In the latest of a series of efforts to save what remains of their rainforest home, the Penan tribe in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo have unilaterally declared a large swathe of their territory a Peace Park in the hopes of preventing further logging and abuse. The tribe has been fighting to preserve the rainforest since the 1980s. The Malaysian government has zoned the area for logging by the Malaysian timber giant, Samling. In a 2007 interview broadcast on Swiss television, Samling executive James Ho stated, ‘The Penan have no rights to the forest’
James Lalo Kesoh, a former regional chief, said at the inauguration ceremony for the Penan Peace Park: “As nomadic hunter-gatherers, we Penan people have been roaming the rainforests of the Upper Baram region for centuries. Even though we have settled down and started a life as farmers since the late 1950s, we still depend on the forests for our food supply, for raw materials such as rattan for handicrafts, for medicinal plants and for other jungle products. Our entire cultural heritage is in the forest and needs to be preserved for future generations.” The tribe hopes that by declaring the area an indigenous peace park, the Malaysian government will be forced to recognize their historical bond to the area. The Penan have two land rights suits pending against the Sarawak state government.
Indigenous protesters and those who assist them risk arrest and worse. Just this week, a high-level Malaysian government investigation confirmed allegations that Penan women and girls have been sexually abused by workers from the logging camps.
Tribesmen have been erecting barriers to the roads for years to prevent further despoliation by corporate interests.In August, Penan villagers mounted new road blockades to protest the advance of logging. According to Survival International: “Journalists covering the blockades were intercepted by police with machine guns and taken away for questioning.” Last September, 15 indigenous people were arrested and held incommunicado for 7 hours by police for simply attempting to present a memo of protest to the Sarawak Chief Minister’s office. They were concerned about stopping construction of a dam that threatens to flood their ancestral lands and force relocation. It is the first in a series of twelve new hydroelectric dams planned for Sarawak to be constructed by the Chinese state-owned China Three Gorges Project Corporation.
In this moving short video, Penan tribespeople explain their bond with the rainforest and the threat of logging:
These struggles in Borneo epitomize the battle between long-term survival of indigenous peoples and the focus on short-term profits of corporations and governments that continues around the world. Beyond their natural beauty and diversity, rainforests provide an important service by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, thus mitigating global warming. And rainforests are not simply a natural resource, but the cherished home of indigenous peoples all over the globe, who are just as much a part of the ecosystem as the birds and the trees. Rainforest conservation is one key issue to be discussed at the COP15 climate talks in Copenhagen. Let’s hope the negotiators consider the fate of people as well as planet in their deliberations. See more here.
Photo: Murum dam under construction threatens ancestral Penan lands in Borneo.