Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It holds some of the oldest and most precious ecosystems on the planet and is home to an amazing diversity of indigenous cultures. It is split into three countries: Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Malaysian Borneo is split into the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The Selungo river runs through a remote network of valleys in the highland interior of Sarawak. Dense forests cover the steep slopes and ridges, blanketing the land into the distance. The Penan people are the original inhabitants of these forests. The Selungo valley is one part of their homeland.
Until the mid twentieth century, groups of the Penan tribe lived on the move, hunting wild boar and deer, fishing and gathering fruit, plants and sago from the jungle. This traditional nomadic culture underwent a radical change when Christian missionaries arrived and encouraged church-building. For the first time, the Penan started building permanent settlements and growing rice.
Despite these changes, the traditional tribal culture lives on. The Penan number around 10,000 people, spread across many villages. Although guns have appeared, blowpipes and poison darts are still used and often favoured for hunting because they are silent. Medicinal plants are collected from the rainforest to treat illnesses, and rattan - the fibres of a wild palm - is woven into mats and baskets. The Penan still speak their own language, distinct from those of other tribal groups.
However, the rights of tribal peoples have been largely ignored by the government of Sarawak. The state leadership has granted logging companies concessions to most of its forests, without properly consulting the people who have always lived on those lands. This means the companies have permission from the state government to cut the Penan’s forests down.
Satellite image analysis shows that a staggering 89 percent of the rainforests in Sarawak have been heavily impacted by logging, with much of the forest completely destroyed.
Threatened with the destruction of their livelihood, the Penan gathered together in the 1980s and 1990s to defend their homeland. They built blockades to prevent loggers reaching their forests and protested to the government. Vast areas of forest were lost, but one of the groups that managed to hold back the loggers to some extent were the Penan from the Upper Baram area, which includes the Selungo valley.