The small Penan community, some of whom are still nomadic, who claim to be adversely affected by logging and plantation activities in the Baram region of northern Sarawak will send a memorandum soon to the chief minister and prime minister, highlighting their present predicament with an urgent appeal for help to protect their well-being and livelihood from the forests.
This follows a series of angry demonstrations with the setting up of road blockades, since March this year, against logging and plantation companies given licences and rights by the state government affecting areas which the Penan one of Sarawak's 27 ethnic groups found mainly in the Baram area and Limbang claim encroach their communal land.
They are now calling on the government to gazette communal forest areas for every Penan settlement so they can go in and hunt for food and collect firewood and timber for their own use.
The affected areas are in Tutoh/Apoh and Akah/Patah in mid Baram, part of Miri division, inhabited largely by the Penan as well as Kayan and Kenyah communities.
The latest incident resulting from the erection of a blockade across a logging track the authorities described such road blockades as illegal led to the arrest of 31 from a Kayan community in Sungai Apoh recently.
The government, apparently embarrassed by the publicity, tried to downplay the issue, and the authorities also tried not to appear hush in dealing with the angry indigenous groups involved in the timber blockades which are continuing in most parts of the Baram.
Still in custody
In the incident, a Chinese logging camp manager was said to have been held against his wishes for sometime after some disputes with the local natives, leading to the Kayan being remanded later by police in Marudi, the administrative headquarters of the Baram district. Most of them have, however, been released, with only a small number from the originally remanded still in custody under police investigations.
Earlier this month, some 600 of the native inhabitants, mostly Penan, gathered at a Penan settlement Long Sayan, some two-hour drive from Tamala Timber Camp belonging to Sarawak Plywood Sdn Bhd, part of the Rimbunan Hijau Group. Temala itself is about four hours by express boat from Marudi, about 160km from the Baram River estuary.
According to Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) field officer Jok Jau, who is based in Marudi, there were also a number of participants at the gathering from the Kenyah and Kayan communities from the Baram area.
Long Sayan has 36 families, and its tuai rumah or village chief Ajang Kiew is chairman of the Penan Association of Sarawak. The Penan community has a penghulu (headman), who is government-appointed and draws an allowance, and he lives in another area.
Jok Jau told malaysiakini that based on reports presented during the gathering concerning the present plight of the indigenous group the main issue is logging.
"According to the reports, the Penan are not happy with the way they are being treated (by the logging and plantation companies) and also complain about suffering from less food because forest logging activities are depriving them of their only source," he added.
Further, the Penan also complain about being inadequately compensated after some of their communal land and fruit trees were affected by logging activities.
In order to address this and other related issues, according to the SAM official, it was proposed the present plight of the Penan and other affected indigenous areas be immediately highlighted to the relevant authorities, to get the government to recognise native customary rights to communal forest land and to grant them rights and access to the forests for communal use.
One of the resolutions adopted at the gathering urged the government to establish communal forest reserves for each of the Penan settlements as a matter of urgency because of the rapid rate at which forest areas are giving way to logging and plantation activities.
"Except for the national parks, most of Sarawak's forest areas have been licensed for logging and plantation activities," Jok Jau pointed out.
The Sarawak government is turning some of already logged areas under large forest concessions into forest plantation areas either under existing concession holders or new licensees, who are usually those close to the ruling state coalition operating either on their own or in joint ventures with the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC), whose chairman is also the chief minister.
Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud announced recently that his government plans to ensure that Sarawak is in a position to produce 20 million cubic metres of timber, from both natural forests and forest plantations, by the year 2010 to feed all the mills for manufacturing and processing for the export market.
What this means is that in areas where logging in forest concession areas still continues, and in other areas commonly referred to as logged-over areas in expired licensed areas, re-working through small-scale cutting of natural forest trees continues on the pretext of forest clearing to prepare for forest plantation using fast-growing species.
The issuing of licences for re-plantation one example is in Bintulu under Borneo Pulp and Paper Sdn Bhd (BPP) has created some conflicts with indigenous groups who complain about encroachment into their communal forest reserves. The BPP project was a test case in court when native customary rights (NCR) landowners challenged the government and won the issue of communal forest land that had been included in the licence area.
Opening up of forest plantation areas is also occurring in the Baram as well as Limbang to produce fast-growing species of trees, such as acacia, for domestic processing.
Areas licensed for logging throughout Sarawak involve several millions of acres.
According to Jok Jau, if the government does not set aside for the indigenous communities communal forest reserves "there is no way they can survive for long".
"Although the nomadic Penan only make up 4 per cent of the total Penan population of about 10,000, found mostly in the Baram, even the rest who have settled down in longhouses need the forests to live on , to catch fish, to plant padi, to hunt for food."
He said there is provision in the Forest Ordinance of Sarawak for native communal forest reserves to be created so long as the purpose is for communal use.
"SAM's role is to highlight the present plight of the Penan," Jok Jau told malaysiakini , adding that following the recent gathering at Long Sayan a memorandum incorporating all the resolutions that had already been adopted would be presented to the chief minister and the relevant government departments, including the forestry department, and the chairman of the Penan affairs committee, as well the prime minister.
According to him, because of the urgency of the matter and the great difficulties facing the livelihood of the Penan community today, this would take place very soon.
SAM's activities in the Baram started in 1976 by a former environmental activist Harrison Ngau, who served at one time as an independent member of parliament for Baram and is now a practising lawyer based in Miri. He handles some of the cases involving customary rights land issues for the native inhabitants.
SAM Marudi office has four full-time staff, including Jok Jau and Thomas Jalong, and has four other volunteers. According to Jok Jau, the aggrieved parties from the Orang Ulu communities in the Baram often travel to Marudi to the SAM office to highlight their problems.
Meanwhile, soon after the Long Sayan gathering, Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Land and Rural Development Alfred Jabu, criticised what he described as outsiders for interfering in the affairs of Sarawak, especially their involvement with native grievances against the government.