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Societies in Danger: Death of a People; Logging in the Penan Homeland

It is just after dawn and the sound of gibbons runs through the forest canopy. The smoke of cooking fires mingles with the mist. A hunting party returns, and the movement of the men reveals that they have killed a wild pig. One dart and the people eat for a week.

This mountaintop, where generations of Penan have come to pray, looks out over a pristine rain forest, past the clear headwaters of one of Sarawak's ancient rivers to distant mountains that rise toward the heart of Borneo. There n the horizon, coming over the mountains from seven directions and descending into the valley, are the scars of advancing logging roads. The nearest is six miles from this encampment of nomadic Penan. When the wind is right, you can hear the sound of chain saws, even at night.

Virtually no place in Penan territory is free of the sound of machinery. If the Sarawak government continues to have its way, this valley will be laid waste within a year, and the people will be forced from the land.

Straddling the equator and stretching 800 miles east to west and 600 miles north to south, Borneo is the third-largest island on earth. Six major rivers and hundreds of smaller streams drain the isolated center of the island, where the mountains rise to over 13,000 feet. Eighty percent of Borneo is blanketed by extraordinarily rich tropical rain forest. Three countries claim parts of the island, with Indonesian Kalimantan encompassing the southern two-thirds: to the north the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei is flanked by the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

Malaysia is the world's leading exporter of tin, palm oil, rubber, and pepper - and tropical timber. Sarawak encompasses roughly 38 percent of Malaysian territory. Among some 27 distinct ethnic groups in the state, the Melanau and Malay comprise one-fifth of the population of 1.2 million; another 30 percent of the people are Chinese or recent immigrants from Southeast Asia.

Close to half the population is Dayak, a term that refers to more than a dozen indigenous peoples, including the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murut, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, and Penan. The Penan, in northeastern Sarawak, number about 7,600, of whom 25 percent are settled. The remainder are semi-settled or nomadic and depend on the rain forest for most of their needs. Of an estimated 100,000 indigenous peoples who roamed the forests of Sarawak at the turn of this century, only the nomadic Penan remain.

"From the Forest, We Get Our Life"

Related in spirit to the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire and the wandering Maku of the Amazon, the Penan long depended on the forest for food. As hunters and gatherers, they moved through the immense wooded uplands that give rise to the myriad affluents of the Baram River in Sarawak's Fourth Division. Isolated groups of Penan ranged east into Indonesian Kalimantan and north into Brunei.

Due in part to a remarkable variety of soil types, complex geology, dramatic topography, and a broad range of climates, the forests of the Penan are among the richest, most diverse on earth. They may, in fact, represent one of the oldest living terrestrial ecosystems. Moreover, Borneo has remained remarkably stable: its forests have been essentially undisturbed for millennia. Until this century, human impact was slight.

Within the traditional Penan homeland are all the major forest types to be found inland from the coast in Borneo. These forests harbor a great many endemic species. No fewer than 59 genera and 34 percent of all plant species in the world are found only on Borneo. The fauna includes 30 unique birds and 39 endemic mammals, including such rare and endangered animals as the Sumatran rhino and the orangutan. One survey of 22 acres identified over 700 species of trees, more than have been reported for all North America.

For the Penan, this forest is alive, responsive in a thousand ways to their physical and spiritual needs. Its products include roots that cleanse, leaves that cure, edible fruits and seeds, and magical plants that empower hunting dogs and dispel the forces of darkness. There are plants that yield glue to trap birds, toxic latex for poison darts, rare resins and gums for trade, twine for baskets, leaves for shelter and sandpaper, and wood to make blow-pipes, boats, tools, and musical instruments. All these plants are sacred, possessed by souls and born of the same earth that gave birth to the people. "From the forest," they say, "we get our life."

The Penan view the forest as an intricate, living network. Imposed from their imagination and experience is a geography of the spirit that delineates time-honored territories and ancient routes that resonate with the place names of rivers and mountains, caves, boulders, and trees. As much as myth or memory, the land-scape links past, present, and future generations.

