Sarawak's Penan mapping their way to land rights recognition

Komeok Joe (left) explaining one of the maps he helped produce at a press conference in Kuching today. – The Malaysian Insight pic, November 20, 2017.

SARAWAK’S last nomadic tribe, the Penan, have again pressed the state government to recognise their customary rights to land and a forest sanctuary they want called Baram Heritage Forest, by presenting to the government a “detailed community map” 15 years in the making.

A group of nine Penan chiefs, led by Ajeng Kiew, a penghulu of Baram Sungai Patah, flew from the remotest parts of Baram to present the set of 23 maps to Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas last Friday at the state legislative assembly building.

For some of the Penan chiefs, it was the first they had ventured away from their forest homes, let alone fly in a plane.

“For us Penans, it is a historical achievement to have produced these maps,” Komeok Joe, spokesman for the chiefs and the map’s production coordinator, said today.

“The maps shows where we have foraged and lived. It shows the boundary of our nomadic range, where we have settled temporarily, our land use and even where we bury our dead.

“These are details you will never find in a Land and Survey Department map,” he said.

The other details in the high-resolution topographic maps include locations of their “lamin” – old nomadic camps – poisonous trees, trees they use to make their blowpipes, salt licks and sago palms. Sago is a staple food for the Penan.

Joe said the maps, the printing of which was financed by Swiss environmental conservation group the Bruno Manser Fund, showed the 63 Penan villages in a 10,000 sq km area near the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

“We just want recognition for our land,” Joe said.

He said details for the maps were collected orally from village chief and elders, whom he called “forest scientists”, and historical documents.

“They know every tree, every plant, what is edible, what is poisonous and what has medicinal properties to cure what ailments.

“These maps are far better than any map produced before this. This is our heritage. These are documentary records of our culture and of our relationship with the forests.”

In 1995, the Penans – the majority of whom are semi-nomadic while about 100 or so continue to live the lifestyle of their ancestors – protested to former chief minister and current Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud, for granting logging concessions to land in Ulu Baram they claimed as their foraging areas.

In 2015, they appealed to Taib’s successor, Adenan Satem, to recognise a primary forest covering 1,630 sq km in Ulu Baram as the Penan Peace Park.

Adenan had reportedly agreed to listen to the proposal but died before he could.

“Probably 60% of what the world needs is in this land the Penans are roaming,” Joe said.

He said it was for this reason that the maintenance of biodiversity as well as the recovery of the forest should be promoted through sustainable farming practices and sound management.

“We are committed to living up to our promise to our ancestors to preserve our land. That is why we are appealing to Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg to recognise our rights.” – November 20, 2017.

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