Protests by the Penan tribe in Borneo have escalated, with twelve villages coming together to mount new road blockades against the logging and plantation companies that are destroying their rainforest.
Journalists covering at the blockades were intercepted by police with machineguns and taken away for questioning.
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 their consent, and recognition of their land ownership rights.
BBC TV presenter Bruce Parry visited the Penan for his hit series, Tribe. One Penan told him, “It’s not true that we Penan do not want progress. Not the ‘progress’ where logging companies move on to the land. What we want is real progress. What we need is land rights first of all.”
The new protests come only weeks after blockades by two nearby Penan villages. The destruction of their forest robs the hunter-gatherer Penan of the animals and plants they eat and pollutes the rivers they fish in. Without the forest, many Penan have difficulty feeding their families.
The Penan have been struggling for more than twenty years against the logging companies that operate on their land with full government backing. In areas where the valuable trees have been cut down, the companies are clearing the forest completely to make way for oil palm plantations.
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 settlement of Ba Marong, resulted in the withdrawal of a KTS subsidiary from the area – but the Penan fear that the loggers may return.
In another Penan area, the notorious company Samling is advancing on an area of the tribe’s forest that has never been logged before. Observers say that the road built by the company is likely to reach the remote Ba Jawi area within weeks.
Survival’s director Stephen Corry said today, “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 recognize that this land is theirs and stops sanctioning its destruction.”