Supporting the Indiginous Penan people of Malaysian Borneo

Adventure Alternative has spent recent years working to support the indigenous Penan people who live in the rainforests of the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo.

A number of villages are represented as a whole, by a central community co-operative, the total number of people represented is estimated at approximately 1000 and will grow as the program slowly expands. The initiative involves providing a sustained source of income for the Penan that compliments their traditional way of life and actively incentivises protection of the natural environment and of their cultural heritage. This income is provided firstly through sensitive and controlled access by small groups of carefully selected paying expedition groups and secondly through funded direct payment of local people for activities associated with active reforestation measures.

Through careful planning, selection and briefing of the expedition groups, the initiative also seeks to instil and reinforce, within the Penan people, that their efforts to maintain their land and culture are of international relevance and importance. This includes aspects in support of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Purpose of the project

The objective of the initiative is to support the Penan tribe in achieving a long term situation where their traditional way of life is allowed to continue in a sustainable and viable way for ongoing generations. At present, their native lands continue to be under considerable pressure by commercial and agricultural activities in the jungle, on their traditional ancestral lands.

Tree planting with a vistor

Tree planting with a vistor

These commercial and environmental pressures have considerable negative effects on their ability to sustain their lifestyle and effectively threatens their future existence as a self-sufficient native population.

These effects include loss of sufficient forest-area to allow sustainable hunting ground for provision of food and for sustainable provision of traditional building materials. The reduction in forest from vast areas of ancient primary forest to secondary forest and plantation zoning has also led to difficulties in locating specific flora for traditional medicinal purposes, as well as affecting basic needs such as clean drinking water. These pressures in turn lead to the potential loss of native skills and knowledge, as these methods become less and less possible or practical to practice.  This represents a considerable loss to both the native Penan culture and also to the wider international knowledge of the forests.

The subtle change from internal self-sufficiency to cash-economy also means that communities are forced to seek paid employment. In a region where the biggest local employers are often those applying pressure to the maintenance of the native forest, this has many additional effects. For example, where local people take employment with a logging company, this can be interpreted as implying tacit consent to logging in their home area. In a region where land-ownership law and administration is very indistinct, this can have devastating results and lead to a continued cycle of destruction.

From the brief details above it can be seen how the value of a carefully administered route to monetary income for the native people can be of huge value. One of the main objectives of the initiative is to provide an alternative source of income over low paid migratory jobs in the city, or closer to the villages in logging camps. The villages now have their own community elected body called the Koperasi Pelancongan Penan Selungo (KOPPES) cooperative. It was the villages themselves that originally asked for help as they realised the potential of community adventure tourism but had no knowledge of how to facilitate this.

The second way that monetary income is provided is by helping to fund a tree nursery and re-forestation project. This project pays local people for collecting seeds, nurturing the saplings in a nursery and then re-planting the saplings in de-forested areas. This has the multiple effect of providing monetary income, providing alternative to employment with commercial companies, nurturing natural knowledge and connection with the forest and of course actively re-planting areas of forest that had previously been damaged or destroyed.

Tree Nursery Full

Tree Nursery

The monetary income for the project is provided through a number of channels: The trip costs of the expedition are paid by participants, some of which goes to local guides, businesses and hosts of home-stays. The expedition members are set a fundraising target which is administered through our partner NGO. Additionally, we now operate our own carbon offset initiative with donations again administered through our partner NGO. Clients are given the option to offset the carbon dioxide associated with their flights via a carbon calculator hosted on the NGO website.

The second main part of the initiative’s objective, perhaps less concrete and tangible, but actually just as important. This is one of a more social and educational bias, one toward universal human rights. The Penan have a naturally very respectful and some ways shy culture. This makes for a wonderful society for its members and for visitors but unfortunately it can lead to a situation where their rights are not fully safe-guarded in the face of strong economic powers such as the palm-oil industry.

In recent times, there have been a few figures within the Penan community who have seen the relevance and need for the Penan to have a voice on the larger national and international stage. Through these individuals and their supporters the Penan are beginning to form this voice. The initiative therefore seeks to nurture and promote this movement in a subtle way that does not change the gentle and respectful nature of Penan culture.

