The Penan: Community In The Rainforest

The Penan have been living at peace
- with themselves and with the Borneo rainforest -
for thousands of years

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 48
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

In the language of Borneo’s Penan tribe, there are forty words for sago palm, and no words for goodbye, or thank you – or thief. The Penan are a nomadic people who view the entire rainforest as their home. They are an "eco-village" on the move, one with a history many thousands of years old. If we all knew and loved the natural world with the intimacy of the Penan, we would not be destroying it willfully.

But the Penan way of life – and the incomparable knowledge they have amassed about how to live in community with the forest and with each other – may soon disappear. In the time it takes to read a paragraph of this text, another three hectares of the Borneo rainforest will have been cut down (as late as 1983, Malaysian logging provided 58% of all tropical log exports on the world market).

The following is excerpted from the book Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest, published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, 20 Water Street, Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 1A4 (US $24.95 postpaid). The Penan have been listed on the Committee’s new Endangered Peoples List; contact the Committee for information about their programs to help this ancient culture survive. Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist and author of The Serpent and the Rainbow. The photographs are by Thom Henley.

[For an updated version of the book, see...]

In Sarawak, the wisdom of an entire people is waiting to be heard. Numbering some 7,600, of whom perhaps a thousand remain deep in the forest following their ancient way of life, the Penan are one of the few truly nomadic rainforest societies of the earth. Related in spirit to the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire and the wandering Maku of the Northwest Amazon, the Penan never practiced agriculture and depended instead on wild populations of sago palm for their basic carbohydrate supply. As hunters and gatherers they traditionally moved through the immense and remote forested uplands that give rise to the myriad affluents of the Baram River in Sarawak’s Fourth Division; isolated populations ranged east across the frontier into Indonesian Kalimantan and north into Brunei.

Like most nomadic peoples of the rainforest, the Penan are egalitarian and nonhierarchical. Their social structure is based on an extended network of obligations, mediated by a host of kin ties and a complex naming system that links the generations even as it aligns the living with the dead. In the absence of social stratification, there are no specialists. Although certain individuals may be more talented than others at specific tasks, the hunting and gathering adaptation demands self-sufficiency, and each person must be capable of participating in every societal activity.

For the Penan the forest is alive, pulsing, responsive in a thousand ways to their physical needs and their spiritual readiness. The products of the forest include roots that cleanse, leaves that cure, edible fruits and seeds, and magical plants that empower hunting dogs and dispel the forces of darkness. There are plants that yield glue to trap birds, toxic latex for poison darts, rare resins and gums for trade, twine for baskets, leaves for shelter and sandpaper, wood to make blowpipes, boats, tools, and musical instruments. For the Penan all of these plants are sacred, possessed by souls and born of the same earth that gave birth to the people.

Identifying both psychologically and cosmologically with the rainforest and depending on it for all their diet and technology, it is not surprising that the Penan are exceptionally skilled naturalists. When a Penan enters a stretch of unknown forest he or she must mal cun uk, or "follow our feelings," a process which defies analysis but which allow the Penan to accomplish phenomenal feats of orienteering. As the Penan explain: "The earthworm can go hungry and the mouse deer become lost in the forest, but never we Penan."

But it is the sophistication of their interpretation of biological relationships that is astounding. Not only do they recognize such conceptually complex phenomena as pollination and dispersal, they understand and accurately predict animal behavior, anticipate the flowering and fruiting cycles of the edible forest plants, know the preferred foods of most forest animals, and may even explain where any animal prefers to pass the night. A recent and cursory examination of their plant lore suggested that the Penan recognize over 100 fruiting trees, some 50 medicinal plants, 8 dart poisons, and 10 plant toxins used to kill fish. These numbers probably represent but a fraction of their botanical knowledge.

A CULTURE OF SHARING

Such figures, impressive as they are, speak little of the spirit of the people. This one must sense in quiet moments, in gesture and repartee, and in dozens of representative actions that become symbols of the space through which these people live and die. To witness a headman distributing a gift of tobacco, the grace with which a hunter stalks his prey, the patience of children who know in the fiber of their being that all the gifts of the forest are to be shared – these moments tell you something of what it means to be Penan.

