Hornbill Unleashed

November 29, 2012

Sarawak gov’t, developers urged to learn Penan ways

Dukau Papau

 Sarawak Land Development Minister James Masing has warned his colleagues in the government and large-scale developers they need a “human touch approach” in dealing with the Penan community as the eyes of the world are watching the government’s moves.

“If we approach big development projects affecting our people in the future in this manner, I am confident that we will be successful and (will be left) with less problems.

“That kind of development approach, with human touch, is the way forward for Sarawak,” Masing (left) said in his winding-up speech on his ministry.
james masing
He said it was important to know the Penan’s cultural practices, especially that of the semi-nomadic Penan, which may be useful to the developers of projects that affect these communities.

“The semi-nomadic Penan are the darlings of the West. In the eyes of the West, they can do no wrong. We cannot influence nor change such perception, at least, not within a short time.

“Therefore, it is important then for us to understand this group of natives who have and will be affected by our development projects, especially in the construction of hydroelectric projects (HEP),” Masing said.

He said at the moment, 1,352 people were being affected by the construction of the Murum dam.

NONE“Small may be the number, but they are constantly hogging the print as well as the electronic media, and at times, this does not put us in a very good light among the international communities.”

Therefore, Masing suggested that it is perhaps time for developers and the Sarawak government to try to understand the Penan cultural nuances better so that they could have a better rapport with the native community.

‘Forests must remain intact’

While professing not to know all there is about the Penan culture, he cited one aspect that required attention, which is the community’s “agricultural practices, or the lack of it”.

Pointing out that the Penan are not sedentary farmers, he said: “They do not cultivate in the manner of the other native communities in Sarawak. They do not cut and clear large areas of forested land and then plant on them.

“But it does not mean that they do not need forested land and jungle for them to survive. Being hunters and gatherers the Penan need pristine jungles and forests to survive as they have done for generations.

penan blockage bakun logging“From the forest they get their meat, from the river they get their fish and from the trees and plants they get their vegetables and jungle produce for their daily needs as well as for their economic necessities.

“They really take great care of their jungle supermarket”.

Thus, Masing said, the community needed the forest to remain intact to ensure their survival and that out of this necessity, the Penan have become the best jungle conservationists “the world has seen”.

“Thus, unnecessary felling of the jungle and trees is discouraged in the Penan community.

“The Penan do not clear the jungle to survive. They keep it intact to live. Consequently, the Penan do not possess land holdings as prescribed in our laws as they do not cultivate as we do.

“If we apply land holding in accordance with our laws, then the Penan will have none or very few lands to their names.

“We cannot, therefore, strictly use our laws as the benchmark to determine land holding among the semi-nomadic Penan community, including those residing in the Murum area”.

Choice of new or old lives

hydropower projects in sarawak 2008 2020 murumTherefore, Masing said, there was a need to use other benchmarks or criteria to compensate the Penans for their loss of lands and forests, which have kept them alive for generations.

“However, it will be wrong to assume that the Penan want to be fossilised in time. It will be wrong to keep them in the forest forever. They, like the rest of us, want to move forward into the modern world; but to move at their own pace,” Masing added.

He believes that it will take at least one generation for the Penan to move from hunters and gatherers to the era of sedentary farming.

“This (Sarawak) government understands that it takes time for the mindset to shift from one era to the next and it is for this reason that, while schools and modern amenities are built for the affected Murum Penan to embrace modern living, about 30,000 hectares of forested land are reserved for the Penans within the Murum reservoir for the elder Penans to hunt and forage.

“They are given a choice to live a life which they want: the old or the new,” he said.


  1. “The Penan do not clear the jungle to survive. They keep it intact to live.”

    Very very true Mr Masing. Taib , you and the rest of you should have realised that years back. Why only after that PPB guy said the Penans are now to be herded like sheep into the NATIONAL PARKS you dare to come up with such a statement? Are you saying that herding them into the National Parks is a good idea because they don’t cut down trees? Well Mr Masing, my Penans brothers do not like climbing fruit trees, they chop them down to get the ripened fruits. Don,t believe me, be a sport and let them have a go in your orchard at the rambutan trees now. I don’t mean to demean my Penan bros. but thats their nature,their practice because they are so used to roaming the vast junggles where there was once plentiful of fruit trees. They moved from place to place following the animals, fruit seasons and so forth. Do you think they can survive in the National Parks? Putting them in the National Parks is not very clever, unless the BN gov’t is willing to open up the National Parks to other Natives who once roam those junggles side by side with their Penan bros. and allow them to do what their Penan bros. are allowed to do in those Parks.

    What happened after the animals,the fruit and palm trees are depleted in those National Parks? Is the gov’t going to replant the fruit and palm trees , re stock every kinds of wild animals in those Parks to make sure our Penan Bros. do not run out of food. What is going to happened to the vast track of junngle already logged by those repressive and greedy Timber Companies? What happened to the Forest Replanting Programme? Please,don’t tell us that these vast track of lands will end up being Oilpalm Plantations of those same timber companies who cut the trees? The Penans and other Natives deserved a much better deal to the junggles we are caliming as ours.

    Our BN Leaders once shouted loud and mighty that the Penans are not some museum pieces for display to the tourist and foreigners. Now isn’t herding them into National Parks the SAME THING?

    Comment by brian — November 29, 2012 @ 1:04 PM | Reply

    • That’s how they killed off the American Indian tribes by herding them into reservations. The “Nation Park” is euphemism for reservations and even more cruel sounding because it is a “park”…… Are Penans animals to be herded into “parks”..?

      Why is the western world so quiet above this genocide going on in our country Sarawak….

      Comment by Anon — November 30, 2012 @ 6:29 PM | Reply

  2. This song is dedicated to Mr. Masing ‘Its too late now baby its too late …..’

    Comment by gagojackman — November 29, 2012 @ 12:03 PM | Reply

  3. Bruno Manser made all these common-sense points over 20 years ago. Masing just swiped them now, for his convenience. And yeah, it’s easy to spout “Respect the Penan” after one has robbed their patrimony and destroyed their livelihood.

    Comment by Reader — November 29, 2012 @ 8:25 AM | Reply

  4. Well said Masing. The Penans are the world greatest forest conservationist. But how does Masing relate this statement with the thousand of hectares of forest land alienated to himself, his wife or nominees? Or rather that statement is only meant for others and not himself

    Comment by Angel Gabriel — November 29, 2012 @ 5:29 AM | Reply

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