The Long Sayan Declaration 2002
Of late in Limbang and Baram, a number of Penan communities from both the settled and nomadic groups, have returned to block the roads used by the logging industry, and stage peaceful protests against several timber companies.
We note that our action of erecting blockades has often been regarded as law-breaking protests attributable to instigation from parties with vested interests.
In view of such opinions, we would like to take the opportunity here to spell out the real reasons which have driven our community to block the various timber roads and explain the suffering and destitution that we have had to endure as a result of the manner in which the authorities have been making decisions in matters that affect our lives.
Since the 1980s, the purportedly generous flow of financial assistance and infrastructural aid promised by the state government to the Penan community has been widely publicised as the solution that will put our poverty and suffering to an end.
However today, it is clear that all such promises have failed to translate into any real improvements in our standard of living and as a matter of fact, the hardship that we have been subjected to in our daily lives is intensifying day by day.
It can no longer be denied that the living conditions of the Penan community are worsening despite the various promises that the state government has made to improve our standard of living. Thus it is high time that the state humbly accepts the fact that they have indeed failed to solve our troubles with all their publicised promises.
Here we wish to elaborate in detail on why such promises have failed to deliver.
First and foremost, the state government has to acknowledge that their decision-making process in matters relating to the licensing of timber concessions in Sarawak is the root of all our troubles today. All these years, this non-transparent practice has been carried out without first obtaining our permission and consent and without the incorporation of a fair, open and meaningful consultation process with the people.
This system prioritises the interests of the wealthy and politically linked business class, who have been amassing riches continuously from the sale of timber resources extracted from our land, at our expense.
In short, this is the real cause of the rapid destruction of the forests and rivers that we depend on heavily for our food, medicines and source of income.
Thus it will be impossible for the state government to put an end to our troubles and distress with their highly publicised promises even if the promises have indeed been delivered, if their decisions in matters concerning forest management continue to be the cause of our troubles.
When our forest is destroyed, all the other promises and assistance will cease to be meaningful in improving our quality of life because our two primary demands have been disregarded. These two demands are the halting of all logging and other destructive economic activities e.g. the development of oil palm plantations and dam construction projects, on our land and forest; and the recognition of our Native Customary Rights on our ancestral land.
Regardless of the circumstances, it is imperative for any authority who intends to deliver any form of assistance to a community, to first engage itself in a study of the people’s way of life and understand the demands and needs of the community concerned so that the implemented programmes will be able to produce the intended benefits.
The state government must first seek to fulfil the two demands above if it has any intention in improving our quality of life. Our forest and land have been supplying us with abundant resources and providing us with sources of income and have also shaped our culture, beliefs and customs. Thus to destroy the forest has the same impact of destroying our community.
Secondly, it has been very clear that in many instances, the state government has also not been politically determined in carrying out its commitments to the community. Most of their promises were widely publicised in the media but more often than not, there was little follow up on their implementation. In addition, we too have no way of ensuring that each promise is fulfilled.
This lack of seriousness in implementing the promises becomes very apparent in several cases.
For example, when it was announced that parts of the forests in Ulu Baram and Ulu Limbang would be converted into the Special Penan Forests in 1993, there was no further explanation on the legal status of the concerned land. Would this forestland then be categorised as state land areas where we are allowed to exercise our Native Customary Rights (NCR) as stipulated by the Sarawak Land Code 1958 or have the areas been gazetted as Communal Forests under the Sarawak Forests Ordinance 1953?
At the same time, applications from numerous Penan villages for the land surrounding their longhouses to be legally constituted as Communal Forests have never been approved by the state although several villages have repeatedly applied way since the 1980s.
We would like to categorically state here that our applications for Communal Forests have always involved modest sizes of land. However the state government has always been unresponsive to such requests when in fact it is through the establishment of Communal Forests that our welfare is best protected.
Furthermore, this lack of seriousness can also be seen when we compare the state government’s promise on the annual allocation of RM1 million for the Penan community with the quality of life of the people itself — which still lacks facilities as basic as decent housing and agricultural training programmes and assistance.
How can we ensure the existence of such an allocation and if it indeed exists, how can we verify that its distribution process has been implemented fairly and efficiently? We have no way of ensuring that all the promises made are more than publicity stunts as our living conditions continue to deteriorate day by day.
As a result of the state government’s decision in allowing the encroachment of our forest and its lack of seriousness in fulfilling the promises it made, our living conditions have been deteriorating day by day. In this wealthy country, it is certainly unjustifiable for us to have to shoulder the suffering that even our ancestors did not have to face when they were living as hunter-gatherers in the forest.
