A HISTORY OF THE PENAN STRUGGLE IN SARAWAK, MALAYSIA
1963 -1986: Logging begins
A gathering of Penanvillage headmen
Large scale logging in Malaysia began in the early 1960's. Efforts were concentrated in Sarawak, one of two Malaysian provinces on the island of Borneo. Sarawak is inhabited by numerous Dayak groups, all of whom depend on the forest for their resources, and some who rely on it completely for their livelihood. One such group is the Penan. Until recently, the Penan were a fully nomadic group, completely dependent on the forest. Ancestral traditions and agreements between different Penan tribes set boundaries for areas of sustainable forest collection for hundreds of years. When logging concessions were established and sold to international corporations by the government, the presence of the Penan, their dependence on the forest, their native customary land rights, and their practices of sustainable forest use were ignored completely. By the end of 1986, 2.8 million hectares of forest had been cleared in Malaysia, much of it on Penan land.
1987: Penan resort to peaceful demonstrations on logging roads
The Penan people, along with members of other tribes, took action against the relentless logging destroying the forest on their lands. Numerous communities lodged reports of land encroachment to the government authorities in Marudi to no avail. Penan leaders then turned to the non-government organization Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) for guidance and assistance. SAM lodged additional reports with the local authorities on behalf of the communities, which also yielded no reply. Communities then turned to more powerful action and erected 25 blockades across logging roads in the Baram and Limbang Districts of Sarawak. Late in the year, the State Assembly made the action of blockading a logging road an illegal offense punishable by a 2 year prison sentence without trial and a RM$6000 fine.
In a further attempt to make themselves heard, a delegation of chiefs and elders from several ethnic groups, including the Penan, traveled to Kuala Lumpur aiming to meet with National Ministers. After the visit, SAM held a workshop for the delegation and assisted in the development of a written resolution. This was submitted to regional officials to reinforce the requests made by the delegation at the national level.
1988: Another round of blockades
A Penan blockade inthe late 1980's
Seven months after the original blockades were torn down, logging continued to destroy the Penan's source of food, medicine, building materials, and all other requirements for life. Since the government had made no action on their promises to monitor the activities of the logging companies and ensure no further encroachment on native communal rights (NCR) lands, new blockades were erected in Long Napir on roads cutting through the Penan's customary lands. Despite international pressures on the Malaysian government to stop logging and recognize indigenous rights, 27 more Penan were arrested at the end of the year for blockading. The trials were slow to come to court, due to numerous delays by officials, while logging continued.
Finally, the government made its first move to compensate for the destruction being carried out in Penan forests. A fund of RM$1 million per year was allocated to the Penan for government implemented development projects.
Since the Penan traditionally lived as nomads in the forest, they have developed extremely effective hunting skills and their knowledge of medicinal and consumable plants is truly impressive. They are adept at gathering materials for temporary structures, and building them as required. All of their needs were traditionally met by the forest. Since logging has begun destroying the forests the Penan used to rely on, it is as if their market has been closed. The changes in lifestyle they have been required to make are immense. They have been merged into systems of capitalism, agriculture, and government that are completely foreign to them, with no introduction.
The most pressing need has arisen as food from the forests has become scarce and Penan have had to struggle to provide food for large families from small plots of land, cultivating unfamiliar crops. With little to no training in these foreign practices, the monetary compensations and later donations of raw building materials offered by the companies and the government are useless.
1989-1990: The blockades continue
Continuing pressure from the logging companies, and lack of recognition from the government led to the construction of 17 blockades, and the arrest of 222 Penan during 1989. In the wake of rising confrontation, the Sarawak Penan Association was officially registered by the government after a two year wait. In 1990, the Sarawak State Government established the Sarawak Penan Affairs Committee, with the official purpose to facilitate government assistances towards the needs, to address any problems raised by the Penan, and to implement any development projects intended for the Penan.
1990-1995: A halt to the blockades
Blockades ceased for several years as the Penan awaited the development projects and assistance promised by the government. Communities continue to struggle in adjusting to settled life, and living conditions become worse.
1996: Long Sayan erects a blockade against Rimbunan Hijau
Frustrated members of Long Sayan erected a new blockade after 5 years of fruitless waiting for government action, and continued loss of resources. Logging company workers stopped by the blockades lodged their own complaints with the police. Unlike the reports lodged by the Penan, these received immediate attention. In the words of one Penan Village Chief, Ajang Kiew, "Our reports were continually ignored, but the police have so many wings to fly to the aid of the logging companies".
