Monday October 6, 2008 The StarOnline, Malaysia
A neglected people
THE Penan’s protracted resistance to deforestation and the international attention the tribe continues to receive must have irked the Sarawak government.
The state government continues to dismiss their concerns over the loss of forest resources brought on by industrial logging that degrades the forest and pollutes the rivers.
At the height of the international anti-tropical timber campaign in the late 1980s, the state set up a Penan Affairs Committee to help the nomadic tribe to lead a settled life with promises of socio-economic development. The state announced allocations worth millions of ringgit.
Two decades later, the benefits remain elusive for many Penans. The rapid expansion of acacia and oil palm plantations eats into their ancestral land. To top it off, the natives are becoming illegals with many not having official documents.
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has raised the issue of poor MyKad registration which complicates the issuance of birth certificates.
Suhakam has thus far failed in persuading the state government to resolve the land rights issue inflicting every native group in Sarawak.
In recent years, the Penans are turning to the court of law to stop further encroachment.
But the nomadic Penans face a tough battle in claiming native customary rights (NCR) as the Sarawak Land Code 1958 states that one cannot stake a claim for NCR if one had not cultivated that piece of land before Jan 1, 1958.
In May 2007, further restrictions were imposed when the clause “any other lawful method of establishing land claim” in Section 5(2) was dropped. Lawyers had previously used that provision to argue for a broader interpretation of land use.
“When environmental groups suggest setting aside forests for wildlife, the state will agree but when we demand for our forests to be protected, we are ignored. It seems that the wildlife living in the forests are more valued than us humans,” notes a young Penan.
Although disillusioned, the Penans remain hopeful.
As Balan Jon of Long Item puts it: “It’s not only our livelihood but our culture and survival as a tribe has been affected for so long. We’ll die if we continue to be neglected.”