Penan Doc 2 Article

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Penan Doc 2 Article

  1. 1. Baram's Penan Community - Hungry, Poor And Sick Utusan Konsumer magazine May 1st, 2002 In the mid-1980s, when the world began to comprehend the magnitude of the devastation caused by logging operations in Sarawak to local indigenous groups, in particular to the Penan community, promises suddenly were pledged to the community in all forms of imaginable packages, like pretty presents on a platter - from forest reserves to infrastructure facilities. However, a decade later, the Penan are more impoverished than ever, confined in substandard living conditions that lack the most basic of facilities and infrastructure and fatigued by frequent food shortages and poor health. As they struggle to get accustomed to a settled lifestyle and adopt agricultural skills, with their jungle and river resources almost depleted - what could they do when everything they need is in the market? There are no promises like those made under pressure. Designed for damage-control when everything else fails, promises are the cheapest miracle pill around to be dispensed, with a bit of drama of course, to a displeased public. Promises save you from the hassle of having to apologise or admit accountability. A Penan child sitting on a drainage ditch. Just when the horrendous impacts of logging operations on the state's indigenous communities, especially on the Penan, became common knowledge worldwide in 1987 as a result of thousands of the natives stating peaceful protests by blocking numerous logging roads in Baram and Limbang, the Sarawak state government, in the course of several years, showered the communities with incredible promises of better days ahead (see box for detail). Although blockades had been sporadically organised in a few areas before this, this was the first time that they were erected simultaneously in such a huge number. This captured the world attention and was one of the most politically embarrassing moments in Sarawak history. Being the last nomadic hunter-gatherers of Borneo, the Penan were the worst hit by logging operations. Although most of them had already engaged in agriculture and settled with varying degrees of permanency by then, the people on the whole, regardless of their different dwelling lifestyles, still depended heavily on forest resources. Those who were still nomadic and lived by hunting and gathering suffered untold hardship when game, fish, fruit trees and wild sago palms, which is their staple food, started to disappear. The strategy of the state in mitigating bad press seemed simple - firstly it started off by giving community self-determination a bad name by associating it with foreign environmentalists still hooked on the myth of the exotic savage and local activists
  2. 2. with an anti-development agenda, whatever that means. Then came the offers of modern living to the community, introducing the vocabulary of an advanced lifestyle that crushes the people's isolation and backwardness against modern knowledge and skills that will raise their socio-economic position. Finally, there were those words spilled so generously between the mid-1980s and 1990s. Special Panel on the Penan Community. Cabinet Task Force Committee on the Penan. Penan Volunteer Corp. Service Centres. RM5 million budget. RM1 million annual allocation. Biosphere Reserve. So did these words that served as part of the state's approach to tackle the Penan problem, translate into deed and if they indeed did, how well did the process go? Settle and be damned The Penan population numbers close to 10,000 with more than 5,000 of them concentrated in Baram (Miri Division) followed by some 1,500 in Belaga (Kapit Division), around 1,000 and 700 in Mulu and Bintulu respectively and 200 in Limbang. About 21 percent of them today are permanently settled while another 75 percent A map showing the major are considered to be semi-settled, leaving their river basins where the permanent homes for the forest from time to Penan live. time. The rest, around 5 percent, are still nomadic. To the communities in Baram that we spoke to recently, along with their counterparts who are still living in the forests of Sungai Puak, Ulu Limbang and Ulu Magoh, hardly anything has changed for the better. Their lives have been plagued by hardship that shows no sign of abating since the logging companies arrived in the area. Their forest is almost depleted of animals, wild sago palms, fruit trees, medicinal herbs and multi-purpose plants like rattan. The river is polluted with silt, oil spills, wood preservative chemicals and garbage disposed by the loggers - killing fish and poisoning the people's water supply. Such tragedy not only deprives the people of their food supply, it also kills their livelihood since game, fish and rattan-based handcrafts have always been sources of income.
  3. 3. In short, the people today are hungrier, sicker and poorer than ever. Even for the settled communities, food supply isn't safely steady since agriculture is a new invention that they have been trying to master without adequate technical and resource assistance. Farming productivity is low, seed access is limited and attempts to grow crops like vegetables often simply fail. Adisease after forest For settled families whose staple has changed to medicinal plant are gone. rice, when game, fish or vegetables cannot be found, meals would often be reduced to plain porridge. Sometimes they manage to collect some cassava shoots, but if cooking oil has run out, boiling them with water is all they can do. If rice runs out, they will try to look for wild sago or cassava. But if nothing is there, then - you will have to just wait, may be for one day, may be more. If you are lucky, there are neighbours who may be able to chip in a little. But then most of the neighbours are also just as poor and deprived. Most of the Penan communities who have settled also lack decent housing and basic infrastructure facilities and access to basic healthcare services. Being nomadic, they are skilled sulap - temporary shelters or huts - builders. However they have little knowledge on longhouse construction or even wood- cutting or sawing. Thus the Penan longhouses are rarely as well-built as other indigenous communities'; in fact some communities make do with only huts. It is disheartening to see people who have sacrificed their A woman suffering from traditional way of life of depending on the forest sustainably, nasty skin infections. to take on the state's urge to settle down permanently, are left high and dry, without aid as basic as decent housing. Some of the communities ended up having to build the houses themselves and had to manage with whatever they can. Some managed to obtain wood from the forest. Others requested for rejected wood from the timber camps. Some communities received building material like wood planks and zinc from the state but then were left to quot;buildquot; the homes themselves. Most of the Penan communities who have settled also lack decent housing and basic infrastructure facilities and access to basic healthcare services. Being nomadic, they are skilled sulap - temporary shelters or huts - builders. However they have little knowledge on longhouse construction or even wood- cutting or sawing. Thus the Penan longhouses are rarely as well-built as other indigenous communities'; in fact some The same woman's communities make do with only huts. leg, with sores. It is disheartening to see people who have sacrificed their traditional way of life of depending on the forest sustainably, to take on the state's urge to settle down
