The Penan live in Sarawak, the Malaysian part of the island of
Borneo. The Penan are just one of the tribal peoples of
Sarawak, but they are the only nomadic tribe.
How do they live?
The Penan are nomadic hunter-gatherers. Although many have now
been settled, about 300 Penan still lead a completely nomadic life in
the forest. Even the settled Penan continue to rely heavily on the
forest. The Penan have a gentle and egalitarian society without any
hierarchy. Sharing is taken for granted in Penan society: there is no
Penan word for 'thank you', and a hunter must not eat a single bite more than he gives to
others, however small his prey. The forest is essential to the Penan, providing them with
everything they need to survive. In particular, they rely heavily on sago, which they use for
building houses, making baskets and to eat – the Penan love to eat it fried in pig fat and
mixed with blood.
What problems do they face?
Since the 1970s, all the tribal peoples of Sarawak have had their land taken to make way
for logging, dam construction and oil palm plantations – driving them into towns where
they are reduced to abject poverty. The Penan have been told by the government that they
have no rights to land at all until they 'settle down' or start farming. The logging industry
has a particularly devastating impact. The Malaysian government claims that Sarawak is
being logged sustainably – but in fact its forests are being destroyed at one of the fastest
rates in the world.
As the forests are logged, the rivers are silted up, killing the fish. The game is being scared
deeper into the few remaining forests. Since 1987, the Penan have been fighting back by
blockading the logging roads – and suffering acute food shortages as a result. Many Penan
have been arrested for holding these peaceful blockades but finally they are starting to see
some results. Some of the companies are now agreeing not to log Penan forest, but the
Penan need to stay vigilant as many such promises have been broken.
The nomadic hunter-gatherer Penan are one of the last such groups in South East Asia. Out
of the 10,000 Penan living in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Borneo, only 200 nomadic
people are left.
Small groups of nomads move through a land of dense forest, narrow steep-sided valleys
and fast flowing streams in the north-east of the state. Penan material culture is changing
(western clothing is dominant, everyone has plastic tarpaulins), but the nomads still rely on
the forest to provide most of what they need, from blowpipes to flour.
The Penan are a gentle and softly spoken people with a highly egalitarian society and little
gender division. There's a headman, and respect is given to elders but there is no real
hierarchy, just a strong communal bond, which manifests itself in a meticulous process of
sharing. Nomadic Penan move in groups of up to 40 people, but groups form and split
regularly as sago palm flour and game is sought from different areas in their territory
(roughly 100 sq miles on average).
The nomadic Penan have been greatly affected by large-scale selective logging, in the late
1970s. More recently the creation of palm oil and acacia wood plantations has caused
concern. Since the 1980s various Penan groups, both settled and nomadic, have
campaigned against the logging - erecting blockades and sometimes being arrested. A well-
orchestrated media campaign, originally led by passionate activist Bruno Manser (who
went missing in Sarawak during 2001) meant that their plight was raised at the UN General
Assembly and the Rio Earth summit. Penan leaders have also met Al Gore and Prince
A few concessions were made, but as the media spotlight moved on the logging continued.
It's been estimated that at least 70% of Sarawak's primary forest has been licensed for
logging and in some places there have been two or three logging passes in 25 years. The
forest to which the Penan are perfectly adapted, has been radically altered. They have a
deep emotional response to the change in light, sound, smell and temperature of the forest,
nuances that outsiders over look. Everything from hunting to collecting medicinal plants
and clean water is becoming much more difficult.
Groups of nomadic Penan move through distinct clan territories, some groups are just a
family of five or six, others have up to 30 people.
Every month or so the Penan leave their old selap (huts) and exhausted sago supplies and
move to another patch of forest, where a fresh camp is established. Possessions are few and
everything is carried in simple, strong backpacks made from rattan (which is taken from
palm leaves). Even small children have packs to carry. Selap are made from thick poles
tied together with rattan strips. Typically the floors are four feet off the ground. Above a
hearth of mud are two wooden racks for storing cooking equipment and drying fire wood.
Each family usually has one hut for living and a smaller one for sleeping. The roofs are no
longer made from giant palm leaves, which are now apparently scarce, but tarpaulins.
