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Land rights key to survival

THE problems the Penan and other indigenous communities face can sometimes seem overwhelming and complicated. In this interview with The Nut Graph conducted via e-mail in late September 2009, Koh Lay Chin speaks to anthropologist Kelvin Egay, whom she met while visiting the Orang Ulu in Sarawak. She asks Egay, who has researched these communities extensively, about what can be done to understand, learn from, and help the original peoples of our land.


Penan women resting after working in the fields

TNG: What is the primary thing that will help communities like the Penan most in their lives?

Kevin Egay: The main issue that the state government must look into, and [which] must take precedence, is the recognition of their land rights. With land rights comes security.

You can provide all sorts of public infrastructures like roads, electricity, clinics, schools and even transportation services, but without a sense of security in their own home, these infrastructures are merely pretty decorations. I was told several times that they feel like all this while, they have been squatting on someone’s land. Land rights, among all else, must come first.

What about other aspects of their lives that can be improved?

There are many aspects that need serious consideration, not only for the Penan but also other rural communities in Sarawak, such as access to health services, education, treated water supply, and depletion of food resources in their area. However, some of these rural communities also face another big problem: identity card or IC.

Most Malaysians tend to take their identification cards for granted, but for many communities in the interior areas, it is make-or-break when it comes to their education and work prospects. What can you do or [how can you] advance when you do not have an identification card?

An elderly Sa’ban man told me this a while ago: “Kalau kami yang tua ini tidak ada IC, tidak apa juga sebab kami tidak jalan keluar dari kampung kami. Kami bertani saja disini. Tapi macam mana dengan anak-anak kami yang mau pergi sekolah? Macam mana dengan mereka yang sudah dewasa yang mau cari kerja di bandar?”

I have heard many personal accounts of parents whose children don’t have identification cards and they can’t send their children to school. Even when the teacher allows the student to attend classes, the student will not be eligible to sit for the national exams because he/she doesn’t have an identification card.

There are also some who find it very difficult to land a proper job in the towns because they do not have ICs. So, they’d have to settle for odd jobs that offer no security, not unlike the illegal migrant workers. In some cases, there are individuals who do not receive medical attention at the hospitals in town because they do not have an identification card. So, not having an IC is a real issue for these communities.

What are some of the misconceptions or erroneous thinking on the public or government’s part that need changing?

Not all indigenous communities want or require the same things. Every longhouse, every family, every community, every individual is very different. We have to understand these complexities before arriving at a common ground. And this is neither easy nor simple.

Unfortunately, many people do not understand this. Blockades, for instance, are not necessarily a sign of all-out war against the state; they are usually a platform for bargaining and negotiations for the communities involved. It’s sort of saying, “Please, listen to us.” Of course, when this platform is blatantly ignored, it transforms into a defensive mechanism.

Also, there is the tendency to divert the blame on “foreign NGOs” every time the Penan or other indigenous communities state their grievances. Who exactly are these “foreign NGOs“? This rationale baffles me. It’s as if to say that the communities are not able to think for themselves. I think this is an off-target approach.

The only way the public, state agencies and the non-state organisations can understand the plight of indigenous communities is by constantly engaging and listening to them on the ground. Being too excited or paranoid about certain issues after reading the newspapers or listening to rumours won’t help anyone to understand the real problems that these communities experience.

Obviously many people are concerned with the safety and security of the Penan and their women after the rape cases. What is happening now with this and do you think things will improve after this?

As most of us know, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development released the report on the Penan rape cases last month. This is indeed an important step in acknowledging the problems faced by the Penan community.

However, acknowledgement in itself does not guarantee safety and security. A crime has been committed and justice should be given its due. More importantly, we really need to think about the structural problems lurking beneath this whole notion of “development” in the interior. The rape cases, like all the other “development-related” dilemmas, are symptoms of a broader issue that needs to be addressed with urgency.


River in Long Lamai, Sarawak
Some of the elders in these communities think that the focus should also be on making their settlements self-sustaining [so that they are] able to generate their own income and jobs, such as the possibility of eco-tourism. Is this a viable and advisable route to look at for the future?

Yes, this is one of the viable routes. But it is imperative for the community to decide for themselves on matters concerning their development. And for this to be possible, they need to feel secure in their own home, their land, which is their cultural domain.

For instance, what is the point of having eco-tourism if they themselves do not have direct control over their own resources?

How can [other] Malaysians, academics, or members of civil society help to ensure that the rights of the Penan and other indigenous communities are safeguarded? And how can they help better their living conditions?

I don’t have the answer to this question. Of course, it helps to be aware of such issues. But what comes after that? Acknowledge their problems at many different levels? Understand these problems through dialogues and discussion with the communities? Recognise their needs and demands? Disband the projects in the interior? Take action against the perpetrators of injustices? All these are only a fraction of what we understand as the problem, and these aren’t unique to the Penan or Sarawak’s indigenous communities.

If we are truly concerned about these issues, then we need to, first of all, know where we stand on all these. I think each of us has our own role to play. Maybe we should, first, ask ourselves: is it really about them or is it about us?

What should we know about the dynamics between the Penan and the other Orang Ulu communities? We don’t hear as much about people like the Sa’ban or Kayan.

If you look at Sarawak’s geocultural map today, the Penan settlements are mainly located near the Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit settlements. Other smaller communities such as the Berawan of Tinjar River and the Sa’ban of upper Baram River also have Penan communities living adjacent to them.

This goes to show that the relationship — through barter trading and exchanges in goods and services — between the Penan and their Orang Ulu neighbours have been established for a very long time, probably even before we had this romantic idea that the Penan have always been isolated from the rest of the world. Because of this relationship, the Penan have their own boundary markers to delineate their settlements from the other non-Penan settlements. This also quells the long-standing notion of the Penan as being the nomads that roam the jungle aimlessly.

The relationship between the Penan and their Orang Ulu neighbours is based on shared values and consensus, which in turn, are governed by their customs and cultures. However, this relationship dramatically changed with the arrival of logging operations, oil palm plantation, and in recent years, the establishment of national parks and environmental conservation areas. To a certain extent, the Penan and their Orang Ulu neighbours nowadays do occasionally trade with each other, but the values and balance of such trade have changed. 

The reason why we don’t hear much about the Sa’ban is because the ethnographic literature on this community is lacking. There are two main Sa’ban settlements: one in Long Banga and the other in Long Puak, both located in the upper reaches of the Baram River. The Sa’ban population is around 1,000 and they are one of smallest, in terms of number, ethnic groups in Sarawak. On the other hand, the ethnographic literature on the Kayan is abundant. The Kayan settlements are spread out between the upper reaches of the Rajang River, and the mid-upper Baram River.

See also:
Life in Long Lamai, Sarawak  
Will the Penan survive?

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2 Responses to “Land rights key to survival”

  1. ezra says:

    Some other ways to help [the] Penan…[the] government should give them free education right from pre-school until tertiary level….give scholarships, not PTPTN loan….

  2. keruah says:

    This interview has been very enlightening. Perhaps all Malaysians can start improving our conuntry by thinking less in terms of “them” and “us”. Who are “they”? The Penan and the other Orang Ulu are simply human beings, Malaysians.

    All Malaysians should support NCR land rights and a safe environment for their schoolchildren, Kayan, Sa’ban or Penan. Rapists are not picky. Not only Penan schoolchildren have been raped by loggers.


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