Stewardship permeates Penan culture, dictating the manner in which Penan use and share the environment. This notion is encapsulated in molong, a concept that defines both a conservation ethic and a notion of ownership. To molong a sago palm is to harvest the trunk with care. Molong is climbing a tree to gather fruit rather than cutting it down, harvesting only the largest fronds of the rattan, leaving the smaller shoots so they may reach proper size in another year. Whenever the Penan molong a fruit tree, they place an identifying sign on it, a wooden marker or a cut of a machete. The mark signifies effective ownership and publicly states that the product is to be preserved for harvesting later. In this way, the Penan acknowledge specific resources - a clump of sago, fruit trees, dart-poison trees, rattan stands, fishing sites, medicinal plants - as familial rights that pass down through the generations.

Identifying psychologically and cosmologically with the rain forest and depending on it for their diet and technology, the Penan are skilled naturalists, with sophisticated interpretations of biological relationships. A recent and cursory examination of their plant lore suggests that the Penan recognize over 100 fruit trees, 50 medicinal plants, 8 dart poisons, and 10 plant toxins used to kill fish. These numbers probably represent but a fraction of their botanical knowledge.

Logging Is "Good for the Forest"

Today the Penan and their Dayak neighbors occupy the front lines of perhaps the most significant environmental struggle of our era - the effort to protect the integrity of the world's forests. The rate of deforestation in Malaysia is the highest in the world. In 1983, Malaysia accounted for 58 percent of the total global export of tropical logs, with over 90 percent of the wood going to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. By 1985, three acres of forest were being cut every minute of every working day.

With primary forests in peninsular Malaysia becoming rapidly depleted, the industry increasingly has turned to Sarawak. Between 1963 and 1985, 30 percent of the forested land of Sarawak was logged. In 1985, 670,000 acres were logged, providing 39 percent of Malaysian production and generating $1.7 billion in foreign exchange. Another 14.3 million acres - 60 percent of Sarawak's forested land are held in logging concessions.

The banks of the Baram River in Sarawak's Fourth Division are lined for miles with stacked logs awaiting export. Although petroleum accounts for a far larger percentage of Sarawak's export earnings than timber, revenues from the oil fields flow almost entirely to the federal government. By contrast, the Sarawak government controls the forestry sector in the state. As of 1985, licensed logging concessions in Sarawak totaled 14.2 million acres; 23 percent had been exploited and the rest was scheduled for logging.

On paper, Sarawak has one of the world's most experienced and well-funded foretry departments, and its forest policy is impressive. In practice, forest management serves the interests of the ruling elite, which uses its control of the licensing of logging concessions as a source of personal wealth and a means of retaining economic and political power. The authority to grant or deny logging concessions lies strictly with the minister of forestry. Between 1970 and 1981, and since 1985, the highly coveted forestry portfolio has been retained by the chief minister.

That the Ministry of Forestry is used for political and personal financial gain became evident n April 1987. During an election campaign, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Hagi Abdul Taib Mahmud announced he was freezing 25 timber concessions totaling 3 million acres, all belonging to relatives and friends of former Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman Yakud. Estimates of the value of these holdings ranged from $9 billion to $22 billion. In retaliation, Tun Abdul Rahman Yakud revealed the names of politicians, friends, relatives, and associates connected to Datuk Patinaggi Hagi Abdul Taib Mahmud, who together controlled 4 million acres. Between them, these two factions controlled a third of Sarawak's forested land. Ironically, the two antagonists are themselves related.

The granting of logging concessions has been, in effect, a means of creating a class of instant millionaires, and nearly every member of the state assembly has become one. With a resource worth billions of dollars, the stakes are high. In a recent election, political parties spent over $24 million competing for a mere 625,000 votes. The only car factory in Sarawak produces BMWs.

Ultimate responsibility for exploiting the rain forest lies with powerful Japanese trading houses. Japan depends on Malaysia for 85 to 90 percent of its tropical wod imports; half of Sarawak's production goes north to Tokyo. In a 1984 speech, quoted in Evelyn Hong's Natives of Sarawak, then Malaysian federal minister Leo Moggie acknowledged that "Sarawak timber companies are dependent on these [Japanese] trading houses for their intricate line of credit." Japanese banks provide start-up loans to local logging companies. Japanese companies and Japanese aid finance the purchase of bulldozers and heavy equipment to extract the logs. Japan provides the insurance and financing for the Japanese ships that clog the South China Sea. Once sawn in Japan, most of the wood produced by the oldest and perhaps richest tropical rain forest on earth goes into throwaway packing crates and disposable construction forms for pouring concrete.

