Surrounded by wilderness
Everywhere you look, there’s life. Trees, some of them wrapped in vines, crowd together, discouraging exploration off the muddy track. And slender trunks shoot up into the misty canopy above, where birds and monkeys can be heard in the branches.
A green wall of trees enshrouded in mist
The air itself is damp and smells of earth and moldering vegetation. The rainforest has a strangely eternal feeling. It seems as if it has been here forever and will be here long after we are all gone. But the truth is, the future of this teeming ecosystem is far more uncertain.
The traditional jewelry of the Penan women
The lush, pristine rainforest of Upper Baram, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, is currently the focus of a battle. On the one hand are the Penan tribe, who have lived here for centuries; on the other are those seeking to log the area and develop the jungle into profitable oil palm plantations. As in any war, there have been casualties, although so far they have been one-sided, with the Penan people suffering death, injury and incarceration for their protests. Now, at least, there’s some hope for a peaceful solution: the Penan Peace Park, an initiative taken on by the Penan people and their supporters.
Setting up camp
For his Green Wall series, photographer Julien Coquentin spent two weeks in Sarawak photographing the Penan and their rainforest home. “I wanted to make a series of photographs on deforestation and the expansion of palm plantations,” Coquentin tells us. “To do so, I came into contact with different organizations working in the region, including the ‘Bruno Manser Fund.’ That’s how I learned about this beautiful and fragile project called the Penan Peace Park.”
A Penan fisherman in action
“Green Wall is a photographic series that required a lot of research, networking and organization,” continues Coquentin. “I already knew the area, but I wanted to understand the specific problem more accurately, without being Manichean or playing into the myth of the ‘noble savage’.”
A bird’s eye view of the Sarawak jungle
The Penan people are an indigenous, historically nomadic group who live mainly in the jungles of Sarawak – although there’s also a small community in Brunei. They live by hunting and foraging according to their molong philosophy, which means never taking more than they need. It’s a lifestyle that has seen them live in tune with the environment around them, causing minimal damage to the local ecology.
Many previously nomadic Penan people were settled by missionaries after WWII.
“Over the centuries, they have learned to understand the forest so intimately that it has become a natural and crucial extension of their culture,” Coquentin explains. “When the Penan walk in the forest, they leave behind them numerous ‘fingerprints’ for those who come afterwards. It’s an inextricable network of signs that shows where they have been. Finally, they shape the forest as the forest shapes them.”
Could this area soon become spoiled?
Yet even the depths of an ancient rainforest cannot escape the modern world and its demands forever. In the 1960s, the loggers began to move in at the invitation of the Malaysian and Indonesian governments. The loss of the Penan’s traditional sources of food – from sago palms to wild boar – and the pollution of their water supplies proved devastating. So, after a while, they began to fight back.
A Penan man scrapes off a sliver of his fingernail with a machete to determine wind direction.
In the 1980s, there were numerous clashes between the various indigenous people in the area and the logging companies – which were supported by the local authorities. The Penan, Kelabit, Iban and Kayan groups blocked roads in a desperate attempt to stop loggers entering their territory. However, the government fought back by making road obstruction a major offense and inflicting serious consequences on protestors including imprisonment and beatings. A number of deaths were also reported. Still, despite this, the Penan continue to create blockades, with occasional success.
A torrential downpour
The conflict between local tribes and the government-backed logging and plantation companies continues today. There is also the threat of a new dam system, which will be built on Penan land and is expected to cover a minimum of six indigenous villages in water.
The local government, led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, has introduced environmental areas from which loggers are supposed to keep clear. In reality, though, this legislation is not enforced, and tree felling continues. Various allegations of corruption and an investigation by Japanese tax authorities suggest that the Minister and his cohorts are benefiting from the profits of logging.
Rivers are an important source of water for the Penan people.
Putting aside the alleged corruption within the government and the local forestry industry, it’s unlikely that economics will ever cease to be a part of any negotiations over the right to the land. Coquentin says that he understands “the desire of the people of Southeast Asia to reach a level of development that will enable them to have good jobs, healthcare and schooling for their children. Timber trade and palm oil are part of this goal.”
The bare necessities of life
“However, I also believe that in the long term it is essential for the people of the island of Borneo to preserve their forests,” continues Coquentin. “This is their history and the wealth ultimately belongs to all. What is being destroyed by short-term logic is irredeemable.” Unfortunately for the indigenous tribes of Borneo, battling against the government and encroaching industry is a long and costly process, “and during this time,” says Coquentin, “exploitation continues to increase.”
Hide and seek
Although the situation may seem hopeless, the Penan people have come up with a solution they say will benefit all sides. A group made up of 18 different villages has proposed the idea to create the Penan Peace Park in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak. This park will be administered by the Penan to ensure the protection of their culture together with the environment and its biodiversity while also maintaining a sustainable income for the area.
Penan hunters with blowpipes
One section of the Penan Peace Park charter calls for the preservation and revitalization of the Penan language, which is distinct from that of the surrounding tribes. According to the charter, the Penan’s traditional knowledge and belief systems, products of their long history in the region, would also be preserved and passed down to the younger generation.
On the lookout
Peace Park activists hope to secure and preserve the remaining primary rainforest in the Upper Baram region. They plan to clean up the polluted water sources within the area and manage the surrounding agricultural land sustainably. Where possible, they also aim to restore secondary forest growth. And all this will be done while educating the general public on the importance of rainforest conservation.
The intrusive sight of a logging truck
Great consideration has also been given to the economic development of the region, which is the government’s prime reason for allowing logging and plantations in the rainforest. The charter proposes the manufacturing of non-timber rainforest products (such as essential oils) as well as the potential for community-based tourism.
Penan people also hunt with guns – although officially they’re prohibited.
“The Penan Peace Park charter is a way for people to regain control over their lives,” says Coquentin. “Inspired by ‘the declaration of indigenous rights’ it provides the possibility to preserve their culture, with added environmental, cultural and economic benefits.”
A hunter uses leaves to make a noise for attracting prey.
But Coquentin still has doubts over whether the plan will be accepted. “Unfortunately, the areas in question have already been allocated to logging companies, and it will be very difficult for the population to establish the Penan Peace Park,” he says.
Repairing a bamboo water pipe that carries water to the village
On October 2, 2012, there was some good news for supporters of the Penan Peace Park. Malaysia’s highest judicial court, the Federal Court, ruled that the Penan of the Long Lamai region (part of the proposed Penan Peace Park) have the right to present a claim for their land. Veteran land rights lawyer and politician Baru Bian will represent the Penan in their land rights litigation against an arm of logging company Samling Global, which currently holds the land. If the Penan win, it will be a huge step forward for indigenous rights in Sarawak.
A Penan burial site, which will soon be reclaimed by the jungle
We asked Coquentin how he thought the Penan people felt about their present situation. “They seemed very dark about the present but also optimistic about the future,” he replied. “They expect a lot from their political representative in the region, Baru Bian, who I had the opportunity to interview during my stay.”
A Penan mother prays for her sick child at Mass.
Coquentin went on to explain how Bian can help the Penan cause. “For many years, Baru Bian defended native populations whose customary rights were violated. Step by step he succeeded in imposing himself on the political spectrum.” He also added, “Many Penan hope that the Chief Minister’s departure from power after 30 years will be a new beginning for them, a revival.”
A sign of the times: Rainforest land converted into oil palm plantations
We thank Julien Coquentin – who braved high humidity and monsoonal downpours – for sharing his stunning photographs and insight with us.