Penan community’s ancestral land destroyed

Hundreds of Penan facing eviction to make way for the Murum Dam are horrified to learn that the forest in the proposed resettlement area is being destroyed, reports Tomasz Johnson.

Long Singu, Sarawak - Photo © Lizzie Bardwell courtesy of Molong Post

Hundreds of indigenous people in Borneo who are due to be evicted from their land to make way for a giant hydroelectric dam have discovered that the rainforest they hoped to move to is being destroyed.

The Penan are being forced to move by the Sarawak state government to allow the billion-dollar Murum dam project to go ahead. But the Penan say the the area to which they hoped to relocate is now being cleared for oil palm plantations.

The Murum dam is one of 12 megadam projects the Sarawak government hopes to complete to power its industrial development and economic growth. The plans have proved controversial as they involve the destruction of vast areas of rainforest, uprooting of indigenous people and have already been plagued with corruption.

Around 1,000 Penan are to be moved from their longhouses in the Murum valley, in Malaysian Borneo, against their wishes. They are concerned that the move will further damage their livelihoods and break their deep cultural connection with the rainforest, concerns that have been exacerbated by the development of plantations in the areas they hoped to move to.

In a statement, the committee representing the Penan communities said: ‘It is much disturbing to learn that those areas that we proposed as resettlement area have been parcelled out for oil palm plantations.

‘We have found out that Shin Yang Company has started clearing and felling the forest for oil palm plantation in the Metalon River area without our consent. The clearing of forests by the Shin Yang within the proposed Metalon resettlement area will adversely affect our livelihood in the near future.’

The tribe have lived in the rainforests of Borneo for thousands of years but their livelihoods are being increasingly affected by the rampant logging and development of plantations. Until the 1950s the Penan were nomadic, hunting and gathering in the forest, but almost all have since been encouraged to settle in longhouses and plant crops.

The Penan still rely on the forest for much of their protein, medicine and some wild fruit. The Murum communities hope to move upriver, where some areas of rainforest remain relatively intact, though how much now remains unclear.

When the Molong Post visited the Penan last year they made it clear they had not been consulted over the project and were strongly opposed to relocating.

Alung Ju, head man of Long Singu, said: ‘This is the most difficult time, the most challenging. Before the timber company came to our land life was much better. We lived peacefully in our land. Now we’re going to be moved off our land and we are really worried what will happen to us if the government is successful.’

In 1999, 10,000 indigenous people were relocated to make way for the Bakun dam, around 70km from the site of the Murum dam. More than a decade on, they suffer from poor living conditions in the resettled areas and many have not been fully compensated.

To other communities facing relocation, the Bakun Dam serves as an ominous warning.

Alung Ju said: ‘If they tell us we’re going to be moved like in the Bakun resettlement we will oppose them.

‘We only see the problems of people there. They have to pay for everything; for their homes, for water and for electricity. For us Penan, we will not be able to survive if that happens.’

The Penan committee also reported that large areas of forest in the Murum dam catchment area have been granted as plantation concessions to Shin Yang. It was hoped that the catchment would serve as a reserve that would be untouched by development.

This article is reproduced with the permission of Molong Post

First published on the Aliran website on 14 December 2010

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