Discovering the Real Penan
A question for WWF-Malaysia , as an organisation striving to protect the environment where these communities live, is: how much do we actually know about the very communities we work with?
WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Manager of Community Education & Engagement, Rejani Kunjappan, decided to find out and recently spent time with the Eastern Penan of Sarawak, Borneo, in what she calls the experience of a lifetime.
Rejani ventured into the remote interior of northern Sarawak to the east of the Baram river, an area located between Mulu and Pulong Tau National Parks, in the Heart of Borneo. As she discovered, the traditional ways of foraging and hunting for daily subsistence which is uniquely Penan is still very much alive in the 21st century. The Penan collect food such as wild sago, prey, fish, and jungle vegetables from the forests, along with other materials like the rattan strips that are used to make woven bags, mats and bangles to make handicraft. Even though they have carried on with their traditional ways, continuing to spend a lot of time in the forest, much has changed.
Transformation of the forest landscape has brought many challenges to the lives of the Penan, dating back to the period following World War II. As large development projects took place, mostly in timber and agriculture, vast areas of forests were cleared forcing the Penan to adjust to a more settled life.
For 10 days, Rejani trekked through the dense forest, tailing a team of High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) assessors as they visited villages to hold consultations with village leaders and community members. She watched as sago palms were cut down and hacked into fibre using an axe which was itself created from the forest. With the help of Asai Beret, one of the community leaders guiding the assessment, Rejani navigated slippery rocks along the river to help collect sago shoots. She learned that the flower of the sago is also harvested - eaten as a vegetable and used as a dye. Rejani also watched resin being harvested from an ipoh tree; this is the deadly poison applied to blowpipe darts by the Penan for hunting. Diagonal cuts were made on the bark of the tree and resin collected in a plastic bottle, which was then cooked over the fire until it reduced into a dark paste. While observing their traditional ways of using forest resources, Rejani noted that the practice of molong (taking only what is needed) actually means that the Penan pose little strain on the overall state of the forest.
Full of bites and bruises, totally exhausted and a couple of kilograms lighter, Rejani returned to the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur with a reassessment of her own ideas of community and conservation. Rejani now finds it easy to state that what is written about the Penan in newspaper articles and published papers can hardly take the place of reality. She went in with a romantic view of nomadic hunter gatherers; a view that was borne from what she has read over the past 15 years about this renowned tribe. Changes have happened, development has crept in. However, many Penan remain true to their lifestyles and would like to see their ancestral grounds protected from the logging and expansion of palm oil plantations that are eating up the rainforests and their ancestral lands.
Local communities and indigenous peoples can be strong advocates for conservation as long as their rights and needs are respected and they are given due support to improve the quality of their lives equitably by the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Through her interaction with the Penan, Rejani could tell that there were feelings of anticipation to see changes in policies which would result in the protection of the resources they depend on. As an observer to the process that was undertaken by the social assessment team (one of the three teams conducting the HCVF assessments for the Kubaan Puak Forest Management Unit in the Ta Ann concession area), Rejani’s view is that the Penan are willing to contribute knowledge of the land if, as a result, private corporations improve their practices and take into account the communities’ dependence on the forest by mapping out sites within such concession areas which need to be protected. This is, ultimately, the purpose of conducting HCVF assessments. It is one of the crucial step towards achieving sustainable forestry.