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Life in the rainforest – the last Penan on Borneo

Posted on September 06 2019

The rainforest of Sarawak on Borneo is the home and livelihood of the Penan. Twenty years after the environmental activist Bruno Manser fought with the Penan against the deforestation of the trees, the forest is still threatened. With his book Doomed Paradise, photographer Tomas Wüthrich gives an impressive insight into their life in the forest.

Penan in Borneo

© Tomas Wüthrich

Since 2014, photographer Tomas Wüthrich has documented the everyday life and culture of the Penan. The originally nomadic people living in the jungle of Sarawak on Borneo are threatened by the illegal deforestation of the rainforest. The Penan were first perceived internationally by the Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser in the 1980s. For years, Manser was passionately committed to the indigenous population and the rainforest. He has been missing since May 2000 and declared missing in 2005. In his book Doomed Paradise – Die letzten Penan im Regenwald von Borneo, Tomas Wüthrich presents a differentiated picture of their lives today, which are marked by their knowledge of nature and increasingly also by modern technology.

Nomadic life in the forest

Until well into the 20th century, the Penan lived nomadically in the catchment area of the great rivers Magoh and Limbang, without farming or cattle breeding – the forest and rivers gave them everything they needed. A special meaning had – and has – the hunt on babui, the wild beard pig, and the production of flour of the Sago palm. In the 1950s, anthropologist Rodney Needham came to Sarawak and began to explore their way of life and culture. The work of the Canadian linguist and documentary filmmaker Ian Mackenzie, who has been researching the Penan language since 1991, collecting their fascinating myths and publishing a selection in Penan, English and German for the first time in Tomas Wüthrich's Doomed Paradise, builds on Needham's findings today; Mackenzie got to know the Penan through Bruno Manser. The myths can also be heard via QR code.

Penan Borneo

© Tomas Wüthrich


Sedentariness and modernity

Most of the approximately 10,000 Penan settled down under pressure from the government and evangelical missionaries and began to grow rice. But the way of life of some Penan people is fluidly transformed into nomadic: An example of this is the semi-nomadic group around Chief Peng Megut, which stands in the centre of Tomas Wüthrich's photo work. The photographer spent about six months alone with the group of Peng Megut and documented their everyday life, their hunt with the blowpipe for bearded pigs or monkeys, their extraction of the flour of the sago palm. He also recorded the significance that mobile phones, televisions, motorcycles and cars have received. It is fascinating that Peng Megut and his group have managed to preserve a green island with largely intact rainforest in the middle of an area that has been timbered several times.

Resistance to deforestation

The timber companies invaded the Penan area in the mid-1980s. Blockades of logging roads were the most important form of civil and non-violent resistance. However, by 2000 only just under ten percent of the forest area had been spared. Resistance was particularly difficult for the nomadic and small Penan groups in the Magoh, Limbong and Meli'it regions. They continue to erect roadblocks and guard and defend their forest area.


Penan Borneo

© Tomas Wüthrich


Maps to preserve the rainforest

During his lifetime, Bruno Manser founded the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), which supports tropical rainforests, their wildlife and population, but especially the rainforest on Borneo and the Penan way of life. As part of a community mapping project, the BMF worked with the Penan to develop precise maps in which land rights are recorded. How important these are was shown, for example, in October 2018, when the police, called in by the timber company Lee Ling, surprisingly asked the loggers to respect the land rights of Peng Megut and to leave the area.

Fragile existence in the rainforest

Tomas Wüthrich's photographs show just how much the wealth of the rainforest has made the life and culture of the Penan possible to this day, but how fragile their existence has become. Tomas Wüthrich's book Doomed Paradise – Die letzten Penan im Regenwald von Borneo challenges us to do more to protect the rainforest and preserve an ancient and natural way of life.

Printed on 100 percent tree-free paper made of lime flour and bound without toxic glues, the book not only brings the pictures, but for the first time also the written myths back to their place of origin: to the Penan.


Penan Borneo

© Tomas Wüthrich


NIKIN – What we do for the rainforests

We at NIKIN have made it our concern to do something to ensure that the forests of this world continue to provide animals and plants with the habitat they need. That is why we support the work of our partner organisation OneTreePlanted. With every purchase at NIKIN you donate a tree! And so you help with small means that the rainforest does not disappear completely.

The author: Tomas Wüthrich

Tomas Wüthrich is a freelance Swiss photographer. His award-winning reports and portraits are published internationally in GEO, Das Magazin, NZZ am Wochenende and others. Between 2014 and 2019 he accompanied a group of still largely nomadic Penan during several longer stays on Borneo. He lives in Liebistorf, Switzerland.

Tomas Wüthrich

© Andri Pol


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