In June, Penans at Long Sayan resorted to putting up a blockade on a logging road belonging to Rimbunan Hijau Sdn. Bhd.
Police were sent to the blockade where they demanded the removal of the structures, ordered Long Sayan Representatives to negotiate with companies involved, and to have meeting with the District Officer Baram in Marudi. When the delegation of six Long Sayan community members traveled to Marudi for the arranged meetings, they were met at the wharf by police who instead arrested them. SAM representatives heard of their situation after two days and approached the local officials inquiring about the terms surrounding the arrest of the Penans. The Penan were released immediately, and scheduled to appear in court later that year. The prosecution dropped all charges during the trial. The Penan, still disturbed by the nature of their arrest, filed a summons against the officers involved and the Malaysian Government for wrongful arrest. That case is still pending for trial in Court.
1997: Long Sayan resumes its blockade
The Penan of Long Sayan built another blockade, again demanding recognition of previous agreements with the government for the protection of their NCR land. Finally, discussions with the primary logging company in their area (Rimbunan Hijau Sdn. Bhd.) led to the signing of an agreement that set aside a watershed protection area not to be disturbed by logging and granted the community compensation for harvesting their forest in other areas at 80cts per ton.
1998 : Promises broken
Eight months after the signing of the agreement between Long Sayan and the logging company, another blockade was erected. Logging had commenced within the boundaries of the agreed protected area, and the company gave extremely low estimates of harvest volume used for compensation calculations, inciting the villagers to protest. These Penan demanded that the company honour its previous legal agreement with their community before removing the blockade. Police promised to deliver the appropriate compensation owed the community and stop the logging of the protected area.
2000: Long Kevok, Long Nen and Long Lunyim Blockad
Following the example of Long Sayan, 20 Penan communities joined to construct three new blockades, staged at the nearbt settlements of Penans in Long Kevok, Long Nen in Layun, Tutoh and Long Lunyim in Pelutan, each manned by up to 200 people. Such an increase in action is an undeniable indication that the Penan are still unsatisfied with the situation, and are becoming more determined to take action until their requests are recognized and met.
The presence of the new blockades was initially denied by the government in the national media. The Minister for Tourism, Datuk Abang Johari Tun Abang Openg, later recognized the protests, but claimed that they were inspired by the environmental NGO, SAM, who was "using natives to fuel their own agenda". Such claims were denied by the leader of the Sarawak Penan Association, Ajang Kiew, when he again stated the plight of the Penan, and asked the government to visit logging sites in the interior to witness the destruction of their lands first hand. No visits were made.
In September, a group of semi-settle Penans in upper Linau river, in the Belaga District had also set up blockade to protest against logging carried out by Shin Yang Sdn. Bhd. near their settlement and have had their land communication links to the urban center cut off. The timber-road linking to the Penan land has been blocked, and trespassers' identities have to be screened by the company before going in and out of the areas.
Generally speaking, the blockades erected by the Penan have been relatively short lived, lasting one to two weeks (although some have lasted as long as nine months). The explanation for this is twofold. During the early blockade attempts, police would arrive at the site and urged to negotiate compensation terms with timber companies for logged land or restrictions on where they could clear forest. The Penan, being extremely trusting and nonconfrontational in nature, trusted the word of the police, disassembled their blockades, and waited for government action. The rapid depletion of their resources and the continual lack of action by the government led to later blockades. Eventually, the Penan became hardened against the empty promises of the government and the timber companies and maintained blockades regardless of the offers made. With blockades standing longer, the Penan now face a different struggle. Protests are staged along logging roads where the forest has already been depleted. Food is scarce and providing nourishment for the numerous protestors is a difficult task, becoming impossible after about three weeks. The families then must abandon the blockade and return to their farms and forests to find food.
Towards end of July, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) initiated meetings with some local NGO's in Kuching, Sarawak. It's Chairman, Tan Sri Musa Hitam, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, informed that the semi-settle Penans in Ulu Baram who staged recent blockade could submit a formal complaint to SUHAKAM if they feel the logging companies have infringed their human rights.
