Borneo: New blockades as Penan resist loggers with blowpipes


Twelve villages in Borneo have joined forces to try and stop the encroachment of logging and plantation companies into their ancestral lands.

This ongoing saga, which we reported on earlier this month, has come to typify the brave efforts of marginalised people trying to protect, what they feel, is rightfully theirs.

According to Survival International, who champion the rights of indigenous people around the world, journalists covering the unfolding events were taken away under the watchful muzzles of machine guns while the Penan tried to hold back the trucks armed with little more than blowpipes.

picture of native people armed with blow pipes trying to block logging lorry

Penan armed with blowpipes blockade a road as Shin Yang logging trucks approach

Photo courtesy of Survival International

Hundreds of Penan have blocked roads at three new locations in the interior of Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. The protestors are demanding an end to logging and plantations on their land without consent and recognition of their land ownership rights.

"They told us earlier this month they were coming to plant palm oil, and I said if you do we will blockade," said Alah Beling, leader of one of the Penan villages.

"They told us we don't have any rights to the land, that they have the licence to plant here. I felt very angry - how can they say we have no right to this land where our ancestors have lived for generations?"

BBC TV presenter Bruce Parry visited the Penan for his popular series, "Tribe". One Penan told him: "It's not true that we do not want progress. Not the progress where logging companies move on to the land. What we want is real progress. What we want is land rights first of all."

Sadly, all of this activity is deemed legal and, further, has the full support of the government. But, this is not a new fight for the Penan. They have been battling the crippling bureaucracy that is depriving them of the fundamentals of their existence - food, shelter and clean water - for over 20 years. The problem has escalated in recent years with the surge in the palm oil plantations that produce the vegetable oil found in processed foods and cosmetics around the world.

The blockades are aimed at forcing the Malaysian timber companies Samling, Interhill, Rimbunan Hijau and KTS to end their activities on the Penan's land without the tribe's consent. One of the earlier blockades, mounted in June at the settlementof Ba Marong, resulted in the withdrawal of a KTS subsidiary from the area, but the Penan fear their return.

In another area the notorious company Samling is advancing on an area of forest that has never been logged. Observers say the road built by the company is likely to reach the remote Ba Jawi region within weeks.

Survival International's director Stephen Corry said: "The logging and plantation companies are preventing the Penan from being able to feed their children. It's no wonder they're taking to the barricades. Penan in some areas are currently receiving food aid - before the loggers arrived, they would never have needed such hand-outs. The Malaysian government must recognise that this land is theirs and stop sanctioning its destruction."