The rainforests of Sarawak—a Malaysian state located along the northwestern coast of the island of Borneo, facing the South China Sea—host some of the most contested land in the world. They are home to dozens of indigenous groups, including the Iban, Kayan, and Penan, who traditionally made their living hunting and gathering, fishing, or slash-and-burn farming. By Malaysian law, each group owns the land it customarily uses, but in practice, the state often claims swaths of forest for its own, offering licenses to private companies to log or farm it.
In 1998, the government resettled around 10,000 indigenous forest-dwellers to make way for the state-sponsored Bakun Dam, but it never made good on promises of free housing and electricity, activists say. The three acres of farmland that families received as recompense doesn’t grow enough food to support them.
The government is inclined to look out for companies’ interests, not forest people’s, says Harrison Ngau, an indigenous land-rights lawyer based in the Sarawak city of Miri. “These companies are the ... financing the election campaigns of the ruling political parties,” he says in an email.
In response, indigenous groups have blockaded logging and plantation roads that run through their land. They’ve also filed hundreds of suits against companies and the government. Some of these cases have taken decades to resolve. In the meantime, timber harvesting and oil-palm plantations leave the forest degraded, unable to support the indigenous livelihoods it once did.
Women often suffer the most. Traditionally, the Iban people grew rice and raised pigs and chickens, for their own use; they didn’t rely much on cash. Both men and women could own land and its resources. Things changed for the Iban village of Kampong Lebor, however, beginning in the 1990s, when an oil-palm company began clearing and planting land around the village. Residents sued, winning back about 10,000 acres in a judgment rendered in 2012. Because the returned area was already planted with mature oil palms, the villagers began selling palm fruit and earning monthly incomes. By court order, the proceeds went to the “head of the household,” usually a man. In two generations, Kampong Lebor moved from sustenance farming to a cash economy, and found its egalitarian gender relations overturned. The forest now produces cash primarily for men.
Women from various Sarawak groups traditionally harvested rattan palms, processed them, and wove them into baskets and mats. But logging and monocrop plantings have made important native species harder to find. Now, they must buy and use plastic instead. Such material changes can have serious consequences. “If [groups] are able to continue to use and relate to their most prominent and culturally significant species, they will be better equipped to retain their cultural identity,” University of Victoria ethnobotanists Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner wrote in the journal Ecology and Societyethnobotanists Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner wrote in 2004. “Conversely, losing access to such species, or moving away from the knowledge about them, can foreshadow or symbolize a more drastic loss of language and culture.”
For centuries, many Sarawak forest-dwellers lived in longhouses, wooden structures hundreds of feet in length where dozens of families lived together. Longhouses act as social and political units, and often the longhouse communities are the groups that bring land-rights cases to court, or plan blockades. Many of the houses are now partially abandoned, or serve as home only on weekends away from urban jobs.