The Penan – The last nomads of the rainforest

For five years I have been photographing the everyday life and culture of the Penan as well as the effects of modernity and illegal logging on their way of life in the rainforest of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

The Penan are an indigenous tribe of originally nomadic hunters and