More nomadic Penan are now setting up semi-permanent settlements to which they return
after visiting satellite sago harvesting camps for a few weeks at a time. Some communities
are experimenting with farming, but this accelerates the move away from a nomadic life in
the forest: the more farming you do, the less time is spent hunting and gathering and the
more farming you need to do. Nomadic Penan are not natural farmers and failures can lead
to increased hunger. Disease in settled communities can also leave the Penan vulnerable.
Only Penan elders dress in anything approaching traditional dress, with chawats (loin
cloths), bands on their legs and wrists and large holes in their earlobes (but often nothing
plugging them). Traditional tattoos are now uncommon, but crude DIY tattoos (almost like
prison tattoos) are not. Few Penan now go barefoot, most wear cheap, plastic football boots
with rounded studs, which are perceived to be the best thing in the jungle, but don't keep
the leeches out.
Despite their western looks Penan bush craft is immediately apparent. The forest is utilised
incredibly quickly to provide, cups, water containers, repairs to carriers, food and shelter
when the need arises.
The Bornean bearded pig bears the brunt of Penan hunting activity. In the past widespread
fruiting of forest trees would lead to an explosion in the bearded pig population, but the
loss of these trees and opening up of the forest to hunters from outside has led to a
population decline. Barking deer is another popular game animal, as is the long-tailed and
pig-tailed macaque, but the Penan will eat just about any animal including small birds and
squirrels, which are thought of as delicacies.
Many Penan often use blowpipes to hunt, but killing a bearded pig with a blowpipe is very
difficult and requires strong poison unless you want to track it for days before it falls (more
difficult in secondary forest). Shotguns are obviously more efficient, but are far more
expensive to own and permits are needed.
Penan hunt by tracking, but February through to April they sometimes use a hunting
technique called mejong. A hunter hides in a tree close to a fruiting tropical oak and waits
for the evening when he can prey upon feeding bearded pigs. The meat of the animals
feeding on these nuts has great flavour, not unlike expensive Spanish and Italian hams.
The rhino is long gone from Sarawak, but the Penan are still wary of other wildlife.
Borneo's clouded leopard (recently declared a 'new species') is shy and seldom seen, but to
the Penan, the sun bear is the most dangerous animal thanks to its ability to roll into a ball
and bounce down hills to chase after them.
The Penan have hunting rights within Mulu National Park and the newly established
Pulong Tau National Park. A process of enlarging the latter has begun, but there are
practical and political obstacles to overcome.
Penan blowpipes, called keleput, are about 6 feet long and made from one solid piece of
hard wood, often iron wood, in about 2 weeks. The hole is made using a long metal bar
with a screwdriver-like tip, which is simply driven into the wood and turned, over and over.
The Penan often build a jig for this.
Attached to the end of the blowpipe is a metal spear head, attached with rattan and rubber-
like resin. This is used for finishing off large wounded animals and offers protection from
wild beasts. Many Penan clans had a blacksmith once, but now these spears are bought
from outsiders. Much shorter blowpipes are sometimes made for hunting at close range in
The bark of the tajem tree is cut to extract a milky latex that is warmed over a fire to
produce the poison for Penan darts. Sometimes a new batch is started with a little of an old
one or other ingredients like chilli. Tajem interferes with the functioning of the heart,
causing lethal arrhythmias. There are a number of antidotes to the poison, the most
common being drawn from a type of tree creeper.
Blowpipe darts are made from palm fronds with a lightweight stopper to make an air-tight
seal. Darts with metal tips (cut from tin cans) are used for big game like deer and bearded
pig, whilst those for small game are simply sharpened before being dipped in poison.
The Penan carry two knives. The first, a poeh, is large and machete-like and used
frequently. The second, much smaller knife, is a called a darhad and is used for cutting
meat, whittling blowpipe darts and fine work. Both knives are carried close together in
separate sheathes, sometimes wooden, now often plastic.
Forest Sign Language
The Penan like their secrets and have a complex sign language for use in the jungle. A bent
twig stuck in the trail may simply say 'we went this way', but complex arrangements of cut
twigs, sticks and folded leaves can tell the Penan anything from the state of the hunting
locally to whether the person leaving the sign is in a good mood.
