The Penan of Borneo

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr. J.P. Brosius conducted research among the Penan, an indigenous group that has inhabited the interior of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. One of the objectives of his work was to characterize how the government was able to overcome the resistance, not only of the Penan themselves, but also of international environmental organizations, to deforestation of the Penan homeland (Brosius 1995).

The natural landscape cover of Sarawak on the island of Borneo is moist forest. For the Penan, the landscape has been more than simply a reservoir of detailed ecological knowledge or a setting in which they satisfied their nutritional needs. A strong coherence has existed for them between the physical landscape, history, genealogy, and the identities of individuals and communities. Rivers were the paradigm around which spatial, historical, and genealogical information was organized.

The Penan were migratory, and the factor that more than any other determined their movement was the availability of the sago palm, Eugeissona utilis. Sago has been the principal source of carbohydrate for the Penan. Trunk sections were split, and the pith was pounded, rendering it soft and pliable. The pith was then placed in baskets and trampled by women, while pouring water through. The starch was separated from the pith by the trampling, and it washed through into the settling mat below.

Sago can be harvested sustainably. It reproduces vegetatively if the roots are left intact. When the sago in one area was depleted, the people moved to another area, leaving the previous stand to recover. The Penan ethics of resource use was one of explicit stewardship. Leaves of other palms were used for weaving. Women were the exclusive weavers for the Penan. Their mats and baskets were in great demand by other groups who in turn traded with Chinese merchants.

Penan hunters used blowpipes for small game such as monkeys, squirrels, and barking deer. For their blow darts, they used poison extracted from a local tree. For larger game, dogs were used to chase and corner the prey until it could be speared by a hunter. The favored game was bearded pig, not only because of its large quantity of meat, but also because of its substantial deposits of fat that could be rendered and stored for later use.

The first signs that the sustainable coexistence of the Penan and forest was ending were the survey markers for logging tracts. By 1992, a bridge and logging road had driven the game out of the Seping River Valley in the center of the homelands, and clogged the river with mud. Clearing of the forests changed the perspective of the rivers to the Penan. The cultural symbols were no longer recognizable. Hunting grounds were destroyed, as well as ancestral burial grounds. Trees that had little market value were cut and discarded, even though they had great value to the Penan for making tools and blowpipes.

The Penan responded by erecting symbolic barricades in the forest. Their protests attracted the attention of international organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network, who organized a series of blockades that galvanized global concern. The Malaysian government responded in various ways. One was to trivialize the issue. They acted toward the complaints as one would act toward the complaints of wayward children. "Authority knows best, and what it does is for the good of those disciplined". This attitude was especially apparent in the bemused and contemptuous attitude of loggers toward the Penan when they encountered them in the forest. The government did begin programs to help the Penan, such as giving them sheets of plywood for their shelters. For the most part, however, the government rejected emotional scenes by claiming that the scenes were instigated by "imperialists". The Sarawak chief minister summed up the government's attitude as follows: "How can we have an equal society when you allow a small group of people to behave like animals in the jungle . . . I owe it to the Penans to get them gradually into the mainstream so that they can be like any other Sarawakian".

In 1992, the Earth Summit meeting in Rio de Janeiro called for the world's greater attention to complaints of indigenous groups such as the Penan. The Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB), which since 1977 had been making forestry loans, accordingly began to develop new policies with more environmental safeguards. Its 1995 forest policy paper stressed "the need to balance the three imperatives of production, protection, and participation". As a result of this policy, there began an effort to include the participation of local peoples in plans for the forest. However, the paper did not rule out bank support for plantations and production forestry.

In 1997, smoke from the fires in Borneo clouded skies, closed airports and entire communities, and provoked complaints from as far away as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. London's Sunday Times classified the disaster as "wholly man-made" - because many of the hundreds of fires were started deliberately as a cheap way to clear land by companies with corrupt connections to government officials. Shortly thereafter, the Asian Development Bank's principal environmental officer admitted in an interview that "we are still evolving our strategies for participation" (Stone and D'Andrea 2001).

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