The Penan are a indigenous people from the forests of Sabah and Sarawak, the Malaysian governed states on the Island of Borneo. Sarawak (where the group in the lilm live) covers about 17% of Borneo, an area of about 48,000 square miles, which today has a population of 2.6 million and a thriving economy based on large gas and oil reserves, logging and the production of palm oil. The Penan live in the Miri district in the far east of Sarawak and are one of over 40 different ethnic groups in the state.
The Penan number about 10,000 but only about 200 people are thought to still live a fully nomadic lifestyle. Sarawak is subject to some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, which is having a drastic impact on the Penans’ way of life as instant return hunter-gathers. The Penan are one of the last remaining egalitarian societies in the world, without class or hierarchy and they are renown for being one of the most peaceful societies on earth. (More)
Nomadic hunter-gathering is a way of life that all societies on earth are believed to have lived until about 12,000 years ago, when some peoples began to turn to farming. As agriculture swept the planet, hunter-gathers were forced to assimilate or relocate, as the environment was turned to domestic use. Most of the Penan are now settled in long houses built near the rivers, but many continue to to to take trips into the forest to hunt and gather, food, medicines and other useful forest produce.
Traditional Penan Lifestyle
Here is a description of the Penan written in 2012, when Bruce Parry was filming the BBC series Tribe.
Nomadic groups move through distinct clan territories, some groups are just a family of five or six, others have up to 30 people. There's a nominal headman, but in reality he is only a spokesperson to appease outsiders, as they have no real hierarchy. Respect is given to elders but there is no coercion within the group, just a strong communal bond, which manifests itself in a meticulous process of sharing. Groups form and split regularly as sago palm flour and game is sought from different areas in their territory (roughly 100 sq miles on average). Every month or so the Penan leave their old selap (huts) and exhausted sago supplies and move to another patch of forest where a fresh camp is established. Possessions are few and everything is carried in simple, strong backpacks made from rattan. Even small children have packs to carry. Selap are made from thick poles tied together with rattan strips. Typically the floors are four feet off the ground. Above a hearth of mud are two wooden racks for storing cooking equipment and drying fire wood. Each family usually has one hut for living and a smaller one for sleeping. The roofs are occasionally still made from giant palm leaves, but more often these days with tarpaulins.
Only Penan elders dress in anything approaching traditional dress, with chawats (loin cloths), bands on their legs and wrists and large holes in their earlobes (but often nothing plugging them). Traditional tattoos are now uncommon, but crude DIY tattoos (almost like prison tattoos) are not. Few Penan now go barefoot, most wear cheap, plastic football boots with rounded studs, which are perceived to be the best thing in the jungle. Despite their western looks Penan bushcraft is immediately apparent. The forest is utilised incredibly quickly to provide cups, water containers, repairs to carriers, food and shelter when the need arises.
Threats to the Penan and their lifestyle
Borneo was once covered in tropical forest. However since the 1970s commercial logging has been taking pace. In the 1980s and 90s this area was subject to the highest rate of deforestation in human history. The majority of Sarawak is now cleared of forest through logging, dam building, agriculture and palm oil plantations. The latter especially threatens the remaining forest, with much of the current deforestation being done illegally. Satellite images suggest only about 10% of Sarawak's forest is left intact.
The Malaysian Government is developing hydroelectric schemes which require the flooding of large areas. These dams are intended to power and industrialisation program called the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), with an anticipate $105 billion investment expected, it stands to be one of the most ambitious and lucrative energy projects in Southeast Asia.
Bukun Dam - Work began back in 1993 following years of feasibility studies and false starts dating back to the 1960s. It went live in 2011, producing 2400MW making it the biggest dam in Southeast Asia. It is located on the Balui River about 60km west of Belaga. Over 9000 indigenous residents had to be relocated for its construction, which involved the flooding of 700km2, about the size of Singapore! Transparency International have awarded it a ‘Monument of Corruption’ title.
Murum Dam - Construction began in 2008, flooding began in 2013 and the generators went live at the end of 2014, producing 944MW by June 2015. It is located on the Murum River and has displaced large numbers of indigenous Dayak people including Penan, from the the now flooded forest.
Baram Dam, proposed for north Sarawak would flood 389 square km of forest, and cause the displacement of 20,000 inhabitants. In 2015 following several years of protest and blockade of the preliminary road building by the local inhabitants, the Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem announced that the plans for Baram Dam were being shelved.
The Penan have long operated with traditional beliefs involving the forest and their interconnection with it. This is where the word Tawai comes from. They use it to describe a feeling of being held and provided for by a healthy forest. However in 1848 missionaries arrived by invitation of the Rajah Brooke. Since the middle of the 20th century the Australian Borneo Evangelical Mission have been baptising Penan converts. This influence, along with the introduction of settled living in long houses means traditional beliefs are now less prominent.Reasons for Hope
Baram Peace Park
A draft proposal for land conservation received backing by the Forest Department in Feb 2017. A pre-proposal was handed to Sapuan Ahmed, director of Sarawak Forest Department for consideration. It proposes a co-management strategy between villagers and the government for a 1000 square mile area of Uni Baramand in the north east of Sarawak. This area is home to about 4000 people from various Orang Uni ethnic groups including the Penan. About 300 square miles of the proposed area are are still primary forest. The rest is agricultural land or classified as ‘buffer zone’, for sustainable development and conservation projects. The Forest Department has said it will consider the proposal and welcome the full proposal expected at the end of this year.