Sarawak Peoples Campaign

The Penans of Sarawak

The Penans are one of the few remaining nomadic peoples of the rain forest. They live in a place of indescribable beauty, a diverse forest intersected by rivers and the world's most extensive network of caves and underground passages.

The world of the Penans is threatened. Their homeland in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is undergoing one of the highest rates of logging on earth. The destruction of the forest is forever altering the lives of the Penans and the other indigenous peoples of Borneo.

Some Penans are also threatened by a massive dam project. The proposed Bakun dam will flood 70,000 hectares of land, displacing indigenous peoples and wildlife and destroying even more rain forest.

The following tells the story of the Penan people of Borneo. It consists of a main text on two consecutive pages, and a number of "side pages" that you may visit as you choose. These texts are best read in order; however, if you wish to jump around, here are links to different subject areas.

Borneo and Sarawak

Borneo straddles the equator and is the third-largest island on earth. Its territory is shared by three Southeast Asian countries. The Indonesian province of Kalimantan comprises the southern two-thirds of the island. Sarawak lies in the northwest, and northeast of it is Sabah, another Malaysian state. The tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei is also located on the island's north coast.

Borneo is home to several dozen distinct ethnic groups, almost all of whom are settled and farm rice. Only a few Penans maintain a nomadic existence. These last nomads live in Sarawak.

More on the history and people of Sarawak

The Forests of the Penan

Eighty percent of Borneo is covered in tropical rain forest, one of the oldest and richest ecosystems on earth.

The biodiversity of tropical forests is astounding. An acre or two of temperate woodland usually contains no more than a dozen tree species. In the tropics the same area of land may support as many as 300. A scientific study once found twenty-three thousand forms of life in a single square mile of tropical rain forest. Another study found more kinds of ants in one tropical tree stump than had been reported for all of Great Britain. The number of insect species in tropical rain forests has been estimated to exceed thirty million.

Many of the life forms on Borneo are unique to the island. About one third of its plant species are found nowhere else on earth. Thirty of its birds are endemic, as are thirty-nine of its terrestrial mammals. Borneo is home to scattered populations of rare and endangered animals such as the Sumatran rhino and the orangutan. One entomologist working in Borneo identified some 600 species of butterflies and caterpillars in a single day. Another reported over a thousand species of cicadas.

More on the oldest forests on earth

A Gentle Egalitarianism

Traditional Penan society is nomadic and survives by hunting and gathering. Only a handful of such societies remain on earth. The nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle represents the original human condition, and was the way our own ancestors lived for millions of years.

Until a few decades ago, thousands of Penans wandered through the forests of Borneo's interior. Today, only a small number of them continue to practice this ancient lifestyle. Yet while most Penans now have permanent homes by the riversides, they continue to make long journeys into the forest to collect food, medicine, and other jungle products. The physical and spiritual well-being of all Penans, whether nomadic or settled, depends on the survival of the forest.

The Penans, like other nomadic hunter-gatherers, enjoy an egalitarian society. There are no social classes or hierarchies. There is no wealth or poverty, and all food is shared. Each band has a headman who acts as a spokesperson but wields no power. Although certain tasks are reserved for men and others for women, there is no obvious sexual inequality, and neither sex exercises coercion over the other. Both men and women are gentle and soft-spoken. Outsiders who observe them are invariably struck by the complete absence of violence among the Penan.

More on Penan society

The Blowpipe and the Tree of Life

The nomadic Penans practice neither agriculture nor animal husbandry. Although they keep pets, there is a strict taboo against eating any domesticated animal. Thus all of their dietary protein comes from hunting and fishing.

The Penans hunt and eat a wide variety of forest animals, including birds, squirrels, monkeys, lizards, and barking deer. But the most prized game animal is the bearded pig. Sometimes weighing more than a hundred kilos, one of these animals can supply enough meat to feed a nomadic group for several days.

The traditional hunting weapon of the Penan is the blowpipe. A marvel of indigenous technology, the blowpipe, or keleput, is lighter and more accurate than a shotgun, is manufactured from forest materials, and uses ammunition that is readily replaced. The darts kill silently, allowing a hunter in certain instances to drop several animals or, alternatively, to take a second shot should the first miss.

The darts are dipped in a poison called tajem, prepared from the latex of a certain tree. Unlike curare, a muscle relaxant from the Amazon which kills by causing suffocation, tajem interferes with the functioning of the heart, causing lethal arrhythmias. While small creatures such as birds and squirrels die almost instantly from the effect of the poison, large animals like pig may live for many minutes before finally succumbing. During this time the hunter quietly tracks the dying animal.

Animals are abundant in most of the world's tropical forests, but sources of carbohydrate are generally hard to find. The forest peoples of the Amazon achieve balanced diets by keeping gardens, a practice that anchors them to one place. But many parts of Southeast Asia are blessed with a remarkable wild tree, a resource that provides the basis for a nomadic existence.

The sago palm is a fast growing tree whose pithy trunk is loaded with starch. The most common species has multiple trunks. The Penans harvest the largest of these, carefully preserving the smaller shoots for future harvests. Once felled, each trunk is cut into sections and rolled down the hillside to a source of water. There it is split and the soft pith is pounded and frayed with a wooden mallet. The fibrous pulp is placed on a finely woven rattan mat which rests on a raised frame. It is kneaded with the feet as water is poured over it, and the starch filters through the rattan and settles as thick white paste on the surface of a lower mat. The wet starch is later dried over a fire to produce the actual sago flour.

While only males go hunting, men, women, and children all help in the production of sago.

Sago making is one of the world's most efficient ways of making a living. A family can process enough sago in one day to feed itself for a week. If leisure time is a measure of affluence, the nomadic Penan are among the richest people on earth.

Read about the "healing forest"

Go on to the second section of the main text