Beginning in the early 2000s, 63 Penan communities came together to create 23 maps of their territory in the districts of Miri and Limbang in northern Sarawak, near the Malaysian state’s border with Indonesia. Together, these maps cover 10,000 square kilometers (3,860 square miles) — about the size of the country of Lebanon. The maps identify the location of 800 tajem trees, as well as the names of 1,800 mountain summits and ridges and 7,000 streams and rivers, in the Penan ancestral homeland.

For three days in late November 2017, the Penan of the region came together in the village of Long Lamai to celebrate the completion of the maps, the culmination of years of consultation and debate, of mining their ancestral past and charting a course for their children’s future. Each of their villages has now been codified onto a series of maps designed to tell outsiders that these are not just forests filled with trees for the taking — especially important in a place like Sarawak, where only 4.7 percent of the forest remains intact.

“This has never been done before,” said Simon Kaelin, a mapping coordinator with the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF). The organization is named for its founder, a Swiss activist who lived with the Penan and campaigned for the protection of Sarawak’s forests and indigenous people until he disappeared under suspicious circumstances on a trip to Borneo in 2000.

A tajem tree, used to make poison darts, bears the scars of years of use by the Penan. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Until now, though, outsiders, especially those intent on getting to the valuable timber in the territory of the Penan and other indigenous groups, seemed to have one view of these forests: “It was empty,” Kaelin explains. “There were no names.”

Those “empty” maps favored the interests of the timber industry and its enablers in the state government, says Lukas Straumann, executive director of the Bruno Manser Fund, and that’s led to showdowns with the Penan over control of their forest home.

“It’s an iconic battle,” he says. “They’re the last remaining hunter-gatherers in Borneo.”

Outside interests have jockeyed for control of Sarawak’s forests for at least a century, dating back to Britain’s colonial control of the territory. But by Straumann’s estimation, the ascension of Abdul Taib Mahmud in 1981 to the post of chief minister of Sarawak sealed the fate of the state’s forests. In 2014, Straumann published a book, “Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia.” In it, he calculates that Taib and his family amassed a fortune of $15 billion through the corrupt distribution of licenses to log Sarawak, including substantial parts of Penan land.

Taib stepped down in 2014, but Sarawak’s forests are still under threat, BMF contends. Between 2001 and 2016, Sarawak lost nearly 22 percent of its tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch. Although not all of that loss is complete deforestation, statistics from Global Forest Watch demonstrate that most of that tree cover disappeared from natural forest in 2016.

The current chief minister, Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, has pledged to protect 80 percent of Sarawak’s land as primary or secondary forests; but until they see the plans, many conservation groups are doubtful about whether the promise will pan out.

For decades, timber has provided a continuous income stream for those able and willing to extract and sell the trees. For decades, the Penan have resisted, in a bid to preserve their way of life that depends on the forest.

The maps identify important waypoints, display culturally significant pictures, and include a cultural story relevant to the group of communities found on each of the 23 maps. Image courtesy of the Bruno Manser Fund.

‘You have a map’

The indigenous community in Sarawak has had its successes. The Penan banded together with members of the Kayan and Kenyah ethnic groups in a multi-year campaign against a hydropower dam project on the Baram River. (The Ba Balong is a tributary of the Baram.) The dam would have forced as many as 20,000 people to move permanently from their homes. But, in apparent response to local and international pressure, the government scrapped the project in 2016.

That’s why these maps, demonstrating the importance not just of the forests to the Penan, but also of the Penan to the survival of the forests, are so important, Straumann says. During the nine-hour drive from the port city of Miri to Long Lamai on bone-jarring logging roads cut from the land where Sarawak’s forests once stood, he pointed to the dense green extending to the horizon. In some spots, the scars from timber extraction or tidy rows of oil palm, Southeast Asia’s ubiquitous crop and economic engine, were visible, especially along the roads. But as we approached Penan territory, views from the hill crests revealed that dense green mats of jungle still stretch, seemingly to the horizon.

“If they hadn’t fought, all that forest would be gone,” Straumann says.

Before the maps, the Penan’s claim hadn’t been established on paper, instead existing in a fluid system of traditional land management with an emphasis on sharing resources rather than outright ownership. Indeed, on the new maps, village boundaries are sketched out with dotted lines rather than solid ones, “to create as little controversy as possible,” Kaelin says. It’s a system that has worked for hunter-gatherers transitioning from nomadism to farming throughout the 20th century. But its flexibility has few answers to the finality of industrial-scale logging and more recent threats like industrial oil palm.

Now, Straumann believes the maps will help the Penan demonstrate the extent and importance of their territory as timber companies march closer. With that tool, the Penan have a better chance to hold on to what’s theirs.

The project began in 2002, when the Bruno Manser Fund partnered with a Penan organization called Keruan. Keruan took the lead in bringing together the participating communities to validate the information that the BMF-trained Penan cartography team came up with. BMF said teams visited each village five times or more between 2007 and 2016 to double-check locations, add GPS points and other missing information using a mapping drone, and secure the approval of the headman for the resulting maps.

