The Penan in Long Deloh say the land around their homes has belonged to them for generations

In the jungles of central Borneo, loggers and native tribes, environmentalists and plantation companies, rights lawyers and government developers are now locked in an increasingly desperate battle.

The future of one of the world's last great rainforests is at stake.

The outcome of this fight could determine much beyond Borneo's borders too, as environmental scientists become increasingly alarmed at the effect deforestation taking place here is having on the world's weather.

The current front line in this confrontation lies about 160km inland from the town of Miri, in the Eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

In recent days a string of barricades have gone up in this region, the Upper Baram river, as native tribespeople try to prevent logging and plantation companies entering what the tribesmen see as the last remnants of their land.

Spears and machetes

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One such barricade is outside Long Deloh where, across a narrow logging track in the heart of the Borneo rainforest, a thin line of Penan tribesmen defend a makeshift blockade with spears and local machetes, known as parangs.

"This has been our land for generations and now they are trying to cut down what little we have left," says Jackson Luhat Paren, the headman of the village of Long Deloh, whose inhabitants built the barricade.

"We are here because we want to preserve our land for the next generation. Without our land we are nothing and we will defend it with our lives if necessary."

The Penan claim that the land around their long houses is their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land.

This is land that native people can claim under Sarawak law as their own, if they can prove that they have cultivated it prior to 1958.

Yet the once-nomadic Penan have few documents to prove anything - some even lack identity cards or birth certificates.

"This is where the whole problem lies," says Baru Bian, a lawyer based in the Sarwak capital of Kuching, who has worked on the NCR issue for many years.

"It is quite a challenge to prove a claim to NCR [land] in court, while in the meantime, the government has gone ahead and issued licenses to logging and plantation companies to work this disputed land."

Oil palm plantations

While logging has continued in Sarawak for decades, it is the recent growth of the oil palm industry which has become an overshadowing threat for the Penan.

The government plans to have allocate one million hectares to oil palm plantations by 2010. Oil palm trees provide a source of food and a potential source of bio-diesel.

"We are here because we want to preserve our land for the next generation. Without our land we are nothing and we will defend it with our lives if necessary"

Jackson Luhat Paren, headman of Long Deloh

Yet many environmental scientists are alarmed by the effect of replacing natural forest growth with a single species of tree.

"This is really the big story in climate change," says Lois Verchot, the principal scientist for Climate Change at the Jakarta-based Centre for International Forestry Research.

"One of the key problems in carbon emissions comes from cutting down the rainforest. Perhaps 40-50 tonnes of carbon per hectare is stored in an oil palm plantation, while 150-400 tonnes of carbon is stored in a hectare of natural rainforest.

"You cut down the rainforest to plant oil palm, you release a huge amount of carbon. Plus many animals can't live in oil palm plantations. Orangutans, for example, need a completely different forest habitat to survive."

Yet the state government of Sarawak argues that developing this land - by logging, clearing and then planting for oil palm - is the best chance the people of the state have for future prosperity.

Fighting poverty?

"The economics of it are simple," says Abdullah Chek Sahmat, the general manager of Sarawak's Land Custody and Development Authority.

"The traditional way to use forest land maybe provides about 500kg of rice a year, using slash and burn farming techniques that are also environmentally damaging," he says.

Cutting down natural rainforest releases "huge amounts of carbon", says Verchot

"This 500kg of rice is worth about $142 per hectare per year. If you put the same land under oil palm, you'll make $3550 per hectare per year at current prices."

"If you want people to get out of poverty, which way makes the most sense?" he asks.

Meanwhile, the Penan, who are among some of Sarawak's poorest inhabitants, are facing their own bleak battle for survival.

The 100 or so inhabitants of Long Deloh were nomadic until a few generations ago, when they settled in two long houses at a remote bend in the River Patah.

"The hills around here were deeply forested and full of animals," recalls Along Hot, a Long Deloh inhabitant and hunter.

"You could find leopards, wild boar and orangutans. The water in the river was clear and you could drink it, you could use a net to catch fish there were so many."

All that changed, these Penan say, when the logging companies arrived.  

Water 'polluted'

"There were a lot of illnesses from drinking the water after the logging company came," says Jackson.

"The animals started disappearing too, scared away by the chainsaws. We also lost a lot of our fruit trees and fish ponds that became filled with rubbish from the logging."

Some of the Penan are now facing severe shortages of food and drinking water.

On August 23, the Catholic Church in Sarawak appealed for aid for a number of Penan communities in the region.

A bad drought has exacerbated existing shortages.

Modernisation as a solution

The government, meanwhile, says that such crises can only be averted if the Penan move out of the forest and into modern settlements.

"The Penans need education and medical care as part of the development process," says local state assemblyman Nelson Balang, a member of Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional group.

"Some Westerners want the Penan to stay as they are, in poverty," adds Chek Sahmat of the Land Custody and Development Authority.

"But we must do what is in the interests of our own people, or we will not be a free country."

The Penan, however, stand defiant.

"We have no choice but to defend this barricade," says Jackson.

"We are trying to defend our culture, our whole way of life. If we lose this, what will be left for our children and our children's children?"

Source: Al Jazeera