Cultural survival at stake for the rainforest Penan of Borneo

Guest commentary by Pisang and Miriam Ross

The Penan tribe in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, are trying to stop logging and palm oil companies destroying their rainforest home. Survival International, the organisation supporting tribal peoples, is campaigning for the Penan’s rights to their land. Survival researcher Miriam Ross traveled to Sarawak to meet some of the tribe. In one nomadic Penan community, Pisang, a Penan hunter, told her his story.

Penan woman. © M. Ross/Survival

When the first logging company came here, the manager promised he would give us development projects and money, and said he would help us Penan. Before development, we wanted to make sure the company would reserve some forest for us. The developments that they promised could come later. Now the company has gone, taking all the forest on this side of the river.

When I heard you were coming, I came back from hunting. I hope you can help us protect the only forest we have left – the bit on the other side of the river. Another company is trying to log there now. The other side of that ridge has been cleared already. I want you to help us protect this part. It’s the only place left for us to hunt, to find animals and food. But there is only a little bit left. That’s why when we go hunting, like I did last night, we come back with nothing. I’m asking you to help us protect this bit of virgin forest, or we will have nothing to eat. Our voices are too small for the companies to hear.

I asked the company to stop, but the workers said, this is a government project. If you fight us, we will shoot you and kill you. We will not be responsible. They said, this is not your area. The government gave it to us. It belongs to us. Go somewhere else.

If people chased you away from your area, how would you feel? We have been here since the time of our great-great grandparents. This is our ancestral land.

The company manager said, ‘Let me build a road to this area, and cut down the trees. I’ll give you a water tank and 45,000 ringgits (£9,000).’ I said, ‘Save your 45,000. Even if you give me hundreds of thousands, I will not take it. I only want the forest and the land. I will fight to protect it. If you give us water tanks, money, and brick houses, that will only kill us. We will not survive on that. The only thing that is important for our survival is the forest.’

The manger said, ‘No matter how many of your people defend your land, we will still continue with the logging.’ And then he walked away and got into his car.

Now we the Penan are asking for help because the company and the government refuse to listen to what we say.

Since the logging companies entered our area, they have polluted our river. Because of that we are always sick. Before, we seldom got sick, we were healthy because the water was clean and clear. Now the river is full of unwanted timber that the loggers throw into the river.

Penan armed with blowpipes block road as Shin Yang logging trucks approach. © Survival

The ‘development’ that we want is for our virgin forest to remain, and not be destroyed. We can still hear many types of sounds from the forest – from the animals, from the birds and from the insects. We want to see the rattan [a plant used to make baskets], the herbs that we use for our medicine, and the sago tree growing naturally in the forest.

We want to keep the fruit trees that provide food for the animals like wild boar, deer and monkey. The trees give them food and also give us food. The noise of the bulldozers and the chainsaws, and the other machines that are used for logging, is the poison in our lives.

Our ancestors lived happily in the forest, and they want us to live happily as they did, with all the jungle produce and the wild animals so that we can eat well and live well. I also want the same thing for future generations of Penan.

Contact Survival to find out more, make a donation or write a letter in support of the Penan.

Author: Mongabay

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