LONG BELOK, Malaysia — Hundreds of Penan tribespeople armed with spears and blowpipes have set up new blockades deep in the Borneo jungles, escalating their campaign against logging and palm oil plantations.
Three new barricades, guarded by Penan men and women who challenged approaching timber trucks, have been established in recent days. There are now seven in the interior of Malaysia’s Sarawak state.
“They are staging this protest now because most of their land is already gone, destroyed by logging and grabbed by the plantation companies,” said Jok Jau Evong from Friends of the Earth in Sarawak.
“This is the last chance for them to protect their territory. If they don’t succeed, there will be no life for them, no chance for them to survive.”
Penan chiefs said that after enduring decades of logging which has decimated the jungles they rely on for food and shelter, they now face the new threat of clear-felling to make way for crops of palm oil and planted timber.
“Since these companies came in, life has been very hard for us. Before it was easy to find animals in the forest and hunt them with blowpipes,” said Alah Beling, headman of Long Belok where one of the barricades has been built.
“The forest was once our supermarket, but now it’s hard to find food, the wild boar have gone,” he said in his settlement, a scenic cluster of wooden dwellings home to 298 people and reachable only by a long suspension bridge.
Alah Beling said he fears that plans to establish plantations for palm oil — which is used in food and for biofuel — on their ancestral territory, will threaten their lifestyle and further pollute the village river with pesticide run-off.
“Once our river was so clear you could see fish swimming six feet deep,” he said as he gestured at the waterway, which like most others in the region has been turned reddish-brown by the soil that cascades from eroded hillsides.
Indigenous rights group Survival International said the blockades are the most extensive since the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Penan’s campaign to protect their forests shot to world attention.
“It’s amazing they’re still struggling on after all these years, more than 20 years after they began to try to fight off these powerful companies,” said Miriam Ross from the London-based group.
Official figures say there are more than 16,000 Penan in Sarawak, including about 300 who still roam the jungle and are among the last truly nomadic people on Earth.
The blockades, which Friends of the Earth said involve 13 Penan communities home to up to 3,000 people, are aimed at several Malaysian timber and plantation companies including Samling, KTS, Shin Yang and Rimbunan Hijau.
After clearing much of the valuable timber from Sarawak, a vast state which lies on Malaysia’s half of Borneo island, some of these companies are now converting their logging concessions into palm oil and acacia plantations.
“They told us earlier this month they were coming to plant palm oil, and I said if you do we will blockade,” said Alah Beling.
“They told us we don’t have any rights to the land, that they have the licence to plant here. I felt very angry — how can they say we have no right to this land where our ancestors have lived for generations?”
Even on land that has been logged in the past, Penan can still forage for sago which is their staple food, medicinal plants, and rattan and precious aromatic woods which are sold to buy essential goods.
“Oil palm is worse because nothing is left. If they take all our land, we will not be able to survive,” the Long Belok headman said.
Sarawak’s Rural Development Minister James Masing admitted some logging companies had behaved badly and “caused extensive damage” but said the Penan were “good storytellers” and their claims should be treated with caution.
“The Penan are the darlings of the West, they can’t do any wrong in the eyes of the West,” he said.
Masing said disputes were often aimed at wringing more compensation from companies, or stemmed from conflicts between Penan and other indigenous tribes including the Kenyah and Kayan about overlapping territorial claims.
He said the current surge in plantation activity was triggered by Sarawak’s goal to double its palm oil coverage to 1.0 million hectares (2.47 million acres) — an area 14 times bigger than Singapore.
“The time we have been given to do this is running short. 2010 is next year so we want to make that target and that is why there may be a push to do it now, to fulfil our goal established 10 years ago,” he said.
“In some areas the logging has not been done in accordance with the rules and some of the loggers have caused extensive damage. That does happen and I do sympathise with the Penan along those lines,” he said.
“But the forest has become a source of income for the state government so we have to exploit it”.
Driving through the unsealed roads that reach deep into the Borneo interior, evidence of the new activity is clear with whole valleys stripped of vegetation and crude terraces carved into the hills ready for seedlings.
Most of the companies declined to comment on the allegations made by the Penan, but Samling said it “regrets to learn about the blockades”.
“We have long worked with communities in areas we operate to ensure they lead better lives,” it said in a statement.
Its website says its acacia timber plantations in Sarawak will “enhance the health of the forests” and that it uses “only the most sensitive ways to clear the land”.
The Penan allegations could discredit Malaysia?s claims that it produces sustainable palm oil, particularly in Europe and the US where activists blame the industry for deforestation and driving orangutans towards extinction.
Indigenous campaigners say that past blockades have seen violence and arrests against tribespeople, but village chiefs — some of whom were detained during the 1980s blockades — said they did not fear retribution.
“We’re not afraid. They’re the ones destroying my property. Last time we didn’t know the law and now to protect ourselves, but now we know our rights,” said Ngau Luin, the chief of Long Nen where another barricade was set up.
An AFP team reporting at the blockades was photographed by angry timber company officials, and later intercepted at a roadblock by police armed with machineguns and taken away for questioning.
The plight of the Penan was made famous in the 1980s by environmental activist Bruno Manser, who waged a crusade to protect their way of life and fend off the loggers. He vanished in 2000 — many suspect foul play.