Borneo Natives Proclaim Tropical Forest Reserve

On their ancestral territories in Borneo’s jungles, seventeen indigenous Penan communities have declared a new tropical forest reserve. The Penan elders unanimously announced their determination to preserve their last surviving virgin woods as a nature reserve during an official inauguration ceremony conducted last week at the isolated rainforest town of Long Ajeng in the upper reaches of the Baram river. The Penan want that their local customary rights be upheld while they work to enhance tourism in their area.

At the dedication of the “Penan Peace Park,” James Lalo Kesoh, a former penghulu (regional head) of the Upper Baram area, said: “We Penan people have been wandering the Upper Baram region’s jungles for ages as nomadic hunters and gatherers. Since the late 1950s, we have settled down and begun a life as farmers, but we still rely on the woods for our food supply, as well as for raw materials like rattan for handicrafts, medicinal herbs, and other goods from the jungle. The forest contains our whole cultural legacy, which must be protected for next generations.”

Long Ajeng’s head of state, Jawa Nyipa, said: “Our first goal is the preservation of our forest. We are unable to thrive without the forest. We call this area “Peace Park” because the notion of peace, or “lawi,” is highly significant in our culture. We want to coexist peacefully with the tribes who are close by while still enjoying full citizenship in Malaysia.” Nearly 200 Penan participated in the ritual at Long Ajeng, which was accompanied by performances of traditional dances and the “atui” tree drum.

The new “Penan Peace Park” is situated between the current Pulong Tau National Park in Malaysia and the Indonesian Kayan Mentarang National Park and covers an area of around 1630 km2 (163,000 hectares) in and around the Gunung Murud Kecil mountain range near the Indonesian border. For the Penan Selungo (Eastern Penan) rainforest culture, the region is regarded as a key habitation location. The Eastern Penan have fought against logging in their rainforests since the late 1980s, and they have frequently built logging-road blockades to keep logging firms off their property.

The Penan are fighting the Sarawak state government, which has designated their lands for logging, with the declaration of the new park. The Malaysian timber tycoon Samling has been granted complete concessions to log in the “Penan Peace Park” region.

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