Studies by the World Wildlife Fund suggest that selective logging as practiced in the hill forests of Sarawak removes about 34 percent of the natural cover. Yet industry advocates maintain that selective cutting doesn't hurt the forest in the long term. Minister of the Environment and Tourism James Wong has even stated that logging is "good for the forest." When presented with scientific information suggesting otherwise, Wong replied, "I will not bow to experts. I am the expert. I was here before the experts were born."

In theory, selective logging has far less environmental impact than the clear-cutting typical of temperate rain forests. In contrast to the desolation throughout the Pacific Northwest of North America, logged areas of Sarawak remain green, rapidly flushing out with secondary vegetation that creates an illusions of paradise. But this masks the difficulty of extracting, in an environmentally sound manner, a few select trees from a given area of tropical rain forest. In practice, most logging in Sarawak occurs with little planning and not technical supervision. Decisions on how the trees will be cut and how they will reach the specified landing areas lie strictly with the "faller" and the operator of the bulldozer or skidder. Working on a contract basis with their income dependent on their production, these men, often poor, uneducated, and far from home, fighting off hunger with a chain saw, place little importance on the environmental implications of their actions.

Arriving at a setting, the bulldozer operator establishes a landing and then follows the faller from log to log, skidding them one at a time, expanding his trail as the faller works deeper into the cutting block. The faller drops and trees in the direction most convenient to him. To reach them, the bulldozer must carve long, winding, and even circular tracks into the forest floor. With time at a premium, the bulldozer is constantly on the move. Every activity - turning or lifting the logs to attach the cables, pushing smaller logs together, maneuvering the bulldozer into place to begin the haul - further damages the forest.

In many parts of Sabah, skid trails and landing have laid bare over 40 percent of the forest floor. As logging removes the forest canopy, exposing the soil to rain, the compaction of the ground by the extractive process reduces the soil's capacity to retain water. This dramatically increases erosion, which is further exacerbated by road-building techniques that pay little attention to drainage or grade.

In just a few years, the indigenous people of Sarawak have seen their clear streams choked with sediment and debris. The federal government's own five-year plan states that "soil erosion and siltation have become Sarawak's main water-pollution problem." In many parts of the state, rivers are permanently turbid; the impact on fish is disastrous.

"We Will Fight Back"

In 1987, Dayak anger over logging exploded. After seven years of appealing in vain to the government to end the destruction of their homelands, the Penan, of February 13, 1987, issued a firm and eloquent declaration:

We, the Penan people of the Tutoh, Limbang, and Patah Rivers regions, declare; Stop destroying the forest or we will be forced to protect it. The forest is our livelihood. We have lived here before any of you outsiders came. We fished in clean rivers and hunted in the jungle. We made our sago meat and ate the fruit of trees. Our life was not easy but we lived it contentedly. Now the logging companies turn rivers to muddy streams and the jungle into devastation. Fish cannot survive in dirty rivers and wild animals will not live in devastated forest. You took advantage of our trusting nature and cheated us into unfair deals. By your doings you take away our livelihood and threaten our very lives. You make our people discontent. We want our ancestral land, the land we live off, back. We can use it in a wiser way. When you come to us, come as guests with respect....

If you decide not to heed our request, we will protect our livelihood. We are a peace-loving people, but when our very lives are in danger, we will fight back. This is our message.

Like the scores of letters, appeals, and petitions sent by Dayak peoples to state and regional authorities, this proclamation was ignored, so the Penan took direct action. On March 31, 1987, armed with blowpipes, they blocked a logging road in the Tutoh River basin. In April, Kayan at Uma Bawang blockaded a road that pierced their territory.

In every instance, the barriers were flimsy, a few forest saplings bound with rattan. Their strength lay in the people behind them. These human barricades - made up of men, women, and children, the old and the young - which began as a quixotic gesture, an embarrassment to the government, grew into a potent symbol of resolve. Within eight weeks, operations in 16 logging camps had been brought to a halt. By October, Penan, Kayan, and Kelabit communities had shut down roads at 23 sites. In all, some 2,500 Penan from 26 settlements took part. For eight months, despite hunger, heat exhaustion, and harassment, the indigenous peoples maintained defiant, yet peaceful, blockades, disrupting the logging industry and frustrating authorities.

