The lost people of the rain forest

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The destruction of Borneo's rain forests has threatened a native people with extinction, and prompted an anthropologist from UGA to investigate how it happened—and why the rest of the world stopped caring

In the thick of the Malaysian rain forest a helicopter's propellers come to rest and 30-year-old Peter Brosius, still a decade away from an anthropology professorship at UGA, stoops instinctively to retain his bushy red hair. A doctoral student, Brosius has come to Borneo, the world's third largest island, sandwiched between the Chinese mainland and Australia, to study one of the world's least familiar societies—the Penan. He has been traveling from settlement to settlement in the state of Sarawak to decide the proper place to start his ethnographic research of a people who, although nomadic hunter-gatherers by nature ( some groups still fervently insist on keeping the old ways), have just recently started to settle in numbers large enough for the government to require a makeshift helicopter pad in each community.

From left: a woman weaves rattan palm straps; a grandfather and grandson share a moment in camp; any successful hunt is divided equally.

Top of page: Penan men ponder a familiar view spoiled by logging.

Brosius' first night in the village of Long Jek is a lesson in cultural diversity. In the seven-room long house constructed of bark walls and a tin roof, which 45 people share, he can hear the sobbing of a mother and child in an adjoining room. The mother is certain Brosius has come to the settlement to steal her blood and that of her child. She is certain he is a Penyamun, something akin to a boogie man. Such a reception might discourage many from taking up residence in such a community and trying to understand a group of people and a way of life so different from his own.

But as the son of a U.S. Navy chaplain, Brosius is no rookie in the bush. Beginning the age of one, he has moved about Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific like most kids travel to Florida for vacation. With two tours of the Philippines (at the age of 12, he started spending time with the local Ayta people) and one in Guam, Brosius approaches indigenous people with the respect due their ancient ways and not as natives under the microscope of what he calls "pith helmet" anthropology.

What he could not anticipate was the intense focus the world would soon point toward the Penan, whose way of life was receiving a societal death sentence.

"What is amazing is how the Penan know the forest. It is their neighborhood," says Brosius, fast-forwarded 15 years from Borneo to Athens, Georgia. Brosius lived with the Penan both in settlements and with nomadic groups.

"They are familiar with all the trees in an immense forest," he says, speaking with such passion for a people he lived with from 1984-1987 that you feel as if you are standing with him under a lean-to watching a pig being sliced into parts following a successful hunt with poison darts and blowpipes.

Brosius' rain forest research fit nicely with his department's focus on ecological and environmental anthropology.

Right: Brosius spent three years living with the Penan, who were perfect poster children for the anti-logging movement: photogenic and pacifistic.

Brosius' passion stems from a long-term study of the Penan's genealogy, landscape, and history—and the events leading to, including, and following a Penan uprising in 1987, which made international news. The uprising consisted of makeshift blockades—keeping at bay logging companies that wanted to strip the Penan's home forest of its most vital resource and the key to their livelihood: the trees. The Penan's language, rich with metaphor, describes the haunting images of vacant, bulldozed places and their Uban, or the spaces these places used to occupy.

The blockades prevented the companies from stripping an area as large as North Georgia for several months, and put the campaign to save the rain forests on the tongues of every celebrity with a political row to hoe. Suddenly, Prince Charles, Al Gore, Tom Cruise, and Olivia Newton-John were rain forest advocates and Jerry Garcia had reason to testify before Congress.

The Penan were perfect poster children: photogenic and pacifists. Western environmentalists had found a cause worth fighting for and an enemy—the Malaysian government—determined not only to use ancient trees for immediate wealth but to tame the nomadic Penan, who did not fit into Malaysia's development plan.

The equation seemed perfect—a good guy, a bad guy, and a cause worth fighting for. But within just a few short years, the fight to aid the Penan lost its fervor. The cause, which at first seemed so dramatic, was suddenly no longer chic. The result was a campaign without firepower, and the Penan were left to fight a battle without the allies who helped create the war.

"The rain forest movement was not just about helping the people of Sarawak, but about peripheral things like world music and the other images that go with saving the forests," says Brosius, who came to the University in 1992 as a prized addition to an anthropology department that had recently redirected its mission to focus on ecological and environmental anthropology. "The loss of momentum was due to a lot of things: worldwide campaign imagery burnout, and the Malaysian government questioning Western environmentalists' reasons for attacking Malaysian motives after the West decimated their own forests and indigenous people."

The government succeeded in replacing the cause's romantic, environmental imagery with the boredom of numbers, and the cause subsequently stalled in rhetoric that involved methods of timber certification and principles of scientific forestry. Brosius' research has morphed accordingly.

"What I care about most is that ideas matter," says Brosius, who is quick to point out that he is interested in all sides of the rain forest issue, even though he may sympathize with the Penan. "I am interested in how words shape the world in which we live. And I take very seriously the Malaysian government's critique of the environmentalists. All the different views have changed the course of the campaign."

