RAPE. Blockades. Native rights denied. Such topics inevitably come up in news about Sarawak’s Penan community, such as the recent highlighting of the rape, sexual harassment and exploitation of Penan girls and women by workers of logging companies. But there are also other less prominent issues that the Penan face day-to-day in their idyllic villages and these issues matter just as much to them.
Long Lamai (alternatively spelt Lamei) is one of the most progressive Penan communities in the upper reaches of Sarawak’s Baram river basin. It’s a settlement whose residents are a mixture of those who still farm from dawn till dusk, and those who travel frequently to cities like Miri to make a living. Located in the remote highlands of Sarawak near the border of Kalimantan, Indonesia, travelling to the settlement takes eight hours on rough logging roads and an hour of hiking through the dense rainforest.
As highlighted by the government-appointed task force report released in September 2009, the community is dependent on logging companies for transport to schools, as well as to faraway towns and cities. But there are also other issues, such as being able to continue their studies, finding good jobs after that, access to healthcare and the preservation of their way of life. These do not make screaming headlines, yet they are on the minds of many Penan folk who live in settlements like Long Lamai.
Things may be looking up for the Long Lamai villagers. With the help of support groups and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, the settlement, which ceased to be nomadic decades ago, has one of the oldest primary schools in these remote areas. It will soon have an information technology centre, complete with computers and access to the internet.
It also has seen the return of some elders who had spent many years in the cities. These elders have come back to retire in their village, and will be able to give valuable advice and support to the community. There may also be plans in the long run to arm themselves with the knowledge and tools for greater self-sufficiency, such as by exploring eco-tourism.
Will the Penan survive