Malaysia: struggles of the nomadic Penan people

Visit the photostory “Plight of the Penan” at Conor Ashleigh’s webpage.

Sagung Nyipa, a nomadic Penan, from the Ba’marong community is fondly called “Bapak Sagung”.  Bapak Sagung shared how they guarded and defended their communal forest from loggers and logging companies. The Ba’marong community is one of the few remaining nomadic Penan in the world. Their struggle is not only about their right to resources but their struggle for their survival.

Bapak Sagung, told his story in the Penan language and was assisted byJok Jau Evong. Bapak Sagung described how there were very few nomadic Penan in Malaysia and how all of them depended heavily on the forests. He shared how simple life was before when they could live freely, hunt and gather and have all their needs met in the forest. The Penan people survive on forest resources as a source for their food, nutrition, medicinal and natural herbal cures and many more. The forest is also their spiritual ground where they perform their rituals and give thanks to life cycle and the resources given to them. As a nomadic people, the forest shelters them and the vast landscape is known to them like the back of their hands. Bapak Sagung reminisced on how their people were at peace with nature, taking what nature has to offer and caring for its sustained existence. He is very much a forest dependent person and lives his life caring for their people and the forests that provide them resources.

Today, however, life has become difficult for their people and they are faced with the indiscriminate encroachment of logging companies in forest areas. Most of their forests have been disturbed by logging companies and the balance with nature has been massively disrupted.

With the encroachment of companies and the denudation of forests, it has become noticeable how a lot of the rich biodiversity is being lost. How several species of animals, birds and plants are under threat with the indiscriminate felling of trees. This also leads to the serious threat to the very existence of the nomadic people as they are being pushed further and further away from the forest and the resources. However, the Penan people together with other communities challenged and fought against the intrusion in forest lands. They have managed to preserve part of the forest, not for themselves but for future generations.

Bapak Sagung also lamented how the Government is not meeting their demands and failed to fulfil their promises despite repeated protests, letters and memos made. He shared his feelings of being uncomfortable having come out of the forest into the city to attend this conference and was only encouraged with the idea that this was a circle where solidarity and action on their local struggles can be garnered.

There is a need to support the struggles of the Penan people. In the past years, the Ba’ Marong community has been putting up blockades and placed signs warning companies not to encroach in the communal forest areas and in the Penan settlements.  In the Baram region itself there are 50 Penan settlements. Most of the communal forests are gone and many Penan people have to walk at least a day to find food and other sources of nutrients.

Plantation licenses are being issued, logging concessions are abound and these prevent the Penan people from accessing the resources which their ancestors have also depended on. The rampant growth and encroachment of logging and plantation companies are not only a threat to forest resources but also pose serious threats to the lives and livelihoods of the Penan community.

Bapak Sagung also said that in 2009, a one month blockade paralysed the logging industry. Ten long-houses gathered to stage the month long protest at Long Nen, Long Belok and Long Bangan. The blockade had to be dismantled due to government intervention with the promise to heed the calls and demands of the Penan people.

Until 2010, however, when the first anniversary symbolic protest was once against staged, none of the promised demands had been met. It did not mean that the struggle had been lost though, Jok and Bapak Sagung said that they would always do what needs to be done to defend their rights. During the discussion, many spoke about how formal education (western education) did not take into account the culture and values of the indigenous system. A formal education system would never be able to capture the essence of an indigenous based system.

Bapak Sagung shared how most people in the low-lands often think that the best way to survive is for the nomadic Penan people, and other indigenous peoples, should “integrate” and join the “city” and be civilized. He stresses that this is not their way of life and that their way of life, their traditions, practices and historical footprint should be recognized, respected and protected.

Bapak Sagung ended his sharing with the hope that more education and exchanges are done for people to understand their way of life and to respect indigenous peoples. He openly invited friends to visit the Penan settlements, and learn first-hand their way of life so that people would understand them and join them in their struggles until their rights as a nomadic people are recognized and respected.