Making sago flour is a communal activity, with men, women and children all taking part.
Sago palms can grow up to 12 metres high producing a number of trunks. These are rolled
down to a water source, split and their cores pummelled with wooden tools. The pulp is
then tipped onto rattan mats supported by a wooden frame and stamped on, much like
pressing grapes. Eventually the filtered and condensed starch juice forms a thick paste and
can be transported back to camp where it is dried in blocks above a fire before being shared
The Penan have been converting to Christianity since the 1930s. The Penan were often told
that Christianity was a religion of protection, and for them it is often the act of prayer that
counts (which mirrors the invocation of spirits), not the belief itself. Belief in myths and
spirits are still very strong in some places, although traditional creation myths and concepts
of heaven and hell are seldom discussed.
Festivals are not part of traditional Penan culture, but blood pacts were once undertaken,
usually as part of political agreements between Penan leaders and neighbouring tribes.
Rituals varied, but in some cases leaders would shed blood onto tobacco and then smoke it
together, thus consuming each other's blood and preventing future conflict. A breach of this
pact was believed to cause the vomiting of blood and a violent death.
Similar rituals relate to banishing bad luck in hunting trips or to end a period of
unsuccessful hunts. By smearing their blood onto a sago leaf, folding it and burying it some
hunters believe they can change their fortune.
Trade and Forest Products
Three or four times a year during colonial times the British government arranged trading
missions called tamu close to the forests of the Penan. These tamu were supervised by a
colonial official who regulated trade and insured fair treatment for the Penan. For this
reason the British are remembered fondly for protecting the forest.
At the tamu they offered forest products like damar (now used in eco-paints), rattan mats
and baskets, rhino horn, gaharu wood (or eagle-wood), wild rubber, monkey gallstones (for
Chinese medicine), bills of hornbills, skins, deer antlers and of course meat. These were
traded for manufactured good like knives, cooking pots and shotguns – some Penan still
own colonial era shotguns.
None of these forest products are now abundant, but many Penan will sell surplus meat to
logging camps, make rattan items and collect gaharu wood when they find it. This dark,
scented wood is found as a special growth in the trunk of the Aquilinia gaharu tree. The
growth is triggered in response to injury, a fungal infection or possibly insect activity.
Many unsuccessful efforts have been made to domesticate the process.
Gaharu is used as incense, for medicinal and religious purposes, and as a perfume in the
Middle East, China, Taiwan and Japan. The Penan can get very good money for a kilo of
high quality gaharu, but that can take years to accumulate.
Sarawak was blessed with a high density of large, valuable Dipterocarp trees, which were
the first ones to be extracted. Now a huge proportion of Sarawak's primary forest has been
logged at least once, and over time smaller and smaller trees have been taken in different
logging passes. One reason for this is to produce plywood and other processed timber. The
Sarawak government places a strong emphasis on processing timber to maximise local
profits. Since industrial logging began in the late 1970s technology has evolved to allow
smaller logs to be processed, which is deemed essential to keep up with the demand from
Japan, India and the Far East – only a small percentage of Sarawak timber makes its way to
Europe and the USA.
The companies carrying out selective logging in Sarawak use bulldozers to clear tracks
through the forest and along steep ridges so that specific tree species can be cut and
extracted. Logging crews (and their families) live in wooden huts on giant skids that are
dragged between locations. These techniques were pioneered by James Wong, former
Sarawak minister for the Environment and Tourism.
It's a bitter irony that whilst building tracks along ridges is seen as good logging practice in
the rest of the world, in Sarawak it destroys a lot of sago palm, a staple of the Penan. Badly
planned trails are a recipe for landslides, erosion and silting watercourses
Once the giant trees were removed and the canopy opened, the remaining plant life,
bursting towards the sunlight, undergoes some rapid growth which in places has created
bushy secondary forest. Game is harder to spot and track, plants useful to the Penan are less
plentiful and vital sago palms less abundant. The removal of large fruiting trees takes away
a food source for the Penan and the game. At the same time logging roads give hunting
access to non-Penan hunters.
