Who are Penans of Sarawak?

Posted: August 14, 2007 in Freedom of Speech


Source :<“Rainforestinfo”>

Who are the Penans?

“”I come from no place but here. That is why I stay here. I was born right here, just up the hill, up the river… Ever since I was a tiny child, and my parents carried me, and led me by the hand, I have lived here. Ever since I was a little child, ever since I became an adult, I have remained here, on the Ubong River. Just as the longhouse people have their place, we too have ours; even though we do not live in a longhouse, this is our place, this area along the Ubong River, where we wander.”

(an excerpt from My Homeland in “The Nomads of the Dawn:The Penan of the Borneo Rainforest” by Wade Davis, Ian Mackenzie & Shane Kennedy-<“Nomads of the Dawn”>)

As I glimpse through the headlines of <“Malaysiakini”> I wondered who this people were, I’ve definitely heard of them before but who were this people, why were the marginalized what had they gone through? I had an urge to know of these people, the people of Malaysia that have been marginalized not just lately but for a long time. There is often a line that divides between Sabah and Sarawak and us, we hardly are aware of what’s happening on the other side. From stories I’ve heard from friends who were brought up over there, it a whole different world altogether.

Since I had very little knowledge of who the Penans are I did some basic research to find out who they were, what had happened to them and why they continue to struggle to be recognized as one of us, Malaysians. As Merdeka is nearing, stories such as this truly is depressing as it reminds us that we “haven’t done enough” for our “rakyat”. That we have allowed our ignorance, modern way of life to get in the way of getting to know and helping this people who need the assistance the most. As I sit here ranting about how unfair the government is to us, I realize how much more this Penans have suffered throughout the years through the use of the same laws that have suppressed us all!

Sarawak rainforests is the home for many tribes such as the Kayan, Kenyah, Kejaman, Kelabit, Punan Bah, Tanjong, Sekapan and Lahanan. They are all often called Dayaks/ Orangulu which means “people of the interior”. Around 1.5 million people are Dayaks which are believed to originally come from the South-East Asian mainland.

Penans on the other hand are the last surviving hunter-gatherer tribe in South-East Asia. One of the more famous tribes, it has garnered international attention. Logging activities in their lands has made their struggle to live harder causing only 60 families able to continue their traditional way of life as oppose to their larger number of 10,000 Penans prior to the logging. Beside this 60 families the rest live semi-nomadic or live in settlements.(the numbers might have changed)

Malnutrition and health problems have surfaced among the Penan who are struggling to live as their main source of life the rain forest are destroyed through logging activities. As they depend largely on the rainforest not only for their culture and belief but their whole existence that is based on an egalitarian and non-hierarchical base.

The Penans of Sarawak have their “Adat” which has not only legal but more and spiritual aspects linked. They believe that land cannot be bought or sold and its not so much that they own the land but the land owns the Penan. Land is regarded as alive, trees blessed with spirits while the animals are said to have been endowed with magical powers. Taboos exist in regards to killing a tree whereby the act would transpire in the releasing of a spirit.

Some might find their traditions and beliefs not to make sense, but who are we to judge that they are different?How are we to expect the West to understand our culture or belief when we fail to understand our “own people’s” cultures, beliefs,way of life… It would be ethnocentric of us to say that there should start living like us, the modern way of life as with times come development. But personally I feel that we should let the Penans of Sarawak be but is it too late? As logging activities, forestation and others have been disrupting their lives for many years. Can they survive without our help after their rain forests has been raped?

Perhaps its not that we do not understand then them rather we refuse to understand them for our lives are completely different. This indigenous people lives depend on the forest for essential needs of live while it is taken from them for economical reasons by the state and authorities which have a huge financial stake on it. Damage that has been done so far doesn’t only involve the extinction of wild life but water contamination, global warming and of course the possible extinction of these cultures and people that hold close to it.

With war waged against this indigenous people by the government itself this people struggle to fight back for what is theirs rightfully as they are actually the”sons of the soil” as we often like to use in this part of Malaysia. Not only are strict logging legislation or fines not apparent, media hasn’t not played its part in highlighting the troubles of the Penans and to make matters worse through the use of draconian laws that we are all so familiar with, the Penans have been locked up for trying to defend their rights!

What has been done so far to help the Penans? Campaigns for exposure has been done at international and national levels to highlight the issue to people and to combat the “lies” that continue to be heard by those of us who are unaware of the actual situation. Penans have also held non-violent demonstration to stop logging activities by human block (Penans in large numbers blocking the roads) Logging and political corruption has shadowed over the lives of these Penans that just want to lead their lives without being forced out of their own homes. Penans who try to fight the state on this matter are detained under the emergency ordinance (that part of Malaysia always remains the same) like Mutang Urud(1992) who ran the campaign against anti-logging, Harrison Ngau- anti blocking blockades detained under ISA, called to court hearings which are later postponed and the list carries on. Intimidation techniques also has been used against the people of Sarawak which are called for chats and sent back with stern warning of things to come if they disobeyed.

Some people who were not Penans understood their plight and fought for the Penans as those they were Penans, Bruno Manser are one of the more prominent names whom fought for the Penans and was later labeled a communist by the government, rumor has it than there was even a bounty on his head and some Penans were even killed in pursuit of information of his whereabouts. Later on there was even a documentary by James Barclay “A Stroll Through Borneo” depicting the Penan blockade that later resulted in him being arrested and interrogated by the government. The list goes on..I shall provide 2 documents later than will give a clearer picture of the plight of this people that will provide insightful information towards understanding the Penans.

And now we hear from <“Malaysiakini on Penans of Sarawak”>that report, how Sarawak Land Code eliminates all their legal channels to obtain their ancestral land. I say haven’t they suffered enough already? Isn’t it time to stop? Are we only going to think of our actions once the Penan tribe is completely extinct? As the bumiputera of the land has enjoyed their rights in this country in every single way possible, why haven’t this people who are truly “the sons of the soil” been given their rights? Instead its been taken away time and time again. Why isn’t there an outcry over the issue? Is it because most Penans do not speak English or Malay? Is it because we are so engrossed with our own lives and comfort? I dunno, but all I know that something should be done because things are not getting any better for the Penans.

Check this map out for the Penan territory and sampling concessions. Thanks Moo_t for alerting me about this but couldn’t find that map from Google instead stumbled upon this!


Source:Global Response

For more insight into who this people are and their plights do visit my sources for this information;

<“Information on the Penans”>

<“Pledge Your Support to the Penans of Sarawak”>

<“Survival of Penans”>

<“Mapping the Penan Rainforest of Borneo”>

  1. I am a regular reader of your article. And I am very impress with your blog upon Global Warming. Now I am also write a blog upon effects and causes of Global Warming. This blog is collection of news & reviews like the study found that global warming since 1985 has been caused neither by an increase in solar radiation nor by a decrease in the flux of galactic cosmic rays. Some researchers had also suggested that the latter might influence global warming because the rays trigger cloud formation.

  2. moo_t says:

    go check Google Map satellite image. You will find those “UNIFORM” forest, those are the palm oil plantation. And don’t forget to find those barrens hill, logged land. and what I can say is OMG.

  3. OMG says:

    Thank you Cheryl for caring

  4. zapa says:

    well done. your concern merits respect from those struggling to awaken the apathetical mass.

    Syed Jaymal Zahiid.

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