The greatest transgression in Penan society is see hun, a term that translates roughly as "a failure to share." Dependent on the forest for life, and each other for survival, the Penan have, in effect, institutionalized individual generosity as a means of insulating the group as a whole from the inevitable uncertainties inherent in a hunting and gathering way of life.

In Penan society proper social behavior is learned by example rather than by rigorous discipline, and the importance of sharing is instilled in children from the earliest age. Young boys mastering the use of the blowpipe, for example, are encouraged to carefully divide the cooked meat from the smallest of prey, allotting equal portions to all the other children. In one instance, a young Penan youth who had gone hungry for several days killed a tele, the world’s smallest squirrel, which he cooked and consumed alone. His failure to share provoked not anger but laughter on the part of the adults. They simply bestowed on the boy the name tele, so that he would never forget his transgression.

For all Dayak peoples of Borneo, the concept of private ownership of land did not exist. In the agricultural societies customary law dictated that the community as a whole controlled the resource base. Individual proprietary rights were automatically granted to those who worked the land, provided they fulfilled the incumbent ritual and ecological obligations. This principle of land stewardship is enshrined in the traditional law or adat, a concept that has moral, legal, and religious implications. The subversion of this philosophy, the imposition of a foreign notion of land tenure, and the wresting of control of the land from the indigenous peoples are three dominant themes that have molded Sarawak history since the time of the British.

The Penan believe that the rainforest and its bounty were given to them by the Creator, the God Balei Nge Butun. Their biological adaptation, together with their spiritual beliefs, demands that they exploit the forest in a sustainable manner. Central to their worldview is a sacred obligation to bequeath to the following generations a healthy forest fully capable of providing life to its human inhabitants. As a Penan elder explains, "The land is sacred; it belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, the few who are living, and the multitudes of those yet to be born. How can the government say that all untitled land ‘belongs to itself,’ when there had been people using the land even before the government itself existed?"

Far from being "wild nomads moving through a trackless wilderness," the Penan view the forest as a homeland, an intricate and living network of economically and culturally significant places linking past, present, and future generations. Imposed from their imagination and experience is a geography of the spirit that delineates time-honored territories and ancient routes which resonate with the place names of rivers and mountains, caves, boulders, and trees. A sense of stewardship permeates the Penan culture, dictating consistently the manner in which the Penan utilize and share their environment.

This Penan notion of stewardship is encapsulated in molong, a concept that defines both a conservation ethic and a notion of resource ownership. To molong a sago palm is to harvest the trunk with care, insuring that the tree will sucker up from the roots. Molong is climbing a tree to gather fruit, rather than cutting it down, or harvesting only the largest fronds of the rattan, leaving the smaller shoots so that they may reach proper size in another year. Whenever the Penan molong a fruit tree, they place an identifying sign on it, a wooden marker or a cut of a machete. It is a notice of effective ownership and a public statement that the natural product is to be preserved for harvesting at a later time. These are considered by the Penan to be familial rights that pass down through the generations. In many cases the identifying mark on a particular tree takes the form of two parallel sticks – a sign that acknowledges ownership while inviting the wayfarer to share at the proper time in the bounty of the resource. It is the equivalent of a private property sign that reads "please share wisely" rather than "no trespassing."

Now, driven from their homeland by logging, the Penan face "no trespassing" signs on their own rainforests. Relocated Penan now live in squalid government resettlements and drink from polluted waters.

For any nomadic people, settlement implies the sacrifice of culture. At the core of the relocation effort now under way is an explicit attempt to absorb the Penan into the mainstream of Malaysian society. Prime Minister Datuk Mahathir Mohamad has described this goal directly: "We are asking them to give up their unhealthy living conditions and backwardness for better amenities and a longer and healthier lifestyle." Minister of the Environment and Tourism James Wong – who both owns and regulates logging rights in Sarawak – has reiterated the government’s position: "We don’t want them running around like animals. They have to settle down; otherwise, they have no rights." Clearly, nomadic rainforest dwellers do not fit the Malaysian image of a modern, developing nation.

