The meek and the poor

IF it is about being meek and poor I believe there is no better candidate than the Penans of Sarawak. They are the original people of Borneo, a jungle people who have shunned the modern life and resisted development, retreating year by year ever deeper into the forest. They are nomads, hunters and gatherers and for generations have lived as one with the forest, never threatening it, never depleting it, never seeking to change it.It has been commented a few times that “the jungle is their supermarket”. At first I thought this was a rather inappropriate remark — for nothing is free in a supermarket. However, events in the last few years in a perverse way have proven the pertinence of this statement. The Penans are finding out that there is no such thing as a free lunch. For centuries they have been reaping the fruits of the forest without having to sow but it seems now it’s time for them to pay up.

A few weeks ago it was reported that as many as 3,000 Penans could be facing starvation. Many of us did a double take when we heard the news, including our State Disaster Relief Committee chairman Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Dr George Chan who was reported to have said, “I think we better check whether the story is true… The Penans live in the jungle and they have animals and plants… I have been to the jungle and I know.”

Land Development Minister Dato Sri Dr James Masing, who is one of those who use the ‘supermarket’ analogy, when asked why the Penans were having difficulty getting food from their ‘supermarkets’, replied: “The fact is that their area has been extensively logged. In the olden days, the Penans could survive because their environment was still fresh and not disturbed by logging activities. They have been living in those areas for hundreds of years and their environment was not disturbed so things like wild sago and wildlife were in abundance. They have become quite scarce lately.”

If there is a positive side to this sad story of the Penans’ precarious plight it was that it offered an opportunity for many to display their subscription to the ‘caring society’ concept, as espoused in our nation’s vision, Wawasan 2020. There was a flurry of activities and donation campaigns. Food and other necessary provisions were airlifted to the remote habitat of the Penans. Of course, we all know that such relief efforts are mere stopgap measures. For who have not heard of the saying, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”?

That they are poor there is no doubt. Why, they do even remotely possess any of the four ‘Cs’, touted as the hallmark of a successful person, namely, credit card, car, certificate and condominium (okay, maybe this last item is stretching it a bit. Just say that it stands for a house, a permanent abode). That they don’t, (possess any of the 4 Cs) is because they have turned their back on the modern world and development. They naively believe that if they ignore the modern world, the modern world will leave them alone. Unfortunately it turns out not to be so. The Penans’ traditional way of life demands huge tract of pristine jungle land. To sustain their lifestyle they have to lay claim on thousands and thousands of hectares of our forest land. Land, where valuable timber can be extracted; land, which can be turned into commercial crop plantations; land, on which big rivers flow which in turned can be dammed to provide renewable hydro energy. In short, the Penans are in the way of modern development.

The obvious solution to this problem is to incorporate them into the modern world, sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” thing. However, as the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Datuk Rohani Abdul Karim said, “It might not be an easy task to bring changes (development) as Penans are used to their culture and traditions, which are already embedded in their lifestyle.”

One senior minister was very vexed by the obstinacy of these simple people in clinging to their traditional, and now appeared to be increasingly inappropriate, lifestyle. He pointed out that one Penan who came out of the forest and pursued a sedentary life is doing very well. In fact, he has joined the ranks of the millionaires and even acquired the title of ‘Datuk’. And that the few who came out with him can now afford to own fourwheel drive jeeps.

However, while the physical distance from the jungle to the towns may be long, the mental distance from the nomadic life in the jungle and to owning a fourwheeled drive is much, much greater. It demands a huge psychological and mental leap on the primitive people’s part, and it demands a great amount of understanding, patience and good will on our part. At the moment the Penans remain a society in transition. While they are in this stage of transition they are very vulnerable. As to how vulnerable they are is epitomised by the alleged incidence of the tribal girls being sexually exploited and even raped by loggers and timber truck drivers from whom they asked for lift to their villages.

This allegation has been investigated by a special committee set up by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry which reported that such abuses did take place. Sad as this state of affair may be, what is even sadder is that a few politicians’ instinctive reaction to this report has been one of denial, saying that these are stories concocted up by opponents of the government. One senior politician who heads a committee in charge of Penan affairs declared that the investigation of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry Committee is tainted because it (the committee) has received information from  NGOs which are intent on besmirching the name of Sarawak. Last week the Sarawak Women and Family Council, after studying the said report, accepted that the alleged sexual abuses against the Penan women and girls by timber workers in Baram last year did occur.

“After reviewing and discussing the findings of the report, we accepted its conclusion that the Penan girls were sexually abused by outsiders and timber company workers,” said the council’s chairman, Datin Fatimah Abdullah.

Despite this fact, a few politicians are still harping on the role played by some NGOs in exposing this issue, saying that they have overexaggerated the matter for their own political gain. This, I think, is not a very clever move. It merely serves to highlight the fact that had these organisations not blown the issue wide open the Penans women would still be suffering in silence. Anyway have they never heard of the saying, “it does not matter if a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”? So what does it matter if the opposition party or some NGOs brought the matter up in the first place as long as it serves to stop the crime and that effective measures are being put forth to protect this weak and poor tribe.

Let’s hope when all the dust over this issue has settled down, concrete and practical measures are put in place to help these poor, meek and innocuous people of the forest. Now that we demand from them a great portion of their ancestral land let us reciprocate by ensuring that their transition into the main stream society is smooth and painless. It is by no means an easy task but it must be done. The best measure of the greatness of a society is how it treats its weakest member.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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