Help the starving Penans please!

(Malaysian Mirror) – The shocking report that 3000 Penans in the remote Belaga district of Sarawak are starving must now engage the attention and prompt action of the highest authorities in the land.

Deputy Rural and Regional Development Minister Joseph Entulu Belaun said in Miri Thursday that Penans from the settlements of Lusong Laku, Long Avit, Long Kajang, Long Tanyit, Long Malim and Long Ladem had been facing the shortage of food over the last three months.

"Their farms had been destroyed by wild animals and they are now depending entirely on food that they foraged from the jungle, but the supply is insufficient," he told reporters.

He said that the headmen told him that they were not able to inform the authorities earlier about their predicament due to the remoteness of the settlements.

Malaysia is a land of plenty, and nobody should go hungry. The plight of the Penans must now raise many thorny questions about why they should be short of food.

The Penans are traditionally hunters and gatherers living in the remote primary rainforests in the headwaters of Sarawak Rejang and Baram Rivers. They have lived and thrived in their cashless societies for God-knows-how-long, depending only on the natural resources in the dense forests. They are one of the last nomadic hunting and gathering indigenous people in the world.

In recent decades, there has been considerable effort on the part of the Sarawak Government to resettle them on land allocated for them to engage in agricultural activities. Such resettlement schemes have not always been successful.

There are only over 12,000 Penans in Sarawak and in the world, so the problem of food shortage for the 3000 Belaga Penans is a serious issue of concern for the whole community.

That the problem has gone on for three months without it being reported shows negligence on the part of the local District Office in keeping track on the welfare of the Penans.

It also raises the question of whether logging and dam-building have deprived them of the natural eco-system on which the Penans traditionally depend for their food source.

Since the Sarawak Government is planning to build 12 more hydroelectric dams, the negative impact of the dams on the survival of the Penans and other indigenous communities living in the reservoir area must be carefully studied. After all, they are Malaysians too, and should enjoy the fruit of development, instead of becoming the victims of mega-projects.

Malaysians are usually a caring lot. In the past, we have sent assistance to victims of the tsunami in Indonesia and elsewhere. We have helped with the earthquake victims in China and Pakistan.

It is strange that report of the 3000 Penans starving in our backyard has not elicited any response of mercy in the Malaysian metropolis.

The immediate urgent thing to do is for the federal and the Sarawak state relief agencies to send food directly to the six Penan settlements – by helicopters if necessary.

The Sarawak Government cannot run away from its responsibility to ensure that the government machinery keeps a close eye in monitoring the welfare of the Penans in the future, to lend a helping hand whenever necessary.

The Penans are not exotic noble savages running wild in the jungle. They are our fellow human beings and our fellow citizens of Malaysia. They deserve the full attention of the state when they are confronted with such basic problem as lack of proper food.