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Dec 30, 2007

Malaysia’s Penan in battle for survival

via khaleejtimes.com
29 December 2007

DATA BILA, Malaysia - 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.

Penan tribeThe 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.

Data Bila is located 150 kilometres (95 miles) southeast of Miri, an oil-rich coastal town in Malaysia’s Sarawak state, which borders Brunei to the north and Indonesia’s Kalimantan to the south.

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.

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.

Forest destruction

“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.”

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.

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.

The plight of the Penan was made famous in the 1990s by environmental activist Bruno Manser, who waged a crusade to protect their way of life and fend off the loggers.

He vanished in 2000 -- many suspect foul play.

Malaysia bitterly resented his efforts and banned him from the country, but Ajang says opposition to logging runs much deeper than the campaign of any one man.

“We are not influenced by Bruno Manser or any other outsiders. Our problems are real. Come to my village and see for yourselve. We are not liars.”

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.

Raymond Abin, of the Borneo Research Institue in Miri, said there are at least 15,000 Penans in Sarawak, including about 300 who still live a nomadic existence in the jungle.

“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.”


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