The hardship that plagues the community revolves around some very fundamental survival needs. Below is the list of problems which obviously involves the access to the most basic rights of each human being.
Many families have been facing difficulties in obtaining the supply of a sufficient and balanced diet because logging operations have destroyed forest areas that used to provide us with sago, fruits and vegetables; and polluted the rivers that used to provide us with a steady supply of fish. At the same time, for the settled communities, their farming output has not been high.
The animal population in the surrounding forests has long been declining and the soil quality of our farms is also poor because most of our farms are areas that have been logged over.
We also have not received any agricultural training programmes including training in the preparation of natural fertilisers or resource assistance like access to a vegetable seed supply. There is also no assistance rendered for us to undertake fishpond or animal rearing projects.
At times the situation has been so critical some families are regularly forced to consume rice with only salt or subsist on plain porridge meals.
In addition, our lack of income also entails frequent shortages in kitchen essentials like sugar, salt and oil.
The destruction of our forests and rivers also has an impact on our livelihood. We can no longer obtain income from hunting, fishing or the sale of forest products like rattan, resin and fragrant eaglewood.
We also have been facing problems in purchasing daily essentials such as soap and medicines for common illnesses. We also find it difficult to settle our children’s schooling fees, obtain medical service and travel to the nearest towns to carry out important affairs.
Logging operations have also polluted our rivers and the air in areas nearby the logging roads. Polluted water and air have caused us to suffer from stomach disorders, skin diseases, eye infections and a weakened immune system, which in turn causes us other health problems.
Most Penan families have been living in substandard housing facilities. There has been very little state assistance in providing us with decent housing.
Our community who were traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers generally do not have adequate knowledge in longhouse construction. To make things worse, we also do not have the financial means to purchase construction materials or hire contractors or labourers to build decent houses for us. Thus most of our homes today are in such distressing conditions.
Some villages are made up by only huts. Some homes do not even have basic plank or cement flooring — the floors are built from either crude wood or bamboos. As a matter of fact, there are even homes which yet have to have any proper flooring — in such houses, the occupants are still walking on bare earth. In most Penan homes also, there are no sanitary toilet facilities. Quite a number of our homes have been built in unsuitable areas and are exposed to extreme heat.
Many members of the Penan community also have yet to own any self-identification documents. The registration process which requires us to travel to the nearest town is too costly for most of us. Unfortunately the authorities have also been lax in sending the representatives from the Registration Department to visit Penan villages to carry out the process.
It is clear now that all the problems above need to be resolved promptly, resolutely and systematically.
These problems are not difficult or impossible to be solved. The root of our hardship is closely related to the lack of basic needs which are the rights of every human being. It is imperative for the state to ensure that its citizens have access to basic facilities and a safe and comfortable living condition.
Thus here we would like to request to the federal and state governments to:
Halt all logging operations on the ancestral land of the Penan community
The termination of all logging operations on Penan ancestral land is crucial because logging is the root cause of all our troubles — poverty, hunger, illnesses and other hardships.
Thus, if both governments are truly concerned about our welfare and well being, logging activities must quickly be halted on all our land. The importance of ‘development’ to the Penan community, as often been stressed by the authorities, can never be realised if our resources are continuously being destroyed.
One has to remember that our nomadic ancestors who used to live in forests which were free from logging activities did not have to endure the hunger and suffering that we are made to face today. Everything that they needed in order to live a comfortable life could be obtained from the forest and rivers — from nutritious food, rattan, medicines to other daily essentials — all was obtained without having to beg around from anyone.
As citizens, we have the right to choose development models that best suit our lifestyle. However, regardless of the path that we wish to choose, our rights to our customary forest and land must be protected at all times because without land and forest, we will not be able to end the cycle of poverty and suffering that we have been trapped into.
We certainly do not reject development programmes — as a matter of fact we welcome facilities such as clinics, schools, and the construction of decent longhouses with piped water, electricity and sewerage facilities. However the provision of such facilities will not be meaningful if we have to continuously suffer from food shortages and the destruction of our natural resources.
Without our land and forest, we will never be able to utilise most of the facilities provided by the state. In such a deprived condition, we will not be able to free ourselves from the cycle of poverty and undertake our own independent attempts to improve our living conditions.
Recognise our Native Customary Rights and establish a Communal Forest for each Penan community
We demand that the state government immediately begin a systematic process to recognise our rights to our customary land and forest. We are the original community in Sarawak; our ancestors were living in the forests of Borneo long before the establishment of Sarawak and Malaysia. The act of ignoring our existence has the same impact as robbing our rights and confiscating our properties.
