Along Sega, one of the last nomadic tribesmen of Borneo who won fame for his battle to save the forests and traditional lifestyle of his Penan people, has died aged in his 70s.
Jailed twice for his struggle against the logging companies that devastated ancestral lands in Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo, he was also a mentor to Swiss activist Bruno Manser who brought the outside world’s attention to the plight of the Penan.
“When I die, they will continue our struggle because I asked them not to give up,” he said in a 2005 interview, according to the Bruno Manser Fund, which continues to campaign for the people of the Borneo rainforests.
Along Sega died in hospital in Sarawak last Wednesday, according to the fund, which said the cause of death was unknown, as was his exact age.
“He was really an inspiration to us. He was courageous and was determined to defend the lifestyle of Penans,” Harrison Ngau, a lawyer and native rights advocate in Sarawak, said yesterday.
A leader of one of the last nomadic Penan groups, Along Sega was bitterly disappointed in broken promises by the Sarawak government to create a protected forest reserve which he said had turned out to be “all lies” and “nonsense.”
In the 1980s logging companies entered the Penan forest homeland, tearing out the valuable timber and decimating the wildlife, fish and rainforest products like rattan that had long sustained the local people.
The Penan began building roadblocks against the logging companies, filed lawsuits, and lobbied fearlessly to save their traditional territory in a losing battle, which continues to this day.
“We want our forest to remain untouched. Because only then we can go hunting,” Along Sega said in the 2005 interview.
“When I was young, no one disturbed the animals. The forest was good and we could go hunting close to where we lived,” said the tribesman, who sported the traditional Penan fringed haircut, beaded necklaces and loincloth.
“The women could easily catch the fish and get their food. Nowadays, life has become very difficult because of the logging in our area,” he said.
With much of Sarawak’s timber now cut and sold, the Penan face a new threat as the logging firms clear-fell the degraded forest and turn it into palm oil plantations, in what activists say could be the final blow.
The plight of the Penan was made famous in the 1990s by Manser, who waged a crusade to protect their way of life and fend off the loggers, before vanishing in Sarawak in mysterious circumstances in 2000. Many suspect foul play.
The Penan of Sarawak are estimated to number around 10,000, with only about 300 to 400 thought to still be nomadic. Most settled in villages by the 1970s under the influence of Christian -missionaries. The Bruno Manser Fund said Along Sega himself decided to settle in a village in the early 2000s, mostly because of the depletion of the forests.
Even the settled Penan still retain a deep connection to the jungle, foraging for rattan, -medicinal plants, fruits, and sago palm, a starchy staple. Wild game are hunted with finely crafted blowpipes and poison darts.