Malaysia’s Indigenous Penan Threatened By Energy Development

For hundreds of years the Penan, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers in what is now the Malaysian state of Sarawak, lived as nomads in the ancient forests on the tropical island of Borneo.  Penan hunters pursued Borneo bearded pigs and other large animals with blowpipes, and made flour out of native sago palm trees.  Today around 10,000 Penan still live in the forests of Sarawak, but like many indigenous peoples their traditional way of life is being quickly altered by Western culture. 

In the latest development, 1,000 of Borneo’s Penan are facing imminent displacement by a hydroelectric dam, even as the quickly expanding palm oil industry encroaches on other parts of their territory.  Their dilemma has prompted an international outcry, with human rights groups like Survival International calling on the Sarawak and Malaysian governments to respect the right of the Penan to live undisturbed on their traditional lands.

Though once nomadic, most Penan now live in stationary houses and have taken up agriculture to some degree.  However many groups still rely on the forest as a source of meat and plant foods, and thus for their very survival.  Now residents of six Penan villages have been told by the Sarawak government that they must move to make way for the Murum Dam, a massive hydroelectric project that will bury their homes under a reservoir used to generate electricity. 

The Penan have insisted that if they must move, they should be allowed to continue living in part of their traditional territory.  However the state government, while officially agreeing, has sold off the site marked as a future home for the Penan to a palm oil company called Shin Yang.  This company has begun converting the ancient rainforest to oil palm plantations, feeding the global demand for palm oil which is used as both a health food ingredient and a biofuel.

“Shin Yang has entered the area illegally, without our consent,” says a statement from the affected Penan villages.  “If it is allowed to extensively clear and fell the forest, there will be no more forest left for our community to sustain our livelihood.” 

The palm oil industry is one of the largest causes of deforestation in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia.  Expanding oil palm plantations are destroying the habitat of endangered species like orangutans and the Sumatra tiger, while clearing the forests adds to climate change.  Oil palm plantations are also displacing traditional farmers and indigenous peoples, with the Penan villages now under threat being merely the latest victims.  Squeezed between two sources of deforestation, the Penan have been left with nowhere to go in their traditional territory.

“Even by the appalling standards of the Sarawak government, which has treated the Penan with contempt for decades,” said Survival International’s Stephen Corry on Tuesday, “this is breathtakingly cynical. Not only is [the government] forcing more than 1,000 people from the forests they have lived in for generations, it has sold off the area it promised them as a new home, and is allowing it to be cleared for plantations.”

Meanwhile the need for intact stretches of forest is only likely to increase as even more of Sarawak’s indigenous inhabitants are displaced by large hydroelectric projects.  The Murum Dam is the first of a series of twelve dams the Sarawak government plans to build, many of which will displace groups of Penan and other indigenous groups.  At the same time that these displaced villagers will be looking for new land to occupy, palm oil companies are eating up the area’s remaining forest.

While the future looks bleak for the Penan, international attention directed at the Sarawak government could shift the outcome of their struggle for survival.  Public opinion has swayed Malaysian officials before when it comes to large energy projects, for instance when the government cancelled plans to build a coal plant in the heart of the Malaysian rainforest.  The ability of the Penan and other indigenous groups to carry on their traditional way of life may now lie with the international community, which can choose to come to their aid.

Photo credit: