Sarawak’s Penan now have detailed maps of their ancestral homeland

The project began in 2002, when the Bruno Manser Fund partnered with a Penan organization called Keruan. Keruan took the lead in bringing together the participating communities to validate the information that the BMF-trained Penan cartography team came up with. BMF said teams visited each village five times or more between 2007 and 2016 to double-check locations, add GPS points and other missing information using a mapping drone, and secure the approval of the headman for the resulting maps.

The maps detail the local environs, highlighting the locations of rice paddies and gardens and primary forest and forest recovering from timber extraction, as well as schools, airports, bridges and camps. They also highlight the locations demonstrating the Penan’s connection to the land: hunting camps and the salt licks where quarry like deer and pigs tend to congregate; the trees to make blowpipes and of course extract the tajem’s poison; and copses of sago palm trees. They have sidebars with photographs and a fable or story of significance to the local people, and a spot where the headmen have marked their approval, typically with a thumbprint in the lower right-hand corner.

The Penan are more sedentary than they once were, typically sticking to established communities with stilt longhouses, schools and health clinics. Most people tend rice paddies near the villages. But their heritage runs deep. They still make flour from the sago palm tree, a staple that has sustained the Penan for generations. And adept hunters still walk among them, including the one who killed the bearded pig served up to guests at the celebration.

Long-tail boats deliver guests of Long Lamai upriver for the celebration in November. Photo by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

‘You have land’

There, in a speech to the group after a procession through the community, Komeok Joe, who heads Keruan and whose mother was born in Long Lamai, shared his thoughts on why the maps are such a critical tool.

“You have a map, you have land, you have rights,” Komeok told the gathered crowd.

On Nov. 17, the week prior to the Long Lamai celebration, he and a delegation including several of the participating communities’ headmen, took a set of maps to the deputy chief minister of Sarawak and the director of the forestry department in the state capital of Kuching.

“We want the government to take note of the maps,” Komeok told The Star newspaper on Nov. 21.

Government authorities can now see in plain detail where the Penan’s territory extends. But just as important, Komeok says, the maps are a guide to their heritage.

“Without this map, we will not know our origin,” Komeok said. That’s so important for the young people, he added, because “It helps us have the knowledge to preserve the forest, to keep the forest intact.”

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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