Penan Philosophies & Blowpipes Against Bulldozers

A dear friend of mine wrote this recently and I asked her if I could re-post it to which she replied, “Re-post away!” I think it’s a great example of some of the “costs” of the Northern way of progress. Costs to the environment and to our relationships with others. As we look forward to a day when Christ will return and finally make these wrongs right may we be signposts that point towards what is yet to come and yet now breaking in.


Written by Stacy Topouzova.

The mouth of the Baram River in Borneo is the color of the earth. To the north, the soils of Sarawak disappear into the South China Sea and fleets of empty Japanese freighters hang on the horizon. Some 150 kilometers upriver is another world, a varied and magical landscape of forest and soaring mountains, dissected by crystalline rivers…This is the traditional territory of the Penan.

In myth and in daily life, they celebrate the bounty of a forest whose biological richness and diversity surpasses that of even the most prolific regions of the Amazon. In fact, the Penan passage through the forest is cyclical and resource dependent; thus, the forest for them is a series of neighborhoods, wild and potentially dangerous, but fundamentally domesticated by generations of human presence and interaction. Every feature of the landscape resonates with a story.

A sense of stewardship permeates the Penan society, dictating consistently the manner in which they utilize and apportion the environment. They had no notion of paid employment, of work as burden, as opposed to leisure as recreation. For them, there was only life, the daily round. There was little sense of hierarchy.

How do you measure wealth in a society in which there are no specialties, in which everyone can make everything from raw materials readily found in the forest, a society in which there is no incentive to accumulate material possessions because everything has to be carried on the back? The Penan explicitly perceive wealth as the strength of social relations among people…The priority is always the solidarity of the group.

There is no word for “thank you” in their language because sharing is an obligation.

When the Penan came to Canada to campaign for the protection of their forests, nothing impressed them more than homelessness. They could not understand how in a place as wealthy as Vancouver such a thing could exist. A Canadian or American grows up believing that homelessness is a regrettable, but inevitable feature of life. The Penan live by the adage that a poor man shames us all.

The Penan lacked the written word; the total vocabulary of the language at any point in time was always the knowledge of the best storyteller. The Penan perceive the voices of animals in the forest. Every forest sound is an element of a language of the spirit. Trees bloom when they hear the lovely song of the bare-throated krankaputt. Birds heard from a certain direction bear good tidings. This remarkable dialogue informs the Penan life in ways that few outsiders can be expected to understand.

Tragically, within a single generation the Penan world was turned upside down. Women raised in the forest found themselves working as servants or prostitutes in logging camps. Children in government settlement camps who had never suffered the diseases of “civilization” succumbed to measles and influenza. The Penan elected to resist, blockading the logging roads with rattan barricades. It was a brave yet quixotic gesture, blowpipes against bulldozers, and ultimately, no match for the power of the Malaysian state.

The essence of the government’s position was such that nomadic peoples were an embarrassment to the nation-state. In order to emancipate the Penan from their backwardness, the government had to free them from who they actually were. Indigenous people like the Penan are said to stand in the way of development and becomes groups for dispossessing them and destructing their way of life. Their disappearance is then described as inevitable, as such archaic folk cannot be expected to survive in the 21st century.

In 1992, a Penan delegation did in fact travel to New York, and on December 10, addressed the UN General Assembly: “The government said that it is bringing us development. But the only development that we see is dusty logging roads and relocation camps. For us, their so-called progress means only starvation, dependence, helplessness, the destruction of culture and the demoralization of our people.”

In ten years, these logging jobs will disappear and the forest that has sustained us for thousands of years will be gone with them.


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