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The Last Nomadic Penan
(BORNEO 2014)


The Penan are a nomadic indigenous people living mainly in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo and are one of the last such peoples remaining as hunters and gatherers. They are noted for their practice of 'molong' which means never taking more than necessary. They eat plants, which are also used as medicines, and animals and use the hides, skin, fur, and other parts for clothing and shelter. Penan communities were predominantly nomadic up until the 1950s. The period from 1950 to the present has seen consistent programs by the state government and foreign Christian missionaries to settle Penan into longhouse-based villages similar to those of Sarawak's other indigenous groups. Today, the Penan number around 16,000. Only approximately 200 still live a nomadic lifestyle.


In 2014, I was on assignment with well-known explorer-writer Alex Shoumatoff to meet and live with the last nomadic Penan people in the highlands of Sarawak for weeks to do a feature story published in 2016 by Smithsonian magazine and National Geographic China.

Alex and I traveled to meet and live with the last nomadic Penans, the Ba Marong band. On our way, we pass through what seems to be magical forests enveloped in vapor clouds, but taking a closer look, we notice that all the ridges have logging roads on them, like the one we are on. Logging has eroded gashes on the hillsides where the trees are slid down to the valley floors. "Borneo’s epic rainforests are being cleared at a faster rate per acre than the Amazon’s. …According to the World Wildlife Fund, Borneo’s forests hold 6 percent of the planet’s plant and animal species. Many are now being driven toward extinction or being extinguished before they can even be identified—all because of consumer demands around the world."

"We travel a road that sinks down into valleys, passes over bridges and forks off in several directions. Each ridge takes us higher until we are close to 2,500 feet. Soon, we reach a place where clothes are drying on a line between two poles. Four dirt bikes are parked nearby. We’ve found the Ba Marong band.

The camp is 150 yards from the road. We hear chatter and laughter floating down the steep, muddy trail. Several young men appear and help us carry our bags and provisions up to a flat area, where we see four huts raised on poles lashed with strands of rotan, or rattan palm vines, from the forest. At the front of each hut’s pole floor, a fire burns in an earthen hearth and pots hang over the flames, a stack of machete-split wood off to one side. The interior of the hut is for eating, sleeping, sitting and talking, and weaving baskets and bracelets."

One night in the Ba Marong camp, Alex asks a young man named Nelson to tell him about the old ways. “Because we are now Christian, we only believe in Lord Jesus,” he says cautiously. “I know there are other spirits, but I do not belong to them anymore.” He goes on, though. Every living thing has a spirit, and humans can harness it. “The hornbill spirit can make people walk very fast. Normally what takes two, three days to walk, they do it in one. The leopard spirit is even more powerful.”

And so my voyage went, full of ancient stories and beliefs, anxiety over the future existence of their way of life, and anger and frustration with the government and the multinational logging industry, which is robbing them of their land, their way of life and their culture. 


Many Penan still rely on their diets of starch from the sago palm, jungle fruits, and their prey, which usually include wild boar, barking deer, mouse deer, snakes, monkeys, birds, frogs,  monitor lizards, snails and even insects such as locusts. Since they practice 'molong', they pose little strain on the forest: they rely on it and it supplies them with all they need. They are outstanding hunters and catch their prey using a 'kelepud' or blowpipe, made from the Belian Tree, carved out with unbelievable accuracy using a bone drill. The darts are made from the sago palm, tipped with poisonous latex from the Tajem tree, found in the forest, which can kill a human in a matter of minutes.

Everything the Penan catch is shared for they are a highly tolerant, generous and egalitarian society, so much so that it is said that the nomadic Penan have no word for 'thank you' because help is assumed and therefore doesn't require a 'thank you'. However, 'jian kenin' [meaning 'feel good'] is typically used in settled communities, as a kind of equivalent to 'thank you'.

The Penan’s struggle began in the 1960s when the Indonesian and Malaysian governments opened up large areas of Borneo’s interior to commercial logging, areas in their home territories. Since all Penan communities were and are reliant on forest produce, they were hit hard by the large-scale logging operations that encroached on their traditionally inhabited territories. The logging caused the pollution of their water catchment areas with sediment displacement, the loss of many sago palms that form the staple carbohydrate of Penan diet, a scarcity of wild boar, deer and other game, a scarcity of fruit trees and plants used for traditional forest medicine, the destruction of their burial sites and the loss of rattan and other rare plant and animal species. For the forest people of Borneo, such plants and animals are also viewed as sacred, as the embodiment of powerful spirits and deities. Thus, the Penan argued that the logging companies were located on land given to the Penan in an earlier treaty, recognized by the Sarawak state government, and were thus violating their native customary rights.

In the mid-1980s, when the plight of the Penan was exposed on the world stage, the Sarawak State Government began making many promises to the Penan in an attempt to quell international protests and embarrassment.  As of 2013, the Penan continue to fight development aggression in their ancestral domain.



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