Press Statement form Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)

Penan area representatives graded the Government F in report card exercise

MIRI: Earlier this month, for the first time ever, more than 700 representatives from more than 40 Penan communities form all over Sarawak, including those from Mulu, Limbang and Belaga zones and the nomadic groups, gathered for a historic communal meeting organised by the Sarawak Penan Association in Long Sayan, a Penan settlement near upper Sungai Apoh, a tributary of the Baram River in Miri Division.

The three-day meeting, which among others, sought to collect the reports on the plight of Penan groups from different areas in Sarawak, was a fruitful session of experience sharing and strengthening of solidarity for the community.

An important outcome of the meeting is the Long Sayan Declaration 2002, which carries the signatures and thumbprints of more than 30 area representatives of the various Penan communities present.

The Declaration clearly spells out the suffering that the dispossessed community have been facing, which among others, includes food shortages, frequent illness and income loss - brought about by logging operations that encroached into their forest areas and the non-transparent manner in which the State manages its decision making process with regards to matters that affect the welfare of the community as a whole.

The people maintain that their survival is severely threatened by the logging industry, which continues to reap huge profits from the sales of timber resources extracted from their ancestral land with ease and impunity.

The Declaration asserts that it is impossible for the government to put an end to the people's predicament and poverty with their many promises so far, if its decision making process, which excludes the recognition the people's Native Customary Rights to their ancestral land, continues to be the root cause of all their troubles.

Thus the Declaration demands the authorities to:

Their demands on healthcare, education, agriculture and housing assistance clearly show that the community's wish for their forest to be protected is totally consistent with their desire of having living conditions be improved as a whole.

It has long been highlighted that apart from the destruction of their ancestral land, the poverty and dire living conditions that the people are living under are also strongly related to the authorities' failure in delivering their promises to improve the quality of life of the community.

The fact becomes especially evident after a communal Report Card session being conducted during the meeting, which was carried out to allow the community to evaluate the performance of the government in improving their welfare and rate the quality of their present living conditions.

Part 1 of the communal Report Card contains questions on the degree of the people's satisfaction with the government's efforts in improving their living conditions. It covers issues such as the protection of the people's communal forests, recognition of native rights, income loss, the State's attempts in improving various aspects of the people's lives and the outcome of the government's many promises to the Penan community - which include pledges of an annual allocation of RM1 million for the community and the establishment of biosphere reserves. The participants, who convened into nine groups based on areas, were also questioned on transparency and community participation issues.

Part 2 of the session enquired on the people's perception of their present quality of life. The people were asked basic questions pertaining to their food intake, farming output, availability of forest and river resources, livelihood - including the ability of the women in bringing home income, health, housing facilities, mobility and their children's education.

On a scale from A to F, the nine groups' evaluation resulted in an average score of F for both parts.

The result of the Report Card session speaks volume on the suffering that the people have had to endure for more than two decades as a result of the encroachment of logging activities onto their land. Now that the people have clearly quantified the level of their distress and disappointment, further apathy to their plight will certainly be a great act of injustice.

It is very clear indeed that the people's demands are neither extravagant nor impossible to fulfil. If the State is really serious in wanting to improve the welfare of the community, then they must first initiate the incorporation of the people's views into their decision-making process.

The Sarawak State Government can no longer ignore the fact that an open, transparent and meaningful consultation process with the people must be effectively and swiftly institutionalise as a permanent feature of its decision-making process. Meaningful and demonstrable improvements in the living conditions of the people can never be attained if the State continues to ignore the primary demands of the community.

The central issue here is the democratisation of access to Sarawak's natural wealth - indigenous communities must be given the right to a free and continuous access to and utilisation of the natural resources on their ancestral land. It has nothing to do with wanting to preserve the people as museum pieces or the agenda of foreign environmentalists. A stake is the cultural, social and economic survival of an already marginalised people, which can only be protected by granting the people self-determination and a guaranteed access to and control of the resources within their ancestral domain, all of which are the natural rights of every citizen.

Thus SAM urges both the State and Federal Governments to take the appropriate steps to settle the people's grievances and fulfil their demands as spelt out in the Long Sayan Declaration 2002.