Wong has also stated that "no one has the ethical right to deprive the Penan of the right to assimilation into Malaysian society," but he ignores the historical fact that the Penan themselves have consistently and deliberately chosen not to compromise their traditions. There has been continuous interaction between the Penan and the outside world since the earliest trading contacts occurred under the British. In recent months, the contemporary Penan Association has made clear its commitment to self-determination. "We are not opposed to all change," Penan spokesman Dawat Lupung has said, "but we want to choose development based on our needs. A new longhouse is fine. But it is not the house of my father, and if it is meant to replace our forest, it means nothing."

In the past, when confronted by aggression, the Penan simply fled into their forests. A peaceful people, they are the only indigenous people in Borneo with no history of headhunting. Language is the filter through which the soul of a people reaches into the material world, and there is no Penan word for "thief" – only the word ava, which designates one who takes another’s head. Thievery, like headhunting, was an exotic act unknown to the Penan. Today, when confronted by an assault on their way of life unprecedented in their history, their language fails them. The understated comment, "That’s what we don’t like," seems to be their ultimate verbal expression of anger. The language of their protest has a muted eloquence that merely hints at the depths of the injustice and misery of their situation.

THE GIFT OF THE PENAN

Sensitivity to nature is not an innate attribute of the Penan. It is a consequence of adaptive choices that have resulted in the development of highly specialized perceptual skills. But those choices in turn spring from a comprehensive view of nature and the universe in which man and woman are perceived as but elements inextricably linked to the whole. It is this other worldview , one in which man stands apart from nature, that now threatens their forest and our world with devastation.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the Penan will be their contribution to a dialogue between these two worldviews, so that folk wisdom may temper and guide the inevitable development processes that today ride roughshod over much of the earth.

One recalls a morning in which a group of visitors shared their "clean food" with Asik Nyelik, a nomadic Penan from beyond the headwaters of the Baram River. The night before, Asik had slept poorly in a bed, and that morning at breakfast, looking rather tired, he sat uncomfortably in a chair. He drank from a glass of water as would a deer, dipping his mouth to the surface. Then came breakfast, a depressing offering of cold canned beans, a sorry looking fried egg, and a slice of tinned sausage. Asik politely looked around the table, then to his plate, then once again at the people eating this food. He rotated his plate, hunting perhaps for an angle from which the food might appear palatable. Backing away from the table with a look of sincere pity, he slipped out of the building and into the forest. An hour later smoke rose from the edge of the forest and Asik was found hunched over a fire, slowly roasting a mouse deer that he had killed with a blade.

Several nights later there was a full moon. It reminded Asik of a story he had heard about some people who had travelled there and returned with dust and rocks. He asked if the story was true. Told that it was, he asked, after a moment of silence, "Why bother?"


A Message From The Penan

The following are excerpts from the words of Penan spokesman Dawat Lupung. His message comprises a significant part of the book Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest.

Not long ago, we were happy.
Things were good.
Our fish were clean. Our food was pure.
Our way of life staying in the forest was good.

As things are now, we are in difficulty.
The land is being destroyed.
Many open places.

These plants are our medicines.
If we ask for medicines from the government,
they give us Panadol. It is already spoiled.
The more we take, the sicker we become.
This is what we don’t like.

We are content to stay on this land,
to make our shelters in this forest.
This is a good life.
But if all these trees are gone,
there is no longer a way for us to stay here.

Trees that are cut down were once
     the shelter of hornbill,
     the home of gibbons,
     the home of langur,
     the home of every single kind of animal
     that lives up high.
Where is their home now?
Gone. Finished!

I wanted to talk with the police about land to save for us to stay alive.
They don’t want to talk. They arrest me.
People who go to talk, go to jail.

The government says we are animals,
- like animals in the forest.
We are not animals in the forest.
We are Penan. Humans.
I myself know I am human.

We want to see the land preserved – a very large area.
Up to how many acres? Up to how many acres?
Up to how many acres?
To enable hornbill,
     to enable deer,
     to enable pig,
     – so they will have a way to stay.

- Dawat Lupung