The maps detail the local environs, highlighting the locations of rice paddies and gardens and primary forest and forest recovering from timber extraction, as well as schools, airports, bridges and camps. They also highlight the locations demonstrating the Penan’s connection to the land: hunting camps and the salt licks where quarry like deer and pigs tend to congregate; the trees to make blowpipes and of course extract the tajem’s poison; and copses of sago palm trees. They have sidebars with photographs and a fable or story of significance to the local people, and a spot where the headmen have marked their approval, typically with a thumbprint in the lower right-hand corner.

The Penan are more sedentary than they once were, typically sticking to established communities with stilt longhouses, schools and health clinics. Most people tend rice paddies near the villages. But their heritage runs deep. They still make flour from the sago palm tree, a staple that has sustained the Penan for generations. And adept hunters still walk among them, including the one who killed the bearded pig served up to guests at the celebration.

Long-tail boats deliver guests of Long Lamai upriver for the celebration in November. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

‘You have land’

There, in a speech to the group after a procession through the community, Komeok Joe, who heads Keruan and whose mother was born in Long Lamai, shared his thoughts on why the maps are such a critical tool.

“You have a map, you have land, you have rights,” Komeok told the gathered crowd.

On Nov. 17, the week prior to the Long Lamai celebration, he and a delegation including several of the participating communities’ headmen, took a set of maps to the deputy chief minister of Sarawak and the director of the forestry department in the state capital of Kuching.

“We want the government to take note of the maps,” Komeok told The Star newspaper on Nov. 21.

Government authorities can now see in plain detail where the Penan’s territory extends. But just as important, Komeok says, the maps are a guide to their heritage.

“Without this map, we will not know our origin,” Komeok said. That’s so important for the young people, he added, because “It helps us have the knowledge to preserve the forest, to keep the forest intact.”

‘You have rights’

Throughout the celebration weekend, discussions meandered, like the winding river next to the village, through the subjects of sovereignty and control of one’s land. Few places embody this ethos more than Long Lamai, according to the people who live there. There are no roads that reach the village boundaries, and that’s intentional. If visitors want to come, they can choose between a one-hour jungle trek on foot or a 45-minute river trip by long-tail boat. And that’s typically after a dusty (or muddy, depending on the season) daylong journey by pickup truck from the coastal city of Miri to get to the Ba Balong River. The relatively easy access that loggers have to get in their equipment and get out their trundling timber-laden trucks elsewhere in Sarawak doesn’t exist around Long Lamai.

But the decision to maintain such seclusion is not unanimous. Some community members would like a larger measure of modernity, beyond what they get from a small, recently installed hydropower system and a few small solar panels. But right now, at least, the majority consensus supports the control they have over who comes in and what happens to their forest with no road to connect the village to the outside world.

While timber companies are still active, degraded lands in Sarawak are increasingly turned into oil palm plantations. A truck, pictured here, delivers fresh fruit bunches to a palm oil mill. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

That measure of control that the maps represent, now shared by all 63 communities, drives the growing excitement of the celebration. It reached a fever pitch on the final evening as Straumann and Komeok passed out boxes of maps and small keepsake plaques to each headman.

The leaders were clad in dress ranging from the traditional loincloth wrapped through the legs (and little else) to T-shirts and button-down shirts. Emboldened by the power they feel they now hold with the maps, they debated the wording of their “Long Lamai Declaration,” which they would later share with local authorities. It’s meant to serve as a reminder to authorities that, when Malaysia signed the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, the government committed to obtaining communities’ free, prior and informed consent before companies could start harvesting timber.

Many say this still hasn’t happened yet in Penan territory. Without that consent, the U.N. document states that indigenous peoples should be entitled to recompense for land lost to companies. In that vein, the Penan on that evening voted to strengthen one line of their own declaration to read, “All of the money stolen from Sarawak’s indigenous peoples should be returned.”

As each headman was recognized and received a set of maps to take back to his community, the audience yelped with delight. The headmen themselves started to dance after shaking hands with Straumann, and one was so emphatic that his plaque went flying and shattered on the floor of the longhouse, to roars of laughter from the crowd.

Each of the 63 communities received a set of the maps covering 10,000 square kilometers of Penan territory. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

“It’s your right to have these maps,” Kaelin said. He implored them, “Don’t be scared to use them.”

It was a cathartic moment. The Penan are proud of their struggles against the outside interests that have threatened their homeland going back to at least the 1980s. But in many ways, the moment was without precedent. As Long Lamai’s headman, Bian Belare, said, “It is the first time in history that representatives from so many different Penan communities have come together to celebrate our culture and to discuss the future of our people.”

As headman after headman explained throughout the weekend, the celebration is also an acknowledgement that the Penan have always felt the game was rigged, with more power and more information in the hands of the loggers and their supporters in the state government. Now, however, they have the maps. They don’t overturn that dynamic, but they do give the Penan a strong hand to play as the push to log their lands — or to grow oil palm or rubber, or to flood their homes for a hydropower dam — will certainly come again.

Banner image of the Penan on a procession in Long Lamai by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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Article published by John Cannon
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