Caught between two worlds

The once-nomadic Penan people are struggling to find their place in modern Malaysia

By Dan Martin  /  AFP, LONG KELUAN, Malaysia

Thu, Dec 12, 2013 - Page 12

Through eons spent roaming Borneo’s rainforests, Malaysia’s Penan people became supremely adapted to surviving, and thriving, in the wild. But that has left the Penan — keepers of a rapidly-disappearing semi-nomadic culture — equally unprepared for the transition to a modern world that is closing in fast.

“Under the old ways we could do whatever we wanted and easily find what we need in the forest,” said Dau Labong, headwoman of the ramshackle settlement of Long Keluan in the rugged interior of Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest and wildest state.

About 10 years ago, the community followed most of Sarawak’s estimated 16,000 Penan in abandoning nomadic life in a rainforest whose ability to sustain them has been depleted by logging and encroaching plantations.

But her band of a few dozen is struggling to adapt to concepts like settled agriculture and a money economy.

Once free in the forest, they are now “controlled” by the need to grow crops and earn money — some work for logging companies — to purchase meat and other supplies.

“We have not found what we want and we need the government to help us,” Dau Labong said, anxiety on her face as she sat in one of the village’s four rickety shacks in a steamy forest clearing as distant chain saws droned.

The ultimate rainforest stewards, the Penan formerly lived off the land using a renowned knowledge of the jungle and sustainable foraging practices.

Hunting with blowpipes and poison-tipped darts, they gathered medicinal plants, fruit and sago palm — which yielded a pasty staple starch — and rattan for weaving.

But logging and commercial agriculture have turned their world upside-down.

Data published in the US journal Science last month showed Malaysia lost 14.4 percent of its forests from 2000-2012, the world’s highest rate.

“The land has become yellow,” said Long Keluan elder Udau Abong, 87, whose swaying earlobes are stretched from a fast-disappearing traditional form of piercing.


The Penan captured world attention in the 1980s and 1990s with their attempts to resist logging and through Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser, who waged a crusade to protect Penan forests and culture. He vanished in 2000 — many suspect foul play.

Most Penan have settled in fixed communities in a trend that first began in the 1960s under Christian missionary influence and has accelerated.

“Even the nomadic ones basically made a collective decision in the last decade that they just can’t continue with the nomadic livelihood because the forest has been depleted. Most of the primary forest is gone,” said Lukas Straumann, head of the environmentalist Bruno Manser Fund.

Dau Labung’s people are trying to plant rice, but with mixed success, she said.

They no longer trade for other goods using their finely woven rattan products as most Penan once did. Formerly plentiful, wild rattan is increasingly scarce.

Dau Labong wants more schools, roads and other government support for the Penan’s transition to modernity.

Her 11-year-old son Maxwell, whose sports medals adorn their home’s rough wooden walls, attends the nearest primary school a day’s walk away. She can’t afford to send him on to a secondary school two day’s journey downriver. “I want to study to be a guru,” Maxwell said, using the Malay word for teacher.

Penan are at risk of falling behind and new problems like depression and alcoholism, said Jayl Langub, an anthropologist at University Malaysia Sarawak.“Once the forest is no longer there, you lose your activities and turn to drinking,” he said.

“It is a problem in communities that have not adjusted well. Change is coming so fast. It’s a very big challenge for them.”

Sarawak has launched programs such as encouraging Penan to cultivate rubber but Jayl said implementation is poor.


Complicating matters, the Penan’s past logging resistance has created tense relations with the state government headed by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.

In power since 1981, Taib is accused by critics of corruptly profiting from the rainforests’ destruction and callously marginalizing Sarawak’s dozens of tribal groups, which he denies.

Taib, 77, is pushing huge plans for up to a dozen hydroelectric dams on ancestral tribal lands.

Scores of protesting Penan, upset with relocation terms, blockaded access to a newly completed dam at Murum in late September.

Activists said they had to abandon the effort this week to salvage belongings from rising waters.

Straumann said he suspects Taib deliberately withholds rural investment.

“If they remain dependent and uneducated, they are easy to manipulate. It is a kind of ransom,” he said.

Murum Penan had rejected government offers of resettlement money and land as too little and say promised schools and clinics in a relocation area have not been built.

Taib in November called their demands “unreasonable” and defended his policies toward the Penan, saying rural living standards had “improved by leaps and bounds” under him, according to Sarawak media.

His office did not respond to requests for comment.

All that Murum resident Layu Karang wants is enough money to start a new life in a modern area with schools for her 10 children.

She was among a group of Penan brought to the Malaysian capital by activists last month to highlight the Murum dispute.

It was the first time Layu Karang had left remote Murum, and she wore a cheap, ill-fitting red dress purchased by activists for the trip.

Overwhelmed by Kuala Lumpur’s bustle and iconic twin Petronas Towers, she said it has further fuelled her desire for a more modern life for her children.

“I hope they can become educated and live differently than I have. I will go back and tell them what it is like. I could see them living here,” she said.