by Paul Malone
2008-07-29 | Even though, well before the formation of Malaysia, there were numerous records of the Penan in the areas claimed, it is not easy for individuals to prove their antecedents.
Many of the older people do not have birth certificates and the authorities do not always make it easy for the Penan to get identity cards.
Babies are rarely born in hospitals with doctors to sign the paperwork and elderly Penan cannot find someone even older to testify to their birth. Finding money to get a birth certificate can also be a problem.
Making a two or three day trip to Long Lama or Marudi to apply for documents, and then having to come down again to collect them, is an issue when transport costs are RM1,000 per person and most people have next to no cash income.
In addition, there are cases where Penan coming down to collect their documents are asked to pay a late collection penalty before being given their identity cards
They don’t all take this lying down. One Penan man immediately reported to police that somebody was holding his identity card illegally. Police went with him to the National Registration Department, where the man argued that the department had no right to withhold it just because he could not pay the penalty.
Paperwork or no paperwork, it cannot be denied that the Penan have been and are occupiers of a number of regions in Sarawak, including the upper Baram and Limbang river regions.
The Sarawak government risks looking ridiculous – or even worse, racist – by denying the existence of one of its native peoples.
The Penan can also demonstrate their presence by showing grave sites and they have no hesitation in pointing out the long standing boundaries of their lands.
As I trekked for three days between Long Lellang and Long Kerong, my guide pointed to the clear marker of crossed poles on a ridge that delineated the Long Lellang Penan territory from the Long Selungo River Penan Territory.
At Long Benalih, Henneson Bujang pointed to the ridge that marks the limits of his community’s land and carefully extracted a map from a PVC pipe to support his claim. Using GPS mapmakers, Robert Jengan, Stanley Rolland and Dennis Adun produced the document in 2001.
But this may not count for much with the Sarawak government. In opposing the Penan’s High Court claim, it argues that the map used in the claim was “drawn or produced by a foreign source”. Apparently the work of the Directorate of Overseas Surveys is not good enough for them.
Education their only hope?
The lack of paperwork also affects the Penan’s political impact. In recent elections, the Long Lellang polling booth recorded 65 votes, with 60 for the government. Coincidentally, only five Penan were registered to vote, even though the booth is in the centre of a Penan dominated region.
With the death of community leader, Kelesau Naan, a little of the spirit of resistance to logging has been washed away.
There are still determined young Penan. But the High Court case is stayed for who knows how long, providing little current inspiration for those trying to hold the line. Logging company Samling’s shareholders can afford to wait. The company has other concessions to keep it busy.
The Penan are poor and live in remote locations with little access to means of communication. Their young are tempted by all the glitter that the developed world offers on satellite television, even if they do not yet have the skills and education to enable them to compete in the wider world to get the goods.
Across the community, among those strongly opposed to logging and those who accept it as inevitable, there is strong support for education.
Parents send their children off to boarding school but dearly miss them and will walk for three days through the jungle to be there on the first day of the two-week holiday break.
They will then walk them home, taking five days, having only four days at home, before walking back. That’s commitment.
Here Samling offers help. Logging roads have a side benefit and the company can and does offer lifts in its four wheel drives, cutting the travelling time each way to a mere two days.
The fit and healthy adults labour long and hard to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. Old couples still walk into the jungle to gather food or tend the small rice paddies they have carved out. The very old stoke the fires and mind the babies and toddlers.
There is peace and quiet, little or no violence, drunkenness, drug abuse or obesity in the villages at present.
Strong yet vulnerable
But there are signs that along with the benefits of development, the vices are on their way. Penan men now go to the Long Suit Kenyah trading post to drink and there are allegations that logging workers have taken young Penan girls from the Long San boarding school at night, ostensibly to watch television.
The villages are not a paradise, as one Swiss tourist claimed when I met her at Long Kerong. “Oh yes,” I said, “with the mosquitoes and the leeches”. I could have added with no doctor or nurse at the health clinic, and no medicine there either and the children having to leave home to go to school.
Walking long distances in the jungle is not always fun, even for the Penan. There is no real shelter from the torrential rain. Leeches suck the Penan’s blood too and leave an itch that lasts for days. The trails are hard going and Penan people can die in the jungle, just like anyone else.
One man fell to his death off a slippery long crossing a few years back. They are extraordinarily tough people, but they are not super-human.
(I’m embarrassed to say that in my nine-hour walk from Long Main to Long Kerong, a young woman about five foot tall carried my pack. I could not have made it up and down the track with it on my back.)
The Malaysian and Sarawak governments have done a good job in health and education, given their limited resources, and could certainly teach Australian authorities a thing or two about providing services to remote indigenous services.
Every house I went to, even days walk out in the jungle had a card pinned to the door recording a visit by those trying to control the malaria bearing mosquito. Children are provided free boarding places at school.
It is too much to ask of a people hard pressed to find the money to travel to the nearest major town to register a birth, or get an identity card, to alone mount a campaign to save the last of Sarawak’s major virgin forests.
Without sustained high pressure from outside governments and authorities, backed by significant financial resources, the last of the great forests of Sarawak will be mined for their mammoth trees and the panther that today stalks the foothills of Long Lellang will be no more.
PAUL MALONE, 60, has been a journalist for over 30 years in Australia. The above article which first appeared in the Canberra Times is based on his trip to research logging in the upper reaches of the Baram River in Borneo which he first visited in 1974.
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