Borneo Penan Ecotourism: Cultivating Connection with the Forest and Empowering Local Communities
By Hollie Tu
“Load up quick, bad weather, come very quick!”
These are the last words you ever want to hear when you are a passenger in a tiny 20-seater plane flying into the rainforest. As the engines whirred into life, I wondered for a split second whether or not I’d bought enough supplies to last a trek to the nearest village should the plane crash. Risky or not, the flight into the interior of Sarawak only served to highlight the nature of the trip that was to come – remote and, at this point, reckless.
Last month I headed out on a tiny plane into the interior of Borneo to spend 10 days with the Penan. The Penan are one of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak and were, until recently, the only people to live a nomadic lifestyle within the rainforest. Today, most Penan have settled in villages where they primarily cultivate the land yet still utilize their hunter-gatherer skills to supplement their diet.
Penan elder making a blow pipe
I visited two villages that are part of a project called Picnic with the Penan (PWTP). PWTP is a community tourism project that is run by the Penan, and which helps to fund a tree-planting project in areas that were badly burnt in the El Nino fires of 1998. In the summer mass fruiting of 2009, there was a once-in-10-year opportunity to easily collect thousands of seeds to plant – knowing that this was coming, the villages sought outside help to fund a nursery and labor costs.
They realized that by planting species of Meranti, Kapor and some Shorea species, in the future they would be able to selectively use some of the new trees for building, therefore leaving untouched the rare old growth forest that still exists further from the villages. This project has gone from strength to strength and many saplings are now ready to plant, but the longevity of the project depends on consistent funding and PWTP is still seeking help to ensure the success in this project.
Ceremonial first tree planting
The PWTP projects are facilitated by volunteers who live outside of the villages and have access to the internet and phones, completing administrative tasks that cannot be done in the villages due their remote location. However, all the money that is spent goes directly to the Penan themselves, meaning that you pay your guide/porter/host directly rather than through a middleman. What is interesting about this initiative is that it is run as a co-operative; there is no hierarchy and all decisions are made in village meetings whereby each villager has an equal voice. This serves to create a sense that the project truly belongs to everyone.
One of the many perks of this particular trip is that it remains off the beaten track. With the PWTP program, it is unlikely that you will cross paths with any other travellers for the duration of your stay. Travellers should keep in mind that tourism is new to this area, so if you are expecting 5-star amenities, think again! However, if you can approach this unique experience with an open mind, and are willing to make do with relatively basic conditions, then you will surely find it to be enriching and extremely enlightening.
My plan was to enjoy this trip solo, although I did have some concerns about travelling to this remote place on my own (getting on the aforementioned plane didn’t help). However, as soon as I arrived in the village and was greeted by my guide and porter, I realized that I had nothing to worry about. Even though they spoke only a bit of English, my friendly guides successfully managed to make me forget my initial trepidation about our adventurous 3-day trek to the villages.
Punting down from village
The Penan may be quite shy when you first meet them, but based on my experience they will open up after a few hours. Soon they will be proudly showing you around the local forests, demonstrating their incredible span of knowledge. In fact, during one of our hikes, I was shocked to find out that my guide had never walked the route we were taking before – he seemed to know where the trails were even when there was no discernible track to follow!
My guide, Paul, was very eager to show me the medicinal plants used by the Penan and it seemed that they were everywhere – almost every small shrub we walked past had some use. It’s not surprising then that the Penan do not see the forest as a monetary resource so much as their whole life, their larder and their hospital. As such, the forest must be kept intact so that future generations and their culture can survive. In a much wider sense, this need to preserve the world’s rainforests can be extended to all of humanity.
In this regard, PWTP has empowered the villages, and increasingly there is a real sense that they can do something about their own destinies. PWTP has provided these two villages with an income, which means that in time, there will be more of an incentive for the younger generation to stay in the villages and maintain the traditional connection the Penan have with the rainforest.
Though they have lived a subsistence lifestyle for so long, money has become a necessity in recent years. Ironically this may be the resource that allows the Penan to maintain their way of life. With the funds from the ‘community fee,’ the villagers can decide together how to improve their lives, whether be by replanting hardwoods in areas of damaged rainforest or creating wet rice paddies to provide a stable food supply.
After many years of hearing disheartening news about the Penan, it is really encouraging to see that this Penan-run project is bringing about positive changes that will, in time, provide the stability needed to continue their traditional way of life for future generations.
All photos courtesy of Picnic With The Penan