The disappearing Borneo forest is taking with it the Penan's centuries-old way of life

Ayat Lirong thinks he's about 80 years old, but he's not really sure.

 

For most of his life he was a nomad in the forests of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, moving from place to place and living off whatever the jungle provided.

 

There was no point in registering a birth, no need for identity cards and no use for cash.

 

"It was much easier to live and survive before," Ayat says. "Nowadays life is really different."

 

Ayat is a Penan, one of the world's last nomadic peoples. Experts estimate there are about 10,000 of them in Sarawak.

 

But as logging companies have moved further into Sarawak's interior and forests have been cleared for plantations, Ayat and other members of the Penan community have struggled to cope.

 

"I don't feel it's right for the loggers to come and destroy our land," he says.

 

The logging, he says, is scaring away the animals, making it harder to hunt for the food the Penan need to survive.

 

When the loggers came into our land, that's when our life started to fall apart

"The forest made me feel safe and peaceful," says Weng Pet, another elder member of the Penan.

 

"When the loggers came into our land, that's when our life started to fall apart."

 

Sarawak is undergoing the highest rate of deforestation in the world. Over 70 per cent of land the Penan claim has been razed or is earmarked for commercial logging.

 

Now only a few hundred Penan are now thought to lead completely nomadic lives. Most have settled, putting down roots in villages like Long Nen in Sarawak's remote Baram region.

 

On the surface life in the village appears idyllic, a handful of simple wooden houses hidden in a small valley surrounded by mist-shrouded forest.

 

But for Ayat and his family the reality is far harsher.

 

The ground between the houses is marshy and wet, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects, power is erratic and there is no running water.

 

The nearest town is four hours drive away along a rough logging track – not that the Penan can afford cars.

 

"Spiritually they're connected to the forest," says Mark Bujang of Borneo Resources Institute. "It's like the lifeblood for the Penan."

 

The dislocation from the forest has left the Penan among Malaysia’s poorest people.

 

A report last year from Kuala Lumpur’s Centre for Public Policy Studies found most Penans were living below the state poverty line, struggling with poor health and malnutrition.

 

Transition

 

Ayat says logging has scared many animals
away from what forest remains
The report also found few children going to school, deterred by the distance and the cost.

 

Dennison Jayasooria, a member of Malaysia's Human Rights Commission, visited some of the Penan communities in 2006 and was disturbed at what he found.

 

With Malaysia's emphasis and resources on poverty eradication, he says, "it's unthinkable that there is a community of less than 10,000 people who are going through such a situation today."

 

The commission's official report urges more be done to help the Penan cope with the transition to a cash economy and make a success of farming.

 

The government should also make more effort to improve Penan access to education, healthcare and poverty eradication programmes.

 

Officials from the state and national government didn’t respond to requests for comment on policy towards the Penan.

 

Death knell

 

At the moment about 250,000 hectares of land in Sarawak is taken up by plantations for palm oil and acacia.

 

In a few years that could increase to as much as one million hectares – wiping out much of the forest that has formed the focus of Penan society for centuries.

 

Khoo Kay Jin, a social scientist who has been studying the Penan for more than two decades, says that could sound the final death knell for Penan culture.

 

"When the Penan start to think of the logging era as the golden age it's a measure of how bad things have become," he says.

 

In the past, Penan communities have blocked roads used by logging companies to protect areas of forest which they claim as theirs.

 

Opponents have disputed the Penan’s right to the land despite official recognition that Malaysia’' indigenous communities have customary land rights.

 

Some blockades have ended in confrontation.

 

Fearful of the future, Penan communities in Baram are once again putting up blockades.

 

The villagers of Long Nen are also pondering the merits of a blockade.

 

They may have settled down but they still depend on the forest for traditional medicines, fruit and food such as wild boar.

 

They fear all that will disappear if more forest is logged, or worse, cleared for plantation.

 

"Our life now is very difficult," says Weng Pet. "It's a life and death situation."

Source: Al Jazeera