LAST year, the Penans were in the news again. This time it was reported that some of their women had been raped, allegedly by the loggers in the upper Baram. All together, women members of major political parties, in both government and opposition, pounced on the suspects.
A special committee was quickly set up by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to investigate the reports; the Opposition sent a memorandum seeking redress to injustice done; while some leaders doubted the rapes ever took place. The police were pressed to investigate quickly and bring the culprits to book. And the media had a field day.
The Penang government promised to chip in some RM30,000 to help the girls in trouble.
The police responded fast but after sometime into the investigations had to throw up their arms in despair: no victim was willing to provide evidence; no eyewitness to interview. No further action?
Suddenly, all fell silent; it was an anticlimax.
A year has now passed and we have not heard of the findings of the committee set up to find out the truth or the bluff of the reports.
While waiting for the details of the investigations, one way or the other, some people think it would be better to do something more practicable for the community. Not that there has been any shortage of efforts all these years to bring them to the mainstream of development. Indeed, minister after minister was assigned to look after the Penans. How successful are the various projects introduced in their area? Did we hear their problems discussed during the Dewan Undangan Negeri meetings just ended?
Recently, Datuk Shahril Samad came up with a proposal to help them through the activities of Yayasan Sejahtera. With sufficient funds and political will, it would be humanly possible to implement whatever the Yayasan wants to do. No doubt we will hear more about the plan of which little details have been disclosed to the community concerned.
We will assume there will be something good out of it and wait and see what Shahril will pull out of his hat.
Meanwhile, I heard from Dr Elli Luhat that there is something that he can also do by way of assistance to the Penans. To find out more, I had a chat with him and visited his mini experimental plot at his BDC house.
While working as a forester with the Sarawak Forest Department for 21 years, Elli, a PhD graduate from the University of Texas, USA, spent a lot of time among the Penans in the Baram and Belaga areas. Now in retirement, he told me of his obligation to contribute his energy and expertise in lifting the socioeconomic status of his friends, especially those at Long Beruang.
He believes that some economically viable and sustainable projects under the concept of smart farming — a marriage between agro forestry and aquaculture — may help the Penans.
He has started an organisation, DLT, standing for Dr Luhat Technologies Institute, promoting the planting of gaharu bukit or agarwood (Aquilaria spp), jatropha, rubber as well as the rearing and breeding of freshwater fish — empurau.
To plant gaharu
According to Elli, the nomadic Penans are ‘allergic’ to direct sunlight. This is an important factor that any development planner must take into account in the effort to help the Penans, especially those nomadic families, out of poverty.
“Any project that exposes them to direct sunlight will not be popular. So introduce something that they are good at and like doing.
“To change their mindset would take a long time,” he added.
Elli related that in the 1970s, a longhouse with zinc roof was built for the Penans in Lusong Laku, Linau, in Belaga. One day he accompanied the then Minister of Welfare Datuk Nyipa Bato on a visit to that settlement. They found an empty longhouse but discovered that the inhabitants were inside little huts by the river where it was cool.
“I recommend that they plant Gaharu in the jungle and with expert treatment or inoculation of certain chemicals into the tree, after four years, the plant will produce valuable resin.
“That wood will sell well in the world market,” he said.
He also has empurau and catfish (keli) in concrete tanks filled with clean water to look like upriver streams.
To rear and breed empurau
According to Elli, there are rivers where Penans can rear empurau and his organisation will do the marketing for them to make sure they get a fair deal in the market.
Empurau is a most delicious fish but it costs the earth so it’s worth the effort to make friends with Elli for tips on how to rear and breed the fish yourself. I’m sure he will give you a discount if you place an order well before your next birthday celebration.
Elli knows there are some clean rivers in the interior of Sarawak, for instance at Long Beruang, where Emparau may successfully be reared and bred.
He knows that the Penans would do this fish rearing and breeding well as long as they are not exposed to direct sunlight, unlike rice farming.
White empurau has a ready market worldwide, although the species has competitors from the Himalayas.
Elli told me that during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he sent a consignment of the fish by air to his friend there; in that one sale he made a killing. Though no figure was disclosed, it must have been worth a gold medal.
To plant jatropha
“I’d also like to recommend that the Penans plant jatropha and castor, which produce biodiesel. Jatropha can also be intercropped with other plants like rubber and gaharu bukit.”
According to him, jatropha is a tree that acts as a repellent of sorts — the deer or goats and other ruminants would stay away from other trees where jatropha is planted.
The Penans need not worry about their plants being damaged while they go hunting and collecting sago.
Small is beautiful
Projects of this nature may be introduced to any community where the basics are in place ? clean rivers, jungle setting if possible, and land.
In a way, the Penans are lucky in that they have all the resources in situ except that we don’t know how to read their minds and introduce a programme of development that they can and like doing. We have been trying to change their mindset; instead, we may have to change ours.
In the Readers Digest magazine, there is a column called ‘Heroes’, in which are recorded stories of courage, ingenuity and innovation, brought about by people with ideas for the benefit of small communities endowed with little resources of their own and on the side stream of development. An excellent example is, of course, the Grameen Bank, the brainchild of the Nobel laureate Dr Yusuf of Bangladesh, over 40 years ago. It has benefited thousands of women in Bangladesh.
A mini version of this rural credit scheme is Projek Ikhtiar Malaysia. I don’t know who the beneficiaries are in Sarawak, besides those in Sebuyau.
What people like Elli are doing for the Penans may be classified as ingenious and innovative and may contribute towards the attainment of the ETP (Economic Transformation Programme) that is being bandied about. Beginning in a small way, it may become a model for the uplifting of the economic status of a small community dependent on the forests, rivers and land for survival.
This is a cause worthy of support from the government by way of funds.
Let’s wish Elli and his team every success in their undertakings among the Penans.
It’s high time we heard less depressing news from the interior of Sarawak, for a change.