63 Penan communities celebrate the completion of a series of 23 high-quality maps representing their land, culture and history
(SARAWAK / MALAYSIA) The indigenous Penan people of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo celebrated the completion of their 15-year long community mapping effort. 23 maps contain data collected by 63 villages at a scale of 1:35‘000, covering a total area of 10’000 square kilometres in the Heart of Borneo. The maps record for the first time the local names of 7000 rivers and creeks, 1800 mountain ridges and peaks as well as a great number of cultural sites.
The maps are an important documentation of Penan culture. They include the location of over 800 poison dart trees (“Tajem” in Penan language) as well as information on wild Sago palm stands, which provide the Penan’s traditional staple food. The topographic information is complemented by oral histories and historical photographs.The maps also reflect the continuous struggle of the Penan protecting their forest lands since the 1980s. The maps are showing both the last remaining primary forest in Sarawak as well as areas ravaged by logging.
A Penan mapping team gathered the data together with the respective communities. The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) supported their efforts with training and the necessary equipment such as GPS and a mapping drone. BMF was also in charge of the digital procession of the data and the production of the maps in close cooperation with the Penan.
Komeok Joe, the Executive Director of the Penan organization Keruan who coordinated the indigenous mapping process, stressed the importance of the maps for the Penan: “The official government maps neglected the presence of the Penan and our unique relationship with the forest. We took the initiative to contribute our knowledge about the land and are very proud of the result.”
Last week, Komeok Joe and a delegation of Penan representatives handed a set of the maps over to the Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak, Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, as well as to the Director of Forest, Sapuan Ahmad, in Sarawak’s capital Kuching.
Over the weekend, representatives of all 63 Penan villages and supporters celebrated the completion of the community mapping in the village of Long Lamai, in the Upper Baram area. Bian Belare, headman of Long Lamai and host of the event, explained the significance of the gathering: “It is the first time in history, that representatives from so many different Penan communities have come together to celebrate our culture and to discuss the future of our people.”
The meeting ended with the adoption of the Long Lamai Declaration, in which the community heads underlined the importance of land tenure to their livelihood and reaffirmed their determination to protect the remaining primary rainforest in the region.
Apart from documenting Penan culture, the maps can serve as a tool for future community-based land use planning and effective nature conservation. Simon Kaelin, the mapping coordinator at BMF, invited other communities to join the mapping effort of indigenous lands: “We hope the Penan maps will inspire other indigenous groups to pursue further mapping efforts and thereby document the cultural richness of Sarawak. Maps are an important tool to unite the indigenous peoples in their struggle for their ancestral land.”