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Borneo, Environment, Human Rights, Sarawak

Review – The Peaceful People: The Penan and their Fight for the Forest

Peaceful People cover

In the early 1990s the plight of the Penan people of Sarawak became an international cause celebre, with Swiss adventurer Bruno Manser touring the world with a small Penan delegation, and the likes of Prince Charles, Al Gore, David Suzuki and the Greatful Dead speaking out about the rapid destruction of the forest in Sarawak. Nevertheless, the logging continued, and over time, world attention slipped.

Paul Malone, who first visited Borneo in 1974, hadn’t forgotten the newly settled forest people he’d encountered in Sarawak’s jungle interior, and returned, more than 30 years later, in 2007, to discreetly interview Penan leader Kelesau Naan for a newspaper article about the continuing fight for land rights and forest.

The suspicious disappearance of the charismatic leader the same year and the discovery of his body a few months later launched Malone on a mission to understand what happened to Kelesau Naan, by researching both the history and contemporary reality of his people.

The result of these investigations, ‘The Peaceful People’, is part colonial history and part ethnography, as well as a story of resistance, meditation on war and non-violence, and strong entreaty for the recognition of the land rights of the Penan.

Drawing on historical documents, academic accounts and original interviews – including with an Australian missionary who shared a nomadic jungle lifestyle with small groups of Penan in the 1950s and 60s – Malone pieces together a detailed picture of the lives and struggles of these ‘shy’ but ‘stubborn’ people both before and after the drastic encroachment of the logging companies.

In trips taken over a seven-year period the journalist criss-crossed Penan territory – by boat, four wheel drive, motorbike, and on foot – talking to villagers and cross-checking and updating the published observations of Bruno Manser and others.

His thoroughly researched book is a lively, in-depth account of a gentle but determined people whose world has changed profoundly over the last few decades but who, in many cases, are still obstinate in their desire to fight for their land. Malone documents something of the sufferings of the Penan, along with their activism, and offers suggestions for socioeconomic development. The book will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Borneo, indigenous peoples, social justice and/or the environment.

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