Penan gather to fight logging

Earth Island News

Borneo Project

A recent wave of logging activity in Sarawak’s interior has spurred a new series of protests by the Penan, Borneo’s most isolated tribe. Since March, the Penan have erected nine spontaneous blockades intended to keep loggers out of traditional lands. These actions represent the most widespread anti-logging protests in Malaysian Borneo in ten years.

Nearly 700 representatives from 47 Penan communities gathered together in June to discuss the increased logging. The meeting, coordinated by the Sarawak Penan Association, is the first time Penan from remote regions of Sarawak have come together in such numbers, arriving on foot, by boat or by landcruiser from all directions. Some walked for three days.

Forty years ago, nearly 10,000 Penan people lived nomadic lives, moving through upland watersheds in search of game, fruit and starchy sago palms. They built temporary shelters, leaving little trace of occupation. They carried the simplest of tools—blowpipes, machetes, rattan mats and baskets. The Penan were self-sufficient, healthy and completely inseparable from the rainforest.

Today, only 400 Penan remain nomadic. Red clay logging roads now penetrate all but the steepest valleys. The nomadic Penan, pushed into the few remaining tracts of undisturbed forest, see no alternative except human barricades to stop loggers from entering.

“I want to stay in the forest,” says nomadic elder Along Sega. “This is according to my tradition, the tradition of my father… of my elders in the forest. The government wants to bring prosperity… or at least that’s what it says. But it does not bring prosperity. … It is important to struggle for the land. I shall struggle until I die.”

The majority of Penan now live in government-sponsored settlements, few by choice. Their transition to sedentary farming has been extremely difficult. While timber companies provide a handful of jobs and a few modern amenities, the introduction of the cash economy and the depletion of forest resources have left many Penan communities destitute. Of all the ethnic groups in Borneo, the recently settled Penan face the highest rates of poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy.

In addition to protesting logging on their depleted lands, the recent blockades highlight a lack of government response to the Penan’s plight. Over the years, the government has pledged to address the issues facing the Penan, but local leaders say the promises have been empty.

Feeling the time had come to set the record straight with the government, the Sarawak Penan Association called an open meeting of the Penan. This historic gathering offered a unique opportunity for Penan from across Sarawak to share their concerns and discuss joint strategies to address the problems they face.

Penan from various regions reported on their local issues. Each community spoke of conflicts with logging companies; while some companies are willing to negotiate, others aren’t.

Penan from each region agreed that in most cases, the government is more interested in protecting logging company interests than the rights of the Penan. Leaders from the Upper Baram testified police are still being used to dismantle blockades and intimidate the Penan. Other leaders discussed the problem of government-appointed headmen accepting payoffs from logging companies to sign away Penan land rights.

The Penan expressed frustration with unfulfilled government promises. No one at the meeting had seen benefits from an alleged Penan fund the government has lauded. All requests for Penan community forest reserves have been ignored. A Penan Biosphere Reserve, promised by the government in 1994, has never materialized.

Seldom do the Penan have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Even more rarely do they gain access to the top-down decision-making processes that directly affect their lives. The meeting in June provided a unique opportunity for Penan communities to gather and articulate their needs and concerns to the government and the world.

To make their demands clear, those in attendance drafted and signed a declaration on the state of the Penan in Sarawak. The document, known as The Long Sayan Declaration, outlines the history of the Penan situation with regard to logging and human rights. It states in clear terms the impacts logging and forest depletion have had on the overall health of Penan communities.

In addition, the declaration lists a set of actions that need to be taken by the government and logging companies to rectify the sustained injustice. The Penan call for:

  • Recognition of their rights to customary lands;
  • A fair and transparent compensation process;
  • Meaningful state assistance to improve living conditions;
  • A halt to all logging and plantation operations on Penan customary lands;
  • Prior consultation with affected local inhabitants before commencing any future economic activities on their native customary lands, and;
  • The right to choose development models that best suit Penan communities — development that is people-centered, with meaningful local participation and consent.

The Penan have delivered the declaration to the government and are now waiting for a response. If the Penan are ignored again, blockades will most likely be erected. A series of coordinated blockades in the late 1980s cost the timber industry millions in losses. Is this an outcome companies are willing to risk? Additionally, more than 500 Penan have been arrested over the years for anti-logging activities. Is the government ready to continue the criminalization of native land rights protection?

One thing is clear: there is plenty of room for dialogue on the Penan issue. The government has the power and opportunity to take significant steps to address the issues raised by the Penan. The needs of the communities have been articulated. What remains to be seen is whether the government will take this opportunity to listen and act on behalf of the poorest, most disenfranchised group in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, The Borneo Project will continue to support the Penan as they struggle for land rights, protection of their rainforest home and economic justice. With a coalition of local and international NGOs, work has already begun on a project to map all remaining forests claimed by the nomadic Penan. Maps have already been used to prevent the permanent loss of Penan land rights. Additional mapping support and follow-up legal advocacy will be needed in the coming months.

Take Action: contact the Borneo Project at 1771 Alcatraz Av., Berkeley, CA 94703, (510) 547-4258,, or visit

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