The dramatic action electrified environmentalists in Malaysia and abroad. Press coverage in Australia, Europe, and the United States stimulated concern that grew steadily into a sustained international protest. The Malaysian and SArawak governments responded defensively, imposing severe restrictions on the media. Military and security forces were brought into play, and police joined the logging companies in dismantling the blockades.

In October 1987, Prime Minister Mahlathir Mohamad invoked the Internal Security Act to incarcerate 91 critics of his regime. Among those detained was Harrison Ngau of Sahabat Alam (Friends of the Earth) Malaysia, a Kayan environmentalist and the most vocal supporter of Dayak resistance. At the same time, 42 Kayan of Uma Bawang were arrested. They were accused of obstructing the police, wrongful restraint, and unlawfully occupying state lands. The last charge, in particular, was received bitterly. After all, the people of Uma Bawang had established a blockade on their own land to protect their legally recognized rights.

Although the dramatic police action temporarily ended the blockades, it also precipitated a battle that exposed the essential illegality of the logging. According to the Sarawak land code, native customary rights are inviolable. Since the state had granted logging concessions without a clear demarcation of customary lands, the rights, of thousands of Dayak had, by definition, been compromised. On July 26, 1987, a Kayan, charged with obstructing a public thoroughfare, was acquitted: the magistrate concluded that he had blocked a road on customary land and had acted in a legitimate defense of his rights.

To protest the logging industry, the state government took legislative action. In November 1987, it added Amendment S90B to the Forest Ordinance, making it an offense for any person to obstruct the flow of traffic along any logging road. Penalties for violating Amendment S90B include two years imprisonment and a fine of over $2,000.

The injustice of Amendment S90B was obvious. Lolee Mirai, Penan headman of Long Leng, spoke of the purpose of the amendment: "We, who have rights to the land, were, instead, arrested, and not the timber companies who have caused damages to our land and properties. The law protects only the companies and causes us to suffer more. The law is not good. It unjustly allows outsiders and the logging companies to come and damage our land."

The government believed that blockades would never again disrupt the flow of timber. They were wrong. In May 1988 blockades went up near Long Napir, halting the logging operations of Minister Wong. Two more blockades sprang up in the Upper Baram in September, and four more in October. Between November 1988 and January 1989, blockades occurred at seven sites, and the Sarawak Forestry Department arrested 128 Dayaks, mostly Penan.

By mid-1989, the legislation, repeated arrests, and long and expensive trials appeared to have broken the Dayak resistance. Sporadic blockades were quickly dismantled. Then, in September, indigenous peoples in 19 communities in the Upper Limbang and Baram erected 12 new barricades. By the end of the fall, 4,000 Dayaks had shut down logging in nearly half of Sarawak.

By early 1990, however, the logging industry, supported by all the power of the Malaysian government, had recovered. To this day the blockades in Sarawak continue.


After years of futile lobbying and peaceful protest, the Penan look to the outside world for support. Just before the September 1989 blockades, 80 indigenous leaders signed a joint statement: "We ask for help from people all over the world. We are people with a proud culture and way of life that is built on our forest and land. Don't take our forest and culture and dignity away. We thank everyone who thinks of us and helps us, even though you are so far away. It is knowing this that keeps us alive."

Without international pressure, Sarawak is unlikely to recognize the rights of the Penan or protect their forest homeland. Authorities have indicated that they intend to maintain the forests of Sarawak as the exclusive preserve of the state and the domain of the political elite. These same authorities have made it clear that they will tolerate no opposition. Encounters with the police grow more brutal with every new blockade.

It is imperative that the global community respond to this situation. If the Penan are to have the opportunity to choose their own destiny, their forest homeland must be protected. Moreover, the interests of the Penan as well as those of neighboring Dayak peoples must be balanced with the need to protect the biological integrity of the land, now delineated by Gulung Mulu National Park, which lies at the heart of Penan territory.