The process of recognising our rights must be undertaken through legal procedures based on the Sarawak Forests Ordinance 1953, by gazetting a Communal Forest Reserve for each Penan village and each nomadic community. The establishment of Reserve Forests and Permanent Forests is of little use to us, because under the aforementioned forest law, we are not able to exercise our Native Customary Rights on such areas although the law allows for logging licences to be given out in such areas.
This is not a difficult exercise to undertake. Even if there were 100 Penan villages in the Miri division, and each village is given 300 acres of Communal Reserve Forest each, this means that the state government will only have to gazette an area of 30,000 acres for our community.
If 70 percent of forestland in Miri is given out to timber concessions, as the case in the 1980s, this will amount to 2.4 million hectares being given away.
Thirty thousand acres are approximately 12,000 hectares. If only a quarter of the areas can be considered suitable to be logged — which is around 600,000 hectares, 12,000 hectares will only take up two percent of the logging zones.
The number of Penan communities in Miri is obviously much lower than 100 — thus what has been stopping the state government from distributing a little of Sarawak natural wealth to a marginalised segment of society?
Compensate and institutionalise a consultation process that is fair, open and meaningful in the management of our forest and land
We would like to caution the state government that any plan to develop industrial economic activities on our land — from logging to oil palm plantations — must first have our prior informed consent. We must be notified on all matters concerning the projects and we must remain the decision-makers in matters concerning our consent and level of participation.
At the same time, we also demand that the timber corporations that have caused damage to our land and have been responsible for the destruction of our food sources and traditional medicines, our loss of income and the deterioration of our health and quality of life, must provide compensation for our suffering in an amount that we agree upon, whether in the form of cash or infrastructure development.
The agreement regarding the payment of compensation must be drawn in black and white. We have the right to be accorded the time to study the agreements and receive legal advice of our choice. The timber corporations and police have no right to pressurise or force our leaders into signing any agreements.
Provide assistance and a resource support system in our agricultural efforts
Most of us today have permanently settled in longhouses and have been engaged in farming, on the government’s insistence. We have sacrificed our ancestors’ way of life to fulfil the request of the state, which has often regarded our customs and culture as non-progressive when in fact we have a far more excellent knowledge on the management and conservation of forestland than modern forest managers.
However, after settling, there has been little effort on the part of the state government to conduct farming training programmes for our community. We were forced to learn to farm from scratch, without adequate knowledge on the basics of farming such as the preparation of natural fertilisers, proper farm management, etc.
In addition, most of our farms are also infertile and worse: We also do not have access to a seed supply support especially for vegetable and fruit tree farming.
We demand that the state allocate a budget to conduct farming training programmes and provide us with a seed support system to enable us to produce a higher farming output. Equally important, allocation must also be made to allow us to undertake animal rearing projects so that we will no longer suffer from the lack of a balanced diet.
We demand that every Penan village be given agricultural assistance not only for our self-sufficiency but also for commercial purposes.
Provide primary healthcare programmes and regular healthcare checks
Since much of our traditional medicine has been destroyed, it is very important for the government to provide accessible primary healthcare services for our community.
Members of our community are suffering from poor health due to the lack of a balanced diet and air and water pollution caused by logging activities. As a matter of fact, there have been reports on deaths of infants due to food shortages and fatalities caused by the intake of contaminated river water among the nomadic communities.
In the light of this, the authorities must first and foremost send medical officers to perform health checkups in all Penan villages and provide us with a regular and steady supply of medicines either through mobile clinics or flying doctors. Most of us cannot afford to travel to the nearest clinics whether they are located in the longhouses of other communities, the Penan Community Service Centre or in the nearest town.
Secondly, the authorities must also conduct primary healthcare education programmes in our villages so that we can learn to avoid preventable illnesses.
Provide decent housing facilities
We demand that all Penan villages be provided with decent housing. Most of our homes are in such deplorable conditions, without piped water and toilet facilities.
It is high time that the state makes an allocation to construct decent homes for us given the fact that we had abandoned our forests to fulfil the government’s demand.
Provide educational assistance to our children
We demand that the state provide assistance to our school going children. Most of us cannot afford to settle the payment for fees and other costs like transport, books and uniforms because we do not have any source of income.
Due to financial constraints, a considerable number of our children have had to drop out of school.
If the both the federal and state governments are indeed serious in improving the welfare of the community, this is an occurrence that they must ensure will be put to a stop. There is no use pledging in the press, a huge amount of financial assistance to our community if our children have no access to their most important right — the right to education.
In view of all the above, with the Long Sayan Declaration 2002, we urge the federal and state governments to take appropriate, swift and effective measures to put an end to our hardship, destitution, poverty and suffering by first accepting our explanation on the cause of our troubles and fulfil our demands sincerely by initiating a systematic and serious implementation process.