As Sarawak's natural forests become less productive large areas are being assigned for
acacia and palm oil plantation. In economic terms this makes perfect sense. Acacia trees
can grow 15m in seven years and can re-grow from stumps, so they are very profitable over
the long term. Palm oil is the most productive of all edible oil-producing plants and a
possible biofuel (the EU has set a 5.75% target for transport biofuels). Malaysia produces
50% of the world's palm oil, a trade worth billions, and by 2010 the Sarawak government
hopes to double palm oil plantations to 1 million hectares.
Sarawak's timber industry is worth around £1 billion a year. Some commentators maintain
that logging in Sarawak has always been run by commercial imperatives and profit
maximisation in order to enable the development that will turn Malaysia into a first world
country by 2020. In development terms this would seem to be a logical trade off, but the
marginalised Penan would beg to differ.
Opposition to Logging
Opposition to logging was fierce in the 1980s. Today the picture is more mixed. Some
settled Penan villages see that a positive attitude to logging provides jobs, free transport,
cash compensation, material goods and other assistance. Other communities have an
ambivalent attitude to the logging, opposing logging but turning to logging companies for
help, even if this means setting up a blockade as a negotiating tool. Confrontation with the
loggers is usually non-violent.
The Sarawak government has often stated its desire to address the issue and bring
development to the Penan. There is a minister, Alfred Jabu, with responsibility for the
Penan. Penan communities who have chosen to settle have schools and clinics, and Penan
children do receive some financial help to attend school, but anecdotal evidence suggests
that hand outs from logging companies has much to do with this development.
Almost all nomadic Penan oppose logging and there is a huge gap of understanding and
trust between the Penan and government. At heart, the government can't understand why
anyone would want to live in the jungle and the Penan believe that the government cannot
be trusted. In their experience logging only brings disaster and they believe that if they
leave the forest they will lose it completely. What’s more, whilst they see secondary forest
as bad, having their territories converted into plantation is a catastrophe.
Most experts agree that sustainable logging means cutting 4 - 10 trees per hectare in cycles
of between 25 and 40. Studies elsewhere in Borneo show that in a perfectly managed
forest, sustainable logging need not affect biodiversity: roughly one third of species decline
in abundance, one third rise in abundance and about a third stay the same. However,
repeated logging passes do have a detrimental effect.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) provides the international gold standard for
sustainable logging, which should be environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and
economically viable. Ideally FSC forest is one that can be harvested productively for
generations. The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) is sub-FSC, but does
recognise the need to address the Native Customary Rights (see section following), but
there’s only one MTCC concession in Sarawak, which has complete authority over its
The Sarawak government forestry department makes much of the sustainability of its forest
reserves. However, some observers believe that the low number of big trees being brought
out of the forest and the increasing trend to convert degraded forest into plantation is
evidence that the natural forests of Sarawak are becoming exhausted as a commercial
Malaysia is currently negotiating a Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade
(FLEGT) action plan with the EU which aims to eradicate illegal logging and raise forestry
standards in countries exporting timber to Europe. It remains to be seen how any European
supervision will impact on the logging in Sarawak, which exports little timber to Europe.
Native Customary Rights (NCR)
The Sarawak government claims that under State law no group of people can actually lay
claim to a stretch of land unless they can prove that they cultivated it before 1958. Quite a
few communities have NCR over farmland, but getting NCR over rainforest has so far
proved very difficult. However, some people working on land rights issues say that the
state government's interpretation of the law is too narrow, and hunting, gathering and the
use of jungle produce should also be used to demonstrate a claim to land.
In 2001 Rumah Nor, an Iban community, won a landmark NCR high court case that was
filed against the state government and Borneo Pulp and Paper. The case was turned over
upon appeal, but the court confirmed that native NCR takes precedent over all later
Mapping of a community by NGOs and local communities using hand-held GPS units has
been seen as key to land rights cases. However, the Sarawak government has changed the
law so that no land survey is acceptable unles conducted by licensed professionals who are
registered with the Land Surveyor's Board, a policy that's not seen widely as helpful to
future NCR cases. For now the Penan have no prospect of proving a claim to their ancestral