  4. 4. permanently, are left high and dry, without aid as basic as decent housing. Some of the communities ended up having to build the houses themselves and had to manage with whatever they can. Some managed to obtain wood from the forest. Others requested for rejected wood from the timber camps. Some communities received building material like wood planks and zinc from the state but then were left to quot;buildquot; the homes themselves. Some of the longhouses were indeed financed and built by the state but as a young man from a nomadic group puts it, quot;they say the government built the longhouse for them - but the longhouse does not look like it was built by the government at all.quot; Web of problems Why are the living conditions of the people today so poor, despite all the promises from the state? There is a web of reasons to this and at the centre of it, is an insatiable spider whose tale spinning is as big as its appetite. Firstly it is plain to see that the promises are primarily publicity stunts that dabble as a damage control mechanism, for there is nothing that a Penan can receive without being heralded by the press and there is nothing the press can herald without a politician in the picture. Thus, one should not be too surprised if some of the promises were never honoured to the letter or if attempts to deliver them in all likelihood, had suffered from incompetent, lax and slipshod implementation. However underlying the question of the delivery of the promises is a much bigger problem - which is tied to the issue of the lack of accountability of the administration of the promise makers. One cannot help but notice that all the state proclamations on forest reserves and annual allocations for the community seem to sound like badly scripted plots, told for the sake of telling, filled with ambiguous loopholes. Mr. Ajang Kiew, Chairman of the Sarawak Penan Association, perfectly captured the knotty essence of these plots when he questioned, quot;what happened to all the money? Are they really being used to help us? Where did the money go?quot; If there is indeed a RM1 million annual allocation for the community, how come the people today are still living without basic facilities like electricity and piped water? Why can't more schools and clinics be built to serve more communities - after all there are only around 90 Penan villages in Sarawak? Why do the people complain that they do not receive adequate training in farming and lack access to seed supply? Why also the large number of people who still do not own any identification documents?
  5. 5. If forests in Ulu Magoh and Ulu Limbang have been turned into a biosphere reserve forest for the community, why do the nomadic groups complain that logging companies are encroaching onto their land? If a forest reserve has indeed been established in Ulu Nomadic Penan standing Melana, how come logging concessions are issued in in front of their sulap. the area? When the state announced that they had set aside 66,000 ha of land as quot;Special Penan Forestquot; in 1993, are these to be regarded as Communal Forests, which can be gazetted by the Minister as stipulated by the Sarawak Forest Ordinance, or are the forests merely areas where the people are allowed to exercise their Native Customary Rights as spelt by the Sarawak Land Code? How can you claim to have set aside a portion of land for a community, without describing in detail the legal status of the land and its functions? Illiterate solutions However underlying the question of accountability is yet again the biggest flaw, one which plagues at the fundamentals of such promises; one that submerges each pledge into inevitable failure, as far as the welfare of the people is concerned. The promises that the state seems to employ as a tool to dilute bad publicity on what they must have regarded as the Perpetual Penan Problem, are unlikely to be able to solve the people's troubles because the solutions to the problem are themselves beset with a fundamental problem. This fundamental error is a policy issue. It characterises the approach the state takes in dealing with the community, which is arrogantly top-down and disregards the importance of community participation in its decision-making process. Such a policy may be able to churn out many solutions in the press but in reality, they have little to do with the principal demand of the people, which is - halt all logging operations on their land. The refusal of the state to accurately read the demands of the people only produces illiterate solutions. They urge people who move around but live sustainably in the forest to settle permanently, and equate it as a mark of modernness but the people are left to endure living conditions which are unimaginably harsher than their forest life. They build service centres and promise financial assistance but do nothing when the people's food supply and source of income are destroyed. They promise clinics that will cost them to travel to and then allow the people's water supply to be polluted and their medicinal plants depleted. They want the people to take up agriculture but do little to provide them with training and a seed support system. They promise schools but they are so far away children will have to board in hostels - and in any case their dwindling income also means that many parents cannot afford to settle the schooling costs and fees. They claim that their promises will produce a modern
  6. 6. community but the people are so poor, they do not even have the money to travel to the nearest town and apply for birth certificates and identification documents. So why the urge for the people to settle at all? Perhaps another young man who still dwells in the forest of upstream Magoh is able to offer an explanation. quot;We know that if we agree to settle down, it would in effect be a trade off for our forest. The government is asking us to settle down, as if once when we are settled, they can do anything to our forest.quot;come. Clearly, this is not a question of wanting to preserve the people as museum pieces. This is a question of livelihood and choice. Development is supposed to make you robust enough to be free to make your own choices. No one can be so when one is hungry and poor. And then, the spider. Super-comfortably hanging at the centre of the forest. Eager to spread its cobweb from tree to tree. Spinning more tales. Hey, stop roaming the forest from tree to tree. Do not live like wild animals. Come progress with me. Can one imagine if the rice farmers of the 1950's in Peninsular Malaysia had their rice fields bulldozed and then told they too could produce graduates and ministers? Penan people in a typcial house. Possessions are very sparse.

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