries. Activists hope this ruling will allow for the recognition of Penan land claims, halting further encroachment into the rainforest. The decision could also help resolve hundreds of existing property lawsuits filed by indigenous peoples in Sarawak against both corporate encroachment and the government that granted leases to the companies. The most recent lawsuit was filed in December 2010, when the Ba Jawi community lodged a collective-action lawsuit against Malaysian timber giant Samling and the Sarawak state government over 15,000 hectares of primary rainforest. The area covered by the claim is a key region of the Penan Peace Park, described below.
Some attempts toward land protection and conservation also represent positive steps. In February 2007, the governments of Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia signed the joint Heart of Borneo initiative, in which they commit to protect an 85,000-square-mile forested region. A number of long-range conservation goals have been set and the initiative has received broad international support, but it will take time to see on-the-ground impacts. In November 2009, 17 Penan communities proclaimed the Penan Peace Park, a nature reserve covering more than 600 square miles within the Heart of Borneo region. However, the Sarawak government has refused to recognize the park, and Director of Forests Len Talif Salleh condemned it as an “illegal” project that “tainted Sarawak’s image.”
But logging and plantations are not the only battles the Penan are fighting. Several Penan leaders were arrested in 2009 while protesting hydroelectric dam projects in Sarawak. One project — the Bakun dam on the Upper Rejang River, scheduled for completion in 2011 — will flood an area of forest the size of Singapore and has already displaced 10,000 indigenous people. There are 12 more hydroelectric dams planned in Sarawak which, if completed, will submerge many Penan villages.
What You Can Do
Write a letter to the Sarawak government on behalf of the Penan and against uncontrolled oil palm and pulp plantations and hydroelectric dam development. Urge them to recognize the Penan’s rights to ownership of their land and to stop all development without the Penan’s prior and informed consent. Address your letter to the following:
YAB Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud
Chief Minister of Sarawak
Office of the Chief Minister of Sarawak
22nd Floor, Wisma Bapa Malaysia Petra Jaya
U.S. residents should also write their elected officials; go to Congress.org for a quick Zip-code search of all your representatives.
Consider supporting Penan community schools, community organizing and legal aid through the Borneo Project (USA); the organization also offers volunteer opportunities both in Borneo and the United States. Other organizations working on behalf of the Penan include Survival International (UK), Bruno Manser Fonds (Switzerland), and the Borneo Resources Institute (Malaysia), which in turn provides support for specific projects and organizations benefiting Penan communities.
“Arrested Penan: “Water From the Dam Will Flood Our Lands.’” Survival International, September 23, 2009.
“Borneo: Sarawak.” The Borneo Project.
Bruno Manser Fonds. “Penan Go to Court to Defend Heart of Borneo Rain Forests.” Bruno Manser Fonds, December 21, 2010.
Bruno Manser Fonds. “Sarawak Government Refuses to Recognize Penan Peace Park.” Penan Peace Park, December 17, 2009.
Colchester, Marcus, et al. Land is Life: Land Rights and Oil Palm Development in Sarawak. Forest Peoples Programme, 2007. (PDF)
Davis, Wade. “The Penan: Community in the Rainforest.” In Context No. 29, Summer 1991.
Fargione, Joseph, et al. “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt.” Science 319 (February 29, 2008): 1235-1238.
Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. “The Murum Hydroelectric Project and Its Impact Towards the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the Affected Indigenous Peoples in Sarawak.” 2009. (PDF)
Lee, Yoolim. “Getting Rich in Malaysia Cronyism Capital Means Dayak Lose Home.” Bloomberg, August 25, 2009.
MacKinnon, Ian. “Palm Oil: The Biofuel of the Future Driving an Ecological Disaster Now.” The Guardian, April 4, 2007.
“Malaysian Palm Oil – Green Gold or Green Wash?” Friends of the Earth International, October 2008. (PDF)
“Malaysia Penan Tribe Resist Logging Firms.” Al Jazeera. September 3, 2009.
Mayer, Judith. “Borneo Project: Burning for Biofuels.” Earth Island Journal 23, No.1 (2008): 20-22.
Moses, Kara. “Power, profit, and pollution: dams and the uncertain future of Sarawak.” Mongabay.com, September 3, 2009.
Rogers, Heather. “Why Biofuels are the Rainforest’s Worst Enemy.” Mother Jones, March/April 2009.
Sacred Land Film Project. “Borneo Penan File Suit Against Timber Giant.” Sacred Land News, February 8, 2011.
Sheridan, Michael. “Blowpipes Thwart Borneo’s Biofuel Kings.” The Sunday Times, August 30, 2009.
Sheridan, Michael. “‘Green’ Dams Hasten Rape of Borneo Forests.” The Sunday Times, March 15, 2009.
“Tribe: Penan.” BBC.
White, Mel. “Borneo’s Moment of Truth.” National Geographic, November 2008.
Zappei, Julia. “Malaysia’s Highest Court Affirms Tribes’ Land Rights.” Associated Press, May 10, 2009.
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Report by: Megan Stacy
Thanks to: Judith Mayer and Jessica Lawrence of the Borneo Project for reviewing the text prior to publication
Posted on: December 22, 2009
Updated on: February 8, 2011