Friday, June 26, 2015

The tribe saving Borneo’s forests


Once the nomadic hunter-gatherers of Borneo, the Penan are now eco-warriors fighting to protect their jungle home.

The rainforest was taking its toll. With humidity hovering around 100%, I was trying to keep up with our fleet-footed guide as I played a jungle version of whack-a-mole, flicking lecherous leeches off my rubber shoes with a salt-tipped stick. A stream of sweat poured off my chin to the damp forest floor below.

Our guide Sia Ngedao and I waited for my two trekking companions who, unaccustomed to the humidity, were bringing up the rear. Pele, a heavily bearded Swedish man who looked like a giant, had been intermittently freaking out over anything to do with sweat and bugs, while his girlfriend, Lisa, calmed him down with her serene demeanour.

We hadn’t even reached our lunch spot and I could tell that Ngedao had given up on us attaining our goal for the day.

“The man cannot walk,” he said sombrely as we waited for Pele to finish his third litre of water that morning. “We will not make it to the village today. We will sleep in the forest.”

We were on a five-day trek with community tourism programme Borneo Penan Adventure in Borneo’s Upper Baram region, in Sarawak state. It’s one of the few areas of primary rainforest remaining on an island that was once fully carpeted. It’s also home to one of Borneo’s many tribes, the Penan.

Historically, the Penan people were Borneo’s nomadic hunter-gatherers, moving into areas with plentiful food sources such as sago palm and wild boar. Today only a handful of the 10,000 to 12,000 remaining Penan are genuinely nomadic, with the majority living in villages.

Logging companies, palm oil plantations, hydroelectric dam projects and government corruption have all played a role in decimating the Penan’s forest home, with the deforestation of Sarawak’s primary growth estimated to be close to 90%. With the loss of their land, the Penan fear they will lose their independence. Borneo Penan Adventure offers several itineraries aimed at combating this destruction through sharing the tribe’s way of life.

Our group was travelling through a handful of the 17 villages in Upper Baram’s Penan Peace Park, a 163,000-hectare area established in 2009 to protect the local rainforest from large-scale logging.

Many younger generations, including some of Ngedao’s own children, have had to leave the area to find work in nearby cities or at logging camps, but the Peace Park and the Borneo Penan Adventure excursions, are giving them new options to stay. Now they can get involved in guiding, selling handicrafts, boat driving and working as porters.

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