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Will the Penan survive?

Penan child

EIGHT hours in a four-by-four, and no sleep. One is forced to pay quite a bit of attention to flashing scenes of logging roads outside. These lead to Sarawak’s hinterland where the Penan communities and other indigenous groups live.

I had been unable to get a flight on a small plane from Miri into Long Banga, a rural village located in the state’s remote north-east and not too far from the Kalimantan border. This meant there was only one other way — around eight hours on windy and rocky roads to get to my destination. It was mid-September 2009 and I had been invited to visit Long Lamai, a Penan settlement an hour’s hike through the forest from Long Banga.

It was near impossible to sleep, of course, with our heads bobbing helplessly from the bad road conditions. But that was not the only unpleasant part of the journey. We passed by stretches of oil palm, so neatly arranged they were out of place in the wild greenery.

“We want to be like Semenanjung now,” my friend said wryly. Later, there would be logging trucks. So many of them that I stopped counting after the eighth truck. They roared past, carrying loads of cut trees.

The sight was distressing. As were the areas that had already been logged and the swathes that looked like the trees had been slashed and burnt to be replaced with something else.

State of affairs

It was impossible to look at the bareness, with its brown and black remnants, without feeling angry. The roads, the driver told me, are built by logging companies. The government does not maintain these roads because they effectively belong to the companies. Still, the state government could take over and make these roads official state roads. There could be proper roads, street lamps and public transportation. But where are they?

Load on lorry
Waiting for logging lorry ahead to be loaded

Many drivers along these routes live or have families in the hinterlands. They make a living ferrying people to the cities and towns, and back. The inter-connectedness of the people, the logging companies and their environment is inescapable.

Our driver revealed that he himself had a hand in building the very road we were on, and has faced a 1995 blockade of protesting Penan. “They were from Long Lamai, actually, and they were fierce. I saw two Caterpillar tractors set alight,” he remembered.

World of loggers

As we go deeper and deeper, it is clear that this is the world of loggers. There are even little road signs telling you that the logging trucks always have the right of way. Indeed, we had to stop for a few minutes and wait for a log loader to arrange the load on a lorry in the middle of the road. Once in a while, we passed workers’ camps and holding areas for the logs.

Logs on the ground
Holding areas for logs

“We should close the roads. Stop them from bringing the trees out, stop this exploitation,” I boiled within. Over the next few days, I would revisit this thought over and over again.

We reached Long Banga long after the sun has set. We stayed with a Sa’ban family, who treated us with much warmth. The Sa’ban people, numbering less than 1,000, are actually the smallest indigenous group among the Orang Ulu in Sarawak.

They rely on generators for electricity and as such, the whole village turns dark once families turn the machines off at night. We would continue chatting, however, by candlelight.

I soon realised that while it is the Penan stories, such as the rape and sexual harassment of their women or the blockades they erect, that have wider national and international reach, many of the Penan’s problems are the problems of various other indigenous groups, too. Maybe foreign non-governmental organisations focus on the Penan because they are the most vulnerable and one of the last nomadic groups left in Southeast Asia. Only 300 to 400 out of the 10,000 living in Sarawak are still nomads.


I was to visit some Penan who had settled down by the river banks. The Long Lamai village has some of the most progressive Penan around. They were serious blockaders, telling logging companies they were not to step foot in their community. No demands, no negotiations. Just do not enter. They got what they wanted.

This simple bridge will soon be replaced with a new one that will enable easier transport of supplies to the nearby school

Negotiations between the companies and the communities usually boil down to what benefits the community will gain. “If they want to build us a road, why not? It’s good for our community. Kalau ini kemajuan untuk sini, maka kemajuanlah,” said a Sa’ban resident of Long Banga when discussing a bridge that was being built by a timber company.

It was a two-hour hike through the forest to reach Long Lamai, although for the Penan, it would have taken only an hour or so. On the way, I learned that the black and burnt areas I saw earlier were actually the work of the communities. They had cleared the land for padi and other agriculture produce.