On the 8th of September, Penan Chiefs from twenty villages in Apoh/Tutoh, Akah/Patah Region met to draft a statement of their requests in yet another attempt to stop the destruction of their lands. The statement requested the following:
-Acknowledgement and protection of land rights.-Appropriate consideration of requests for community forest land, as provided by the law, that had been submitted by several communities.-Recognition of the value of non-timber forest products, vital to the Penan's livelihood.-Explanation for absence of promised development projects now worth RM $10 million.-Follow through on the numerous applications for I.C. cards submitted by villagers that would allow them to vote.-Removal of Forestry Police that disregard state law and harass villagers in logging areas.-Legal recognition of Penan tribal leaders.
I.C. cards are a vital key to being a recognized legal citizen of Malaysia. Without one, you cannot vote, cannot be employed, cannot have a savings account or receive a loan from a bank, and cannot obtain a passport. In order to receive an I.C. card, you must be able to show a birth certificate. The nomadic Penan, born in the forests far from any medical facilities, have no such documentation to present to the state. By continuing to restrict the Penan, clearly legal citizens of the country, from access to I.C. cards, the government is depriving them of their rights, and the ability to develop a livelihood outside the forest.
2001: New blockades in Long Belok and Long Sayan
Penans in Long Sayan and Long Belok had finally agreed to dismantle their blockades after both the companies representatives and community representatives had a meeting with the District Officer (D.O) Baram in Marudi on the 21st of January. The D.O announced that the government will provide building materials for building their new longhouses. Though these Penan communities agreed, they have little reason to believe that this promise will hold true after so many government promises have fallen like the trees on their land.
The blockade in Long Sayan stood for nearly a month, being visited by police three times. Each time, the protestors refused to remove the blockade. It was finally removed when food in the area became too scarce to sustain the protestors.
The Present Situation
"The Penan have faced continuous suffering since the logging began. We continually try to portray our difficulties and requests to the government. Very little has been done - some, but very little. I feel that we Penan have no solid means of reaching the government. If this continues, we will suffer even more. We now look to the international community for support, in hopes that this may bring some help. As we continue our fight, we discuss among ourselves and wonder, how will the future be? We cannot afford to sit still. The more we keep quiet, the more forest is lost".-Ajang Kiew, leader of the Sarawak Penan Association
This recent statement by Ajang Kiew, also the headman of Long Sayan, presents the basis for the most pressing struggle now faced by the Penan. They are fighting hunger, an enemy with a double-edged sword. If they blockade, they can only sustain themselves for a short time, and their fields and food collecting activities go unattended. If they do not blockade, the forest, their market, will continue to be depleted, depriving them of food and other resources permanently.
Adding further complexity to this struggle is the lack of training and skill the Penan have for the settled lifestyle that the government has encouraged them to embrace. Agricultural cultivation and processing of crops like tapioca does not come naturally to these historically nomadic people. The scant support the government has provided has come in the form of raw building materials (with no instruction on how to build the permanent structures they are expected to live in), three primary schools to educate all the children in the region's 30 communities, and one medical center, literally inaccessible to nearly all of the Penan.
The Penan are no longer able to await government assistance. They are now taking independent action to develop alternative means of sustenance. Long Sayan has started reforestation efforts on several plots of logged land. Tapioca is being cultivated to replace the wild sago they used to collect for their staple food source, and a fish pond has been built to supplement their diets with protein. Their example has inspired many communities. Long Lunyim, one of the few villages that has been able to protect a small tract of virgin forest on their communal land, has solicited the help of SAM to conduct an inventory of the diversity and location of botanical species used as non-timber forest products that are derived from the forest for use by the community. This survey will give villagers a strong quantitative representation of the value of the forest in terms of their daily needs, and allow the community to seek appropriate compensation for continued, or past, logging.
Though the history between the Penan and logging companies has been tumultuous, the Penan are not wholly opposed to logging. They are willing to cooperate with the logging if the logging is done in a limited manner, leaving the forest intact. However, they are concerned that the companies will not leave their land once the forest is gone, but will instead introduce oil palm plantations in the wake of the deforestation (a common trend in other areas of the country). The semi-settled Penans would be satisfied if their rights to their native communal lands were recognized and/or protected by law, revenue from logging was distributed fairly, and they were given the training to subsist until their forests can regenerate. Until these needs are recognized and met, the Penan will continue their struggle to survive, and to be heard.