When the Penan blockaded logging companies in 1987, it gave birth to the rain forest movement; a sign explains the Penan's frustration. Left: Logging reduced the Jek river to a silt-filled quagmire.

Lost in the changing ideologies are the Penan, who Brosius writes about in a forthcoming book (see next page) about the logging campaign. The book's working title is Arresting Images: The Sarawak Rain Forest Campaign and Transnational Environmental Politics.

It was a cool, clear morning in the steep, forested mountains north of the Tutoh River. I was camped on a high ridge with a group of nine families of nomadic Penan. Far to the east the mist-shrouded Tama Abu range rose above the clouds. Smoke wafted into the air through sharp shafts of sunlight, children played quietly, and the only discernible sounds were the dripping of water on the roof from the rain of the night before, the buzzing and clicking of cicadas, the occasional whoosh of a pair of hornbills crossing over the ridge above us, and in the far distance, the distinct, piercing cry of an argus pheasant.

Moves are not hurried affairs.
This morning the camp was busy with preparations to move to another site on a ridge across the deep valley of the Tepen River, which lay below us. Families gathered their belongings and packed them carefully into intricately woven rattan backpacks—mats, pots, bamboo containers of pig fat, pets, all the things that Penan deem necessary to live as they do. Eventually families began to move off one by one and soon the family of headman Tebaran Agut, with whom I was living, followed. Before long we began descending the steep crest of a ridge into the Tepen River valley.

Such moves are not hurried affairs: heavily-laden adults allow small children and elderly parents to set the pace. As we walked, both adults and children kept up a continuous commentary, pointing out fruit trees, former campsites, graves, and places where memorable events had occurred. Soon, something else became visible. Every 15 feet or so, all down the ridge, trees large and small were painted with splotches of bright red paint; the marks left by timber company survey crews. The Penan looked at them, but made no comment. Shortly thereafter, in no particular hurry to reach our destination, we stopped to rest and to collect some fruit from a tree nearby. From where we sat on the ridge we could see out through the screen of foliage to the valley below. Before us stretched miles of forest. And then a road; a scar of red earth contrasting sharply with the dark green of the forest. Below that, loose mud—what Penan refer to as "melted earth" (tanah munyai)—spilled to the valley bottom and into the Tepen River. Just then the sounds of logging began to reach us: the distant whine of chainsaws and the labored bellowing of bulldozers. Several Penan commented with dismay on how much closer the road had gotten since they had last been to this place only a few weeks before. Suddenly the sound of chainsaws stopped; there was a pause, then a rapid series of loud cracks, another pause, and then the loud concussion of a massive tree as it crashed to the forest floor. Balo Oro', an elderly widow, clucked her tongue in anguished disgust and exclaimed: "Ineh! Ha' patai!: There! The sound of death!"

Anyone discouraged about the attention today's college students give to their studies need only listen to one of Peter Brosius' UGA students explain the sensation of taking one of his courses.

"Multi-sided ethnography is interested in local people and in their link to the global situation," says Paige West, a former Brosius student. "Pete believes in this and helps make people think. And because of this push, the program has grown in prominence. When I came to UGA people asked why. Now when I say I went to Georgia, people say what a respected program it is."

This ability to think is the basis of Peter Brosius, the researcher, and Peter Brosius, the teacher.

"The hardest and most interesting thing is trying to teach students an ironic way of looking at the world," says the newly elected president of the anthropology-environment section of the American Anthropology Association. "I try to get students to interrogate their own categories."

Robert Rhoades, hired at UGA in 1991 to help build the anthropology department's new environmental focus, was the department head who hired Brosius in 1992.

"Our success has been great," says Rhoades. "The department has a very high profile in the country. And at the beginning I was interested in Peter because the central theme of his work was indigenous people and their role in the policy of environmental movements. Students were and are increasingly interested in those issues."

Families from distant settlements created a 1993 blockade. When the government broke up the demonstration, two people were killed.

In the years since Brosius' three-year stint with the Penan, he has returned to Borneo four times—each time for the purpose of collecting data about the rain forest campaign and its opposition. In the years he has not returned to Malaysia, he has traveled to Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia to gain a transnational perspective of the environmental movement and the reasons for its momentum loss. Since that time, Malaysian logging companies have gotten rich from rain forest deforestation (mainly from lumber sales to Japan) and have spread their operations worldwide.

"The biggest conundrum is that every environmentalist I speak with is still raring to go, but they are frustrated by the lack of action," says Brosius, whose most recent trip to Borneo was used to develop new research that would involve UGA grad students. "The situation is quite frustrating. You almost can't be involved in environmentalism without being pessimistic.

"But I decided a long time ago that we all have roles to play in the environmental process. Mine is not to chain myself to timber booms, but to bring people together to clarify points. We might all stamp out of the room hating each other's guts, but at least there was dialogue."

When Brosius returns to the Penan he is greeted with smiles and handshakes. He gained their trust, and that is something not easily forgotten by people whose basic instinct is to own nothing and share everything. When they see their old friend, they tell him they missed him and that they can't stand to see his Uban when he leaves.

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