The creation of a biosphere reserve is an obvious and appropriate solution. A biosphere reserve combines forest preservation with the subsistence needs of surrounding communities. Typically, a reserve consists of a series of concentric zones, with a core of permanently protected forest at the center. Moving outward are a series of increasingly intensive utilization zones. In the first zone, indigenous people can hunt, collect medicinal plants, and harvest natural products. In the next zone, people may farm and gather wood. Settlement occurs in a third zone, which acts as a buffer from encroaching development.

Local initiative and the direct involvement of national and regional authorities are critical to establishing and maintaining a biosphere reserve. Fortunately, Sarawak can meet both conditions. In 1987, an intra-governmental report of the State Task Force on Penan Affairs called for establishing two biosphere reserves for the nomadic Penan. In 1990, the Penan Association endorsed the concept, substantially increasing the proposed boundaries to surround Gunung Mulu National Park and to include a large portion of the northeastern section of the Fourth Division.

To date, however, the SArawak government has neither implemented the task force's recommendations, nor endorsed the biosphere-reserve concept. Instead, government representatives often suggest that environmentalists and anthropologists want to sequester indigenous peoples in living zoos. "No one," Wong stated, "has the ethical right to deprive the Penan of their right to socio-economic development and assimilation into the mainstream of Malaysian society."

Wong's statement is true, but so is its corollary. Penan surely have the right to determine the degree to which they enter Malaysian society, even as they respect their obligation to protect the integrity of Penan civilization. That many Penan still desire to pursue their traditional subsistence activities is evident in the Penan Association's numerous public statements.

The issue, then, hangs in the balance. The creation of a biosphere reserve, the meaningful recognition of Dayak rights, and the adoption of sustainable forestry practices all will depend on the actions of each and every one of us who cares about the fate of the Penan, other Dayak peoples, and their forest homelands. Ultimately, we are all responsible.

Today, throughout Sarawak, the sago and rattan, the palms, lianas, and fruit trees lie crushed on the forest floor. The hornbill had fled with the pheasants, and as the trees fall in the forest, a unique way of life, morally inspired, inherently right, and effortlessly pursued for centuries, is collapsing in a single generation.

How You Can Help

In Earth in the Balance, Vice President Al Gore describes the Penan as "resistance fighters" and refers to their struggle with the logging interests of Sarawak as the "front lines of the war against nature now raging throughout the world."

As a senator, Vice President Gore twice received Penan delegations on Capitol Hill. On April 2, 1992, he introduced resolution into the Senate urging the United States "to call upon the Government of Malaysia to act immediately in defense of the environment of Sarawak by ending the uncontrolled exploitation of the rain forests of Sarawak, by reducing the annual rate of timber cutting by at least two-thirds, and by formally recognizing and upholding the customary land rights and the internationally established human rights of all indigenous peoples of such Government."

The resolution also request that "it should be the policy of the United States to call upon the Government of Japan to investigate the activities of certain private companies of Japan in contributing to the destruction of the Sarawak rain forest, and therefore to the destruction of the culture of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak."

Vice President Gore is now in a position to encourage the governments of both the United States and Malaysia to act. The best hope for the Penan and other indigenous nations of Sarawak is the eloquence and good will of the Vice President. Write to him and urge that he continue his support for their cause by complementing his powerful rhetoric with concrete diplomatic initiatives.

Penan Resources:

Peter Brosius, The Axiological Presence of Death: Penan Geng Death Names, University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, 1992.

Marcus Colchester, Pirates, Squatters, and Poachers: The Political Ecology of Dispossession of the Native Peoples of Sarawak, New series of Survival International Documents No. 7, 1989.

Wade Davis and Thom Henley, Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest, Pomegranate Press, 1993.

Evelyn Hong, Native Of Sarawak: Survival in Borneo's Vanishing Forests, Institute Masyarakat, 1987.

World Rainforest Movement, 8 Chapel Row, Chadlington, OX 7 3 NA, England.

Sahabat Alam (Friends of the Earth) Malaysia, 43 Salween Rd., 10050 Penang, Malaysia.

Endangered Peoples Project, P.O. Box 1516, Station A, Vancouver, BC Canada V6C 2M7

Rainforest Action Network, 301 Broadway, Suite A, San Francisco, CA 94133.

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