The last nomads of Borneo

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Published on January 9, 2021 by

The Penan are one of the last indigenous hunter-gatherer tribes on earth. They are a semi-nomadic people who live in the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo — and their way of life is now threatened.
Peng Megut is one of the last forest nomads who still carry a blowgun as they roam the jungle. Peng and a number of men from his tribe are defending their community against a palm-oil plantation that they believe has trespassed on their land. Until just a few years ago, this region was home to one of the oldest primeval forests in the world. It covered an area that was half the size of Germany.

Then timber companies started clear-cutting trees, and destroyed 90-percent of the forest. Forty tribes and ethnic groups, including the Penan, live in what’s left. The Penan have resisted adopting a “modern” lifestyle longer than any other indigenous tribe in Borneo. They call their home “Tong Tana” — which means both “forest” and “world.”

The woodland is a central component of the Penan’s identity. It is the final resting place of their ancestors, and represents the heart of their spirituality, culture, and history. The tribe’s existence is sustainable, and the people live in harmony with nature. They hunt for food — and the forest supplies all their other needs, as well. But since the mid-20th century, the lives of the Penan have changed radically. They still live in the jungle, but most of them have now moved into villages.

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