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Environment : In Malaysia, a Culture Is Undercut : * Deforestation is forcing an age-old tribe out of the jungle to find a new lifestyle.

July 23, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARUDI, Malaysia — Jalong Kepe has the traditional looped ears and bowl-shaped haircut that marks him unmistakably as a member of the Penan, a survivor of the world's last tribe of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Instead of the traditional loincloth, however, he wears blue jeans and a T-shirt bearing the logo of an oil company.

Jalong Kepe was raised to live off the forest, using a six-foot blowpipe to kill wild game and to snare fish from the rivers of Sarawak, a remote Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

But Jalong Kepe and others in his long house, the equivalent of a multifamily dwelling, now eke out a living selling wicker baskets in this market town for the equivalent of $8 apiece.

"Our way of life has died out," he said. "Our food comes from the forest, and now it's all gone."

The Penan's lifestyle has changed drastically because of logging, which has devastated the forests of Sarawak at a scale faster than anywhere else on Earth. There are fewer animals in the forest to eat, and the rivers are so silted because of the lack of trees that all the fish have died.

"Before the logging, we used to eat three times a day," said Liman Avun, a Penan from Long Beluk. "Now we eat twice a day, sometimes only once."

The Penan, who number about 10,000, have been largely settled into semi-permanent communities by the government, which believes they are better off wearing trousers and speaking Malaysian instead of Penan.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said after an environmental protest this month that the Penan "cannot be allowed to become anthropological specimens for foreigners to gawk at." He denounced Westerners who worry about the treatment of the Penan, saying, "Some white people think we do not know how to administer our country--they must show us how to."

Britain's Prince Charles caused an uproar in Malaysia when he spoke out about the Penan last year, saying that "the dreadful pattern of genocide continues." The British government took the unusual step of saying that the prince's remarks were not official, but Charles refused to apologize.

Meanwhile, the number of nomadic Penan is believed to have dwindled to less than 200.

"The situation is getting critical for the Penan," said Harrison Ngau, an environmental campaigner who last October was elected as an independent to Parliament, so strong is the anti-logging feeling in the region. "There is hardly any land left around the Penan settlements. More than any other tribe, the Penan really depend on the forests."

Ngau, who collected a Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco last year for his efforts to put controls on timber companies, estimated that logging was taking 18 million cubic meters of timber every year, a rate that could wipe out the forests by the year 2000.

"It's no longer a question of a culture which will be extinct, but now it's become a question of survival," said Bruno Manser, a Swiss shepherd who lived among the nomadic Penan for nearly six years until he was expelled by the Malaysian government for allegedly fomenting trouble.

"In the last five years, more than half, let's say two-thirds, of their traditional area has been destroyed," Manser said.

The nomadic way of life had its dark spots as well, depending heavily on magic and superstition. The first wave of change came when missionaries brought Christianity to the forests.

To be sure, many of the Penan now living in settlements went voluntarily, hoping to gain education for their children and development benefits such as instruction in farming techniques and medical care for their families.

"That's why we settled," said Juwin Lihan, president of the Penan Assn. of Sarawak. "But if the government says it is going to develop there and then destroys our property, what can we do?"

The answer for many of the gentle Penan was to establish blockades on logging roads, cutting down trees and blowing up bridges for the last five years in a last desperate attempt to save their forest.

"When I see all the trees cut down, I really want to cry," Lihan said through an interpreter. "We really hope the government or somebody can stop the cutting." Instead, the government has arrested more than 200 Penan who have taken part in the blockades, including 23 in one demonstration last month at a place called Long Napir.

Long Napir is the site of logging operations by Limbang Trading Co., a huge timber concession that is, ironically, owned by Sarawak Environmental Minister James Wong.

One of the largest timber merchants in the state, Wong told a local newspaper this month that he believes the crowning achievement of his life was raising the quality of public restrooms in the state capital of Kuching.

Awarding timber concessions in Sarawak is left up to the local governments. Environmentalists say that many of the most profitable concessions have been given to politicians or their relatives.

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