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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Taib has everything, Penans have nothing

TO the Malaysian government, particularly the Sarawak administration, the gentle and softly spoken Penan are a domestic problem. To the chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Penan are a thorny issue as they hamper his efforts for maximum commercial exploitation of Sarawak. But to the Penan, the jungle is both their home and store-room. That is why they are resisting attempts to move them from their own domain.

The Penan have lived in the interior of Borneo for centuries. They have a strong communal bond and a meticulous process of sharing. They are semi-nomadic and move in small groups searching for sago palm, wild fruits and game.

taib-property-1Every month or so the Penan leave their old selap (huts) and establish a new camp elsewhere in the forest, in search of sago palm – which forms part of their staple diet. Possessions are few and everyone, including children carries these, in strong rattan backpacks.

In stark contrast is Taib's well-guarded palatial home in a select river-side location along the Sarawak River in Kuching. He has expensive tastes and his house is packed with gilt-edged European style furniture. Among his possessions is the late Liberace's piano which reputedly cost him US$2 million.

The Penan elders dress in chawats (loin cloths). They have bands on their legs and wrists and large holes in their earlobes. Taib is reputed to be a dapper dresser with a preference for double-breasted suits and sports a ring with a walnut-sized red gem surrounded by small diamonds.

Wealth from Sarawak jungles

Unlike the Penan who used to go barefoot but now wear cheap, plastic football boots, Taib has a choice of luxury cars, is frequently seen in his Rolls Royce and visits longhouses by helicopter.

taib-property-4City-slickers like us may disagree, but the Penan are rich in culture and are wealthy from the bounty that the jungle yields. They have a deep respect, love and reverence for the jungle and have a strong belief in conservation.

The irony is that Taib Mahmud's global empire, covering Canada, UK and Australia, is built from the plundered wealth derived from the Sarawak jungles. It is alleged that the Canadian properties alone are worth RM230 million. Taib, and his inner-circle are rich at the Penan's expense.

Taib's family owns Sakto Development Corporation (formed in the 1980s) which is managed by Taib's son-in-law, Sean Murray, a Canadian who is married to his daughter, Jamilah. They own Ottawa's second most expensive home, at RM28 million.

This high-profile couple belongs to Ottawa's privileged society regularly making generous donations to political parties, cultural and educational establishments. Back home, the Penan live in poverty, without education, amenities or basic health care.

Taib's argument is that the logging companies bring wealth and opportunities to the Penan. He is mistaken. The logging tracks have destroyed a lot of sago palm. Badly planned trails cause landslides, erosion and silting watercourses. When the giant trees are removed, the resulting open ground rapid forms bushy secondary forest. Game is harder to spot and track, medicinal plants are less plentiful and vital sago palms become less abundant. The destruction of large fruiting trees removes a vital food source for the Penan and the game. The roads provide access to hunters from outside, who also remove the Penan's food sources but also threatens their security.

taib-mahmud-penanInadvertently, these logging trails provide another danger. Logging trucks have ostensibly provided lifts to Penan girls to their schools, who were then abused and raped by loggers during the journey. Despite evidence of sexual assaults, theMalaysian police have dragged their feet in investigations.

Whilst the police have been slow to act to protect the girls, they have been quick to dismantle Penan blockades and peaceful protest groups, against logging and plantation companies.

When Dr James Masing, Sarawak's Minister for Land Development was asked about the rapes, he said, "I think this is where we get confused I think... the Penan are a most interesting group of people and they operate on different social etiquette as us... a lot this sex by consensual sex".

When told that a Penan girl had been beaten unconscious and raped, he replied: "They change their stories, and when they feel like it. That's why I say Penan are very good story tellers."

Taib remained unscathed

Despite the scandals involving the payment of kickbacks by nine Japanese shipping companies for transporting timber from Sarawak to Japan, or the obscene wealth amassed by Taib, he has remained unscathed. Even, the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission kept silent about a report that was recently made against Taib.

An earlier report highlighted how deforestation sparked drought and food shortages. When alerted by church groups, food was airlifted to 3,000 Penan in the Bakun area, in the upper Rejang River. A former state environment minister James Wong dismissed the idea that deforestation could lead to global warming. The climate change, he said, would be ideal for playing golf.

Wide-scale, systematic destruction of Sarawak's primary jungle began in the 1970s - the main threat was logging. When the jungles dwindled in the 1990s, Taib's family company, Cahya Mata Sarawak moved into cement, steel, timber, construction, financial services and banking. For the Penan, the creation of palm oil and acacia plantations created another threat. Coupled with Taib's mega-dam project, the Penan and other indigenous peoples faced forced relocation to areas which were unproductive and un-economic.

The Penan are deeply and emotionally attached to the jungle. They are acutely aware of the changes in their own environment - the wildlife they hunt, the fruit they pick, the fish in the rivers, their medicinal plants and clear clean drinking water, have almost gone.

The ancestral homelands of the Penan and other indigenous people of Sarawak are depleted. Only 10% of Sarawak's primary forests remain. Their petitions and peaceful protests fall on deaf ears. Their blockades have been dismantled and violent intervention by the Malaysia army, police and logging company enforcers have resulted in injury and deaths.

Empty promises do not help the Penan. They have been marginalised and their culture and way of life destroyed. They are one of the few remaining semi-nomadic people on earth. They want progress, but on their own terms and at their own pace. They want Taib's government to recognise their Native Customary Rights (NCR) over their ancestral lands.

It is for us to respect their demands. We must not fail them but help champion their right to live as they want to.

courtesy of MM

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