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RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Win Some, Lose Some for Beleaguered Penan Tribe

KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 21 2009 (IPS) - In wealthy Malaysia that employs over four million Asians to service its high- rolling lifestyle, a tiny indigenous tribe is fighting for its survival against state inaction and bureaucratic apathy, as well as marauding giant multinationals and timber loggers.

It is an increasingly losing battle for the Penan, a tribe of about 12,000 semi- nomadic people fighting against destruction of their home in the jungles of Sarawak state in East Malaysia, home to the world’s oldest rain forest and a complex ecosystem.

The state’s wildlife and unique tropical ecosystem are equally under threat from loggers who swing into the forest felling the best trees, leaving giant oil palm plantations while clearing the logged forest to grow more palm oil.

In recent months about 3,000 Penan in the Bakun area in upper Rejang River – the second longest river in the country – faced severe food shortage for various reasons, including drought sparked by deforestation. Food supplies had to be airlifted after church groups raised the alarm.

Exacerbating their already harsh living condition is that Penan women and children are being raped by loggers and their workers, according to a long- delayed government report that concluded in mid-September what human rights activists and non-governmental organisations had been saying for at least a decade.

But despite evidence of sexual assaults, Malaysian police are dragging their feet in investigating the cases and bringing the culprits to justice.

“They don’t take the Penan people seriously; they give all kinds of excuses (for their inaction),” Ragunath Kesavan, leading rights lawyer and president of the Malaysian Bar Council, an association of legal practitioners, told IPS. “(The) Penan might be semi-nomadic and live differently. Nevertheless they are (still) citizens and have the same rights to protection under the laws as other citizens.”

The beleaguered tribals are fighting back in the way they know best — with spears and blowpipes with which they arm themselves when staging their blockades, and the media. Assisted by a network of supporters here and abroad, they are using the press to shame the government for their alleged inaction and force concession.

The rate of deforestation in Malaysia is estimated to be the fastest in any tropical country in the world, according to United Nations data. The Food and Agriculture Organisation, a U.N. agency, shows the annual deforestation rate jumped almost 86 percent between the periods 1990-2000 and 2000-2005.

Annually, Malaysia has lost an average of 140,200 hectares or 0.65 percent of its forest area since 2000.

Oil palm plantation acreage and world palm oil output increased dramatically as the forest vanished during the same period. The prized commodity is now the world’s most important edible oil in global production and consumption.

Between 2006 and 2007, it held approximately 32 percent of the market share of all edible oils by production in comparison to soybean oil, which comprised about 29 percent of the world market for oils.

Malaysia and Indonesia produce the majority of the world’s palm oil, accounting for approximately 86 percent of the total global production.

Malaysia has a policy framework for sustainable forest management based on its National Forestry Act of 1984. Yet on the ground, rampant logging is the norm, sources said.

Though faced with an uphill battle on several fronts, the Penan are chalking up some victories. They are successfully blocking logging roads with barricades, raising hues and cries in the Malaysian media while bringing their woes to the Malaysian parliament.

Opposition lawmakers are now actively taking up their cause and speaking up for their rights – a far cry from the 1980s when blockades installed by the tribe were broken up and protest put down with brute force.

Then, too, there is considerable sympathy for the Penan among the local population. An awakened electorate concedes the Penan have the right to preserve their habitat and traditional lifestyle.

Amid these developments is the state’s glaring inaction on the plight of its indigenous population, advocates say, who noted that it had only paid lip service to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that it voted to adopt in 2007.

“This inaction to protect and promote and recognise their indigenous people is alarming,” said human rights lawyer Ragunath Kesavan. “The sexual abuse faced by the Penan is but one of a multitude of human rights violations that indigenous communities face. Their traditions, customs and values are being eroded and their needs have been long neglected.”

He added that it is time “the government formally recognizes, protects and guarantees the right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands and to gazette such ancestral lands as reserved areas.”

Pressured from every side to aid the Penan tribe and stop the destruction of their habitat, the authorities — in an unprecedented move — reached out to the tribal group to iron out a peace deal.

According to the mass-circulated ‘Star’ daily around the third week of September, the Sarawak government, prodded by the federal government in Kuala Lumpur, had agreed to several Penan demands as preconditions for ending the anti-logging blockades, which had significantly hurt the profits of the timber companies. The concessions include state recognition of the Penan as the original settlers of the island of Borneo, right to ancestral land and farmland for the semi- nomadic tribe. Other concessions include the provision of basic infrastructure, including housing complete with electricity and water, clinics, kindergartens and primary schools; official aid for rubber tree planting and fruit farming; and skills training.

Local officials claimed the Penan have acceded to these compromised solutions. Promising “positive results within three months,” they said that with the “peace deal,” the Penan have agreed to allow logging to resume, the ‘Star’ daily quoted them as saying.

The deal, however, was rejected by some Penan and questioned by rights NGO, saying the concessions were only on paper, adding that allowing logging to resume is inimical to the Penan’s interests in the long run.

They warned that the anti-logging protest and blockades would resume if the promises were not kept.


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