This is achieved by carefully selecting and briefing the groups who take part in the expeditions to interact with the villages. The expedition members would usually split into small groups or pairs and be accommodated in local home-stays. In this way there is natural interaction and social exchange. The expeditioners are briefed in appropriate methods and then actively encouraged to;

  • Reinforce Penan’s confidence that they are relevant to the outside world.
  • Reinforce/Emphasise the Penan’s equal rights in law and society, independent of any lack of literacy.
  • Reinforce to the Penan that their native skills and knowledge are important to retain and nurture.
  • Reinforce that the rainforest is of interest, relevance and importance to the world as a whole.

This can all be achieved by fairly simple methods. In one sense it is conveyed simply through active participation and interest in native Penan culture, beliefs and language. It can also be helped through directed conversation, and then recording the thoughts, feelings and history from local people with regard to logging and deforestation. This point of view can currently be under-represented due to illiteracy and lack of communications. Another method is via a directed ethno-botany project where expeditioners learn the native names and possible uses of the local flora from the villagers. This can then be actively photographed and recorded.

Young Penan boy with tree sapling

One huge advantage of the methods above is that additionally, it does not displace any potential jobs or activities that the local people may draw income from. It also allows the distinct skills and resources of clients to be best used as well as their hosts’. Many of the Penan villagers are illiterate and clearly wouldn’t have access to cameras or methods of storing large amounts of information easily. So the initiative works to a collaborative action where-by all those involved contribute the aspects that are best suited to their skills.

Parties involved in the initiative

Clients are involved in the initiative, initially by fund-raising for any specific group-identified targets. They also then contribute financially by the fact that they are providing income to the local guides and families who they stay with as well as by supporting our own in-country company offices and staff. The clients then actively contribute via volunteering activities and the social interaction exercises outlined above.

Expedition leaders work not only to provide the trip logistics but to pass on their own knowledge and experience of interaction with the Penan. This will include guidance and assistance with the social interaction side of the initiative.

Many other volunteers also provide additional time and resources for the administration and monitoring of the initiative. This includes, in some instances, pursuing possible direct donors and ever-elusive development grants to help support the initiative.

Local Penan village committees and the Koperasi cooperative provide invaluable information, guidance and feedback as to the effectiveness of the various aspects of the initiative.

Individual Penan villagers obviously not only benefit from the initiative but actively engage with it. Many of the villagers collect the seeds and plant the saplings. A number of the villagers also work within the tree nursery looking after the saplings and maintaining the protective netting and nursery area.

Achievements of the initiative to-date

  •  25,000 trees in total from the Shorea genus of trees.
  • Providing members of the community with a small income meaning that fewer are leaving the villages to seek work in the city. Culturally this is significant as it means that more of the younger generations are remaining in the village and an increased population in the villages gives them more leverage when justifying their land rights.
  • Once these planted trees become an appropriate size, they can be used as building materials so that villagers do not need to cut down the larger and more ancient trees.
  • It is hoped that the forests will recover quickly and communities will no longer have to travel so far to hunt, gather or search for medicinal plants.
  • A number of small expeditions have now visited the area and have provided positive feedback on their experiences both as an expedition and in cultural interaction, global awareness and the positive outlook of the local people.
  • In winning the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Sustainable Tourism, Roger Diski Community Project Award, we will receive a bursary that will be used to further the aims of the project.

The bursary will be used to begin work on a ‘pondok’ building, at one of the Penan villages, in which visiting clients, volunteers and visitors would stay. This would be a community administered venture where the locals would build, staff and maintain the pondok as a source of revenue by charging visitors for their accommodation. This is an income-generating venture that the community has previously identified but has not had the capital investment available so far to start it up.

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Once built the ongoing costs of maintenance would be very low, but the initial outlay of money is currently prohibitive to the largely subsistence nature of the local economy. It is hoped that construction of the accommodation pondok would greatly advance progress in the local community’s aspirations toward a sustainable and self-led route to long-term financial stability and independence.

You can read more about the work of Moving Mountains at http://www.movingmountainstrust.com/

And about Adventure Alternative trips to visit the Penan people here

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Supporting the Indiginous Penan people of Malaysian Borneo

  1. this is very laudable and for one who lives in Mindanao, just off Borneo i am hoping to get a glimpse of them when i go to Sandakan ang Kota Kinabalu and as a travel blogger, wishes to commit myself and my blog to this cause. I wanna write about them too 🙂

    great post this is and a laudable project.

  2. Hi Dr. Wends, thank you so much for your response. If you want any more information about the Penan, our project in Borneo or anything else at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We can put you in contact with Tom who runs AA Borneo if you require more info, or even a visit to the area. All the best, Adventure Alternative

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s