LONG BELOK (Sarawak): Hundreds of Penans 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 Sarawak.
“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.
Official figures say there are more than 16,000 Penan people 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 timber and plantation companies.
Alah Beling said: “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?”
Sarawak’s Rural Development Minister James Masing admitted that 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.
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 one million hectares (2.47 million acres) – an area 14 times bigger than Singapore.
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.
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. — AFP