Victory for Penan hunter-gatherer tribe in Malaysia


Penan Man. ©Robin Hanbury-Tenison


The rainforest of Sarawak in Borneo, East Malaysia, is one of the most ancient and biologically rich forests on earth, and home to the Penan people, a hunter-gatherer tribe.  The Penan have lived in harmony with their forest with its vast trees, rare orchids, fast-flowing rivers and twisting networks of limestone caves for thousands of years.  ‘The land is sacred’, they say, ‘it belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, those who are living and the multitudes yet to be born.’

For generations, it was the raucous call of the white-crowned hornbill that signified dawn for the Penan.  ‘And thus our life has been since our origins…’, they say. Today, however, they are as likely to be woken by the sound of chainsaws and falling trees, for from the slopes of Borneo’s highest mountain to the swamplands of the coastal plain, the lush world of hanging lianas and scarlet rhododendron is being deforested.

Until the 1960s most Penan people lived as nomads, moving camp frequently in search of boar, following the cycles of fruiting trees and wild sago palm, and trading forest products such as bezoar stones, aromatic wood and rattan for knives, pans and tarpaulin. Today, most of the 10-12,000 Penan have settled in riverside communities, living in metal-roofed longhouses.

Last week, however, the Penan scored a major victory over a giant oil palm firm that was targeting their rainforest. The Malaysian firm Shin Yang was clearing forest and planting oil palm in an area where members of the Penan tribe were due to be resettled, to make way for the Murum dam.  The company has now announced that it has halted work in the area ‘pending verification from the authorities. ‘This is a great victory for the Penan,’ said Stephen Corry of Survival International, the international organisation for tribal rights. ‘Planting oil palms in this area would have almost certainly resulted in the utter poverty and destitution of the tribe.’

For both settled and nomadic Penan, the rainforest is stil the giver of life; the essence of their identity as a people.

And if this forest is not destroyed, then we can live, even though our houses are small, and bound together with rattan,’ said a Penan man.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Joanna Eede was an editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including Portrait of England (Think Publishing, 2006) and We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (Quadrille, 2009). Joanna writes for newspapers and magazines on subjects such as the repatriation of wild Przewalski horses to Mongolia, the whales of the Alboran sea, the chimpanzees of the Mahale rainforest, uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza hunter gatherer people of Tanzania. Future ideas include a book about Tibet’s nomads.