Mapping the Penan Rainforests on Borneo
“Community mapping”: maps for identity and for land-rights litigation
If the Penan are to succeed in enforcing their land rights through the courts, they are going to need maps to document the use of their lands and the borders of their territories. The Bruno Manser Fund is supporting the Penan with modern equipment, so that they can produce this evidence. The mapping is done by using GPS (global positioning system) devices. Specially trained mapping teams from various villages input the data about communities’ borders and cultural sites, such as graves, abandoned settlements and hunting grounds. This data is then transferred to maps and compared with satellite images. It now clearly indicates where the logging companies have cleared roads into the Penan primeval forest and where the forest is still intact.
Thanks to financial support from a private person, it is now possible to map more and more villages. The nomadic chieftain, Along Sega, tells us: “we need such maps for the negotiations with the government and with the people who move into our territory from the outside. These maps are for people who are unfamiliar with our land”.
Historical and legal background
According to Malaysian law, indigenous peoples claiming land rights must submit evidence that they were already using the land before 1958. For a culture that has left virtually no written records, that is far from a simple undertaking. In a judgement regarded as setting a precedent in 2001, a court in Sarawak ruled that it was possible for indigenous land rights to include forest territories too. This has given the Penan grounds for hoping that their claims will be recognised.
The territories belonging to 19 villages and nomadic groups have already been mapped – a total surface area of 2,550 square kilometres. Four villages started litigation in 1998, but their case is still pending before court, and another two Penan groups are also in the process of preparing court action against the Sarawak government and several logging companies over land rights. Even though the legal battle has still not been fought out, one important initial success is that logging has more or less stopped in the territory where litigation is pending.
The long way to land-rights litigation
For success in court, good evidence is indispensable. For that reason, the Penan, in cooperation with the Bruno Manser Fund, are piecing together items of evidence to show that they have been in the forest for hundreds of years. Testimony from elderly Penan as well as scientists, missionaries and officers of the former British colonial administration of Sarawak bear witness to the fact that the territories claimed were already inhabited by the Penan long before 1958. An ethno-botanical study being organised by the Bruno Manser Fund is intended to show that the Penan have been using the trees in the forest territories since time immemorial, for example for making blowpipes.