September 01, 2009
A meeting between the Penan indigenous tribe, Malaysian government officials, and representatives of a logging company ended without an agreement on Friday. After the meeting, a Penan spokesman declared that the group’s blockade would continue. Blockaders, dressed in traditional garb, have armed themselves with blowguns and spears.
The meeting was the latest news in a long standoff between the Penan people of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo and government officials who have leased land the Penan say is theirs to logging and plantation companies.
Penan at a blockade site near Long Belok. For two years, the Penan of Long Belok have been peacefully protesting against logging with a symbolic blockade before they decided to completely block the road. Photo courtesy of the Bruno Manser Fund.
The standoff began on August 20th when the Penan set up three blockades to prevent logging companies from accessing the forest for timber and to clear for acacia, eucalyptus, and palm oil plantations, according to news release from the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF). A Penan spokesman has said the blockade will continue until the Sarawak state government recognizes the Penan’s land rights and commits to protecting their forest.
Harrison Ngau, a Goldman Prize-winning indigenous lawyer from Sarawak, points to Chief Minister Taib Mahmud as key to resolving the standoff.
“Taib Mahmud is the one who arbitrarily issued the licences and the leases to the companies over the customary land of the Penan. Therefore, he is the one responsible for causing the problems faced by the Penan,” Ngau told BMF. “As such he is the one who should go and meet them and also apologize to the Penan for destroying their land, their forests and for depriving them of their source of livelihood.”
The Penan, some of whom still live as nomadic hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of Sarawak, have been battling loggers since the 1980s, when large-scale industrial logging commenced in the Malaysian state. At times they have faced intimidation and violent crackdowns at the hands of security forces hired by logging firms and Malaysian police. In January 2008 a Penan chief, Kelesau Naan, was allegedly murdered for his longtime opposition to logging.
Meanwhile vast tracts of Sarawak’s rainforest has been stripped of its valuable timber. Now forestry firms are eyeing forest lands for conversion to oil palm plantations, which will likely leave the Penan even worse off since these estates support less game than even logged-over forest.
The plight of the Penan made international headlines in the 1990s due a campaign by Bruno Manser, a Swiss national, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2000. Since then the cause has been championed by the Bruno Manser Fund.