LONG AJENG, Sarawak, Malaysia, November 29, 2009 (ENS) – They are calling it the Penan Peace Park, but a new rainforest reserve proclaimed by indigenous Penan communities on their native lands in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is likely to be the focus of conflict.

With the proclamation of the park on the island of Borneo, 17 Penan communities are challenging the Sarawak state government that has given away these lands to a logging company. The Penan Peace Park area is fully concessioned for logging by the Malaysian timber giant Samling.

Penan villages of Long Ajeng show their support for the Penan Peace Park by raising their hands. (Photo courtesy Bruno Manser Fund)

The Penan communities say they intend to develop tourism in their region and insist on the protection of their native customary rights.

In an official opening ceremony held November 17 at the remote rainforest village of Long Ajeng in the upper reaches of the Baram River, the Penan leaders unanimously declared their intention of conserving their last remaining primeval forests as a nature reserve, according to the Bruno Manser Fund.

The environmental and human rights organization with its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland aims to support the Penan people in Sarawak as well as other indigenous peoples in their struggle to protect tropical rainforests.

The organization is named in memory of Swiss citizen Bruno Manser who traveled repeatedly to Sarawak to work on behalf of the Penan, the last remaining rainforest nomads of Borneo, with whom he had lived for six years in the 1980s. Their native habitat was then and still is being destroyed by the timber industry.

After years of demonstrations, arrests, negotiations, and fasting Manser undertook to draw attention to the plight of the Penan, he disappeared in the Sarawak rainforest in May 2000 and is presumed dead.

In spite of decades of peaceful protests by the Penan and promises from the government to gazette a protected area, logging companies continue to clear the rainforest.

Primary forest near the three-peaked Batu Siman, one of the landmarks of the Penan Peace Park in Sarawak’s Upper Baram region. (Photo courtesy Bruno Manser Fund)

James Lalo Kesoh, the former regional chief of the Upper Baram region, said at the inauguration ceremony for the Penan Peace Park, “As nomadic hunter-gatherers, we Penan people have been roaming the rainforests of the Upper Baram region for centuries.”

“Even though we have settled down and started a life as farmers since the late 1950s, we still depend on the forests for our food supply, for raw materials such as rattan for handicrafts, for medicinal plants and for other jungle products,” Kesoh said. “Our entire cultural heritage is in the forest and needs to be preserved for future generations.”

Jawa Nyipa, headman of Long Ajeng, said, “The conservation of our forest is our highest priority. Without the forest, we cannot survive. We call this park Peace Park because peace is a very important concept in our culture.”

“We wish to live peacefully together with our neighboring tribes and as fully recognized Malaysian citizens,” Nyipa said.

The ceremony at Long Ajeng was attended by about 200 Penan from more than 20 villages and was accompanied by traditional dances and a performance of the traditional tree drum.

The new Penan Peace Park encompasses an area of approximately 1,630 square kilometers (629 square miles) around the Gunung Murud Kecil mountain range close to the Indonesian border.

It is located between the existing Pulong Tau National Park in Malaysia and the Kayan Mentarang National Park in Indonesia.

The area is considered to be a core settlement area for the Penan Selungo, or Eastern Penan, rainforest people.

Since the late 1980s, the Eastern Penan have opposed the logging of their rainforests and have repeatedly erected logging road blockades and barricades to protect their lands against encroachments by logging companies.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.