We pass by many Penan folk who are off to tend to their fields. During one of our rest stops, one of them slowly and quietly takes aim at a creature I cannot see in the upper branches of the trees. For the Penan, even those wearing Western clothes, the forests and its bounties are an unmistakable lifeline.

Cleared land
Land cleared for agriculture

When we reach the beautiful and serene village, it is clear that for all their progressiveness, the Penan of Long Lamai still have the gentle hospitality, shyness and curious eyes of a people who do not travel much out of their settlements.

While the adults are hard at work in the fields, the children play games like spinning tops and hide-and-seek if they are not in school. It is clear that the children are quicker to warm up to you. There is a sense of wariness among the adults.

“You think you are figuring them out, but you realise later that they were studying you and figuring you out,” a researcher told me. Thus conversations on sensitive topics like the recent rape cases or blockades can stop right where it started, as they clam up in the politest way possible. It is clear that trust is an important factor for the Penan before they decide to open up, and understandably so.

Man with sumpit
Taking aim

Whether Penan, Kelabit, Sa’ban, Kenyah or Kayan children, they all now depend on the logging roads for faster travel to secondary schools located miles away. Before this, it would take five days of walking through dense rainforest to get to Bario and Marudi, where the two secondary schools are. Now, it only takes hours for the children via the logging roads. Despite the roads tearing through their forests to exploit precious logs, it is clear what the roads mean on a practical level. But why are there two different secondary schools — one for lower and the other for higher secondary schooling — for them? Why are they that far away?

What hope?

It is when I chat with the younger adults though, that I get a sense of what it means to be in a state of transition. Some of them have dyed their hair, and are clearly familiar with the world outside. And yet they are here, tending to their families and fields. How do they earn money for their families?

Most of them do not finish secondary school, and even if they do, how will they make a living in the village? Many young men end up working for the logging companies they blockaded against before. It is hard for them to prevent the logging world from becoming inevitably intertwined with theirs.

Most Penans do not finish their secondary school education

A village elder told me about how he once worked for the logging company and the government agencies that could be considered “the enemy”. It is never that simple, he said. He saw what it meant to be put in a position they call “cockfighting”, where the company fronts some from the community as their men for negotiations.

Whether driven by pure love or a sense of guilt, or both, this elder moved back from the city two years ago to live in the village again. “I learned a lot over the years. I just want to come back and help my people,” he said.

“We can do this,” the elder added. “We may need a little help, but we can and we will make our own village strong and self-sustaining. We want to earn our own way.”

As I left Long Lamai, I was encouraged by his earnestness and his people’s inherent strengths. But I wondered if it would be enough for the communities of Sarawak’s interiors to triumph over the logging companies’ interests and the state government’s neglect of their rights. favicon

See also: 
Life in Long Lamai, Sarawak

Understanding the Penan struggle

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6 Responses to “Will the Penan survive?”

  1. frags says:

    Thanks for this great write up.

  2. equal says:

    The Penan have been around for thousands of years, perhaps predating the mighty Chinese civilization in China…They will survive, leave them with their way of life.. don’t bother converting them..not all people are meant to be modernised, otherwise everyone wants to be the PM… leave the Penan alone….they will manage to survive another millennia.

  3. elfin says:

    Surely there are other Malaysians who feel the way you do, Koh.

    Where are they??

  4. Liumx says:

    Yes, the Penan will survive. So will all Orang-orang Asal. But on what stage will they survive on? The state of affairs seems unpromising for an indigenous living, now, but who knows, when the last tree [is] logged and the loggers can no longer survive, it is the living [who will] count. Survival is too basic to deny, but living, as always, never easy.

  5. ezra says:

    Thanks, let’s tell the world the true story of the Penan, tell the [authorities] about the needs of the peoples…

  6. ezra says:

    ..only now we want to “leave” the Penan alone? After the destruction [that has] been done to their land, their societies, their jungle sources, […] no way! Those who [are] responsible [for disturbing] their “traditional way of life” should take fully responsibility…

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