New Straits Times - Features


People: The Penan plea for help

Johannes Ridu


Aug 5:  The Penan community is up in arms against timber companies, which, they claim, are destroying their land and lifestyle. JOHANNES RIDU writes.


IT was almost midnight when we arrived at Long Sayan, a Penan settlement in the jungle of Baram. At least 500 Penans, including the nomadic ones, gathered at the ruai of the longhouse for the introductory session between the occupants and their visitors - representatives of the Penan community from Limbang, Belaga and other Penan settlements in Baram district.

Also present were representatives of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM).

Long Sayan headman Ajang Kiew, who is also the Sarawak Penan Association chairman, had already given his welcoming speech. Those at the gathering had been briefed by SAM representatives about the programmes that would be taking place.

There were also cultural performances, but the long and tiring journey by longboat and four-wheel drive was beginning to take its toll. It was time to retire to bed.

The guesthouse was about 500 metres away from the longhouse. The Penans called it sulap, a wooden hut with a platform made of small wooden sticks raised about 0.6 metres above ground, to protect the occupants from being attacked by wild animals.

The next day, after a traditional Penan welcoming ceremony and a demonstration on how to collect starch from a mulung tree (wild palm tree), the meeting convened. (Starch, known as mulung to the Penans, is the staple food of the nomadic Penans primarily because they do not farm.)

“It is not easy to find mulung trees these days. Most have been destroyed by the loggers,” said Balan Nadung. His comment set the mood for what was to come.

“We are the original people of Belaga. But we never get anything from the timber companies that conduct logging operation in our area,” said Along Joo, a Penan chief from Belaga. “They made many empty promises. We also reject oil palm schemes in our area.”

Another chief from Selaan said: “In upper Baram, we also face the same problem. We will continue to oppose logging.”

“The loggers encroach into our land and destroy herbal plants, water catchments, medicinal plants, sago trees, fruits, rattan. Yet, we have never been compensated by the logging company,” said Silat Penan chief Balan Balang.

Sam Bujang added that the settlers in his village at Sungai Akah had to resort to a blockade because the logging company wanted to log a small forest area near their village.

Padea Jutang, the chief from Sungai Patah, said all the seven Penan settlements in his area have been opposing logging activities since 1987. “We want the whole world to know that we have been oppressed by logging companies. We will also oppose oil palm estate development in our area. What we want are schools, clinics and service centres.”

A chief from Pelutan, Johnny Lalang, who like most Penans is a Christian, claimed that the timber companies were not interested in employing them as they never turn up for work on Sunday. “But we devote our Sundays to church. So how can we go to work?”

Wan Supe, a nomadic chief from Sungai Melana, said they cannot accept the Government’s resettlement scheme as “we are not used to a sedentary lifestyle. We also want compensation for our land, which is to be developed into an oil palm estate.”

Ngau Luing from Layun-Tutoh said he tried to lead a settled lifestyle but faced a shortage of food and medicine.

“When we were nomads, we do not face any food shortage. Now, life is getting more difficult.”

“I am wanted by the police now. They want me to dismantle the blockade against logging activities,” said Along Segar, another nomadic chief from Sungai Adang in Limbang. He asked his community to continue opposing logging activities as they were “destroying the forest”.

“We are not happy because we are still refused recognition of our Penan rights to our native customary land.”

All of them are calling for a halt to logging operations which are affecting their ancestral land. They also want the authorities to recognise their native customary rights, establish more communal forests and agricultural resource and technical assistance for the settled group.

They also need primary healthcare programmes, scholarship for their school-going children, as well as provision for housing materials.