Wednesday 30 May 2012

'Penan Peace Park is for all of us'

Most Penan have never seen the bright lights of Miri, Kuching or Bukit Bintang. The Penan have lived traditionally for centuries in the forests of northeast and central Sarawak, as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

In the past few decades, nearly all the 15,000 Penan have now settled down as rice farmers, give or take the odd week-long hunting trip. But their hearts remain in the rainforest.

These shy, slender but remarkably strong people are used to living sustainably in their 'tana' or forests. They prefer the cool shade of the canopy to the air-conditioning of urban tower blocks.

It was a struggle, therefore, for a maverick delegation of nine representatives of Penan communities to travel 800km from Upper Baram to Kuching, to present their calls for a Penan Peace Park to the seat of power at the State Assembly, on May 22.

NONEThe Penan Peace Park is a culture and biodiversity conservation project, covering 1,630 square kilometres of some of the last remaining primary forests in Tutoh and Upper Baram.

Penan chiefs of 18 communities declared the park a protected zone - open to visitors but not loggers and other invaders - in November 2009, with the support of international NGOs such as the Bruno Manser Fund.

"The Peace Park is aimed at defending our rights, our forest, the source of our food and our adet (customs)," said village chief Bilong Oyau, from Long Sait, a quiet and neat village of some 80 families, in the Selungo region of upper Baram.

"The Peace Park is not the property of the Penan alone, it is for all of us," Bilong went on. "Not only the Penan people benefit, all Sarawakians benefit. We wanted to explain (to the State Assembly) our adet and culture, how we can preserve our food, rattan, plants, rivers, for everyone."

NONEThe Penan chief noted drily that he has been told the state even has a tourism minister.

"The minister should support this Peace Park. Sarawakians and people from foreign places, can visit this beautiful park. As long as I remain alive, I myself am willing to show visitors our flowers, plants, rivers, waterfalls - everything we have."

Hysterical response to Peace Park

The Peace Park was established to protect the upper Baram forests from the ongoing encroachment by loggers, plantation tycoons and hydro-electric dam companies.

The official response to this call for environmental and cultural protection was alarming. In December 2009, Len Talif Salleh, then the director of Sarawak Forestry, and now an elected state assemblyperson, hysterically condemned the idea as "illegal", arguing it "tainted Sarawak's image".

On the contrary, it is frenzied logging and deforestation, even on steep slopes in Baram, that has stained the state's image.
NONEDuring Len Talif's watch as head of the forestry authority, this destruction accelerated, causing a horrific logjam on the Rejang River, and triggering more than 200 ongoing civil suits filed by native landowners against the state government and its supporters in the logging industry.

To this day, Sarawak Forestry, a privatised logging authority, has found itself in the unhappy position of playing a game of "cops and robbers".

The forestry "cops" are an ostensibly private commercial entity, but are endlessly manipulated by Sarawak's chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. The "robbers", or timber barons, are the ruling party's staunchest political and financial supporters.

BN lawmakers snub Penan

Given the authorities' hostility, it came as no surprise when 56 BN lawmakers all refused to attend the nine Penan chiefs' slide presentation and press conference at the State Assembly on May 22.

In contrast, all 15 Pakatan Rakyat representatives lent their support to the Peace Park at the presentation.

The only BN elected representative to meet the Penan delegation was the assembly representative for Telang Usan, Dennis Ngau. He was quoted by the Borneo Post as urging them to emulate Long Beruang, a pro-BN village that now, he says, enjoys wi-fi and the internet.

Dennis Ngau did not mention, though, that the average Penan inhabitant of Long Beruang has no money to buy petrol for a generator, let alone a computer.

In fact, the villagers have been steadily impoverished by the depletion of game and fish, after loggers moved in over a decade ago. The closest school and clinic remain five hours' walk from Long Beruang.

The only tangible "development" Long Beruang has seen from logging is a rutted, muddy logging track that the loggers maintain only when it suits them, a flimsy and dilapidated "longhouse" built by the logging company - and now, quixotically, wireless Internet provided by the loggers' partners in the state government.

NONE"The (logging) company says they bring development," observed Bilong Oyau, "but we Penan don't really understand what they mean. In Tutoh, Apoh, Batu Bungan, places the company has been, the people have truly suffered - their food, water, have all became terrible."

Bilong said he could not be certain why the BN lawmakers had ignored their Peace Park presentation.

"Perhaps they think of us as children, just playing around. But we're not fooling around. We wanted to meet all the State Assembly, to tell them the problems of people from the interior."

Bilong says they will not give up.

"We'll make police reports, write to the authorities, whatever it takes," he said. "We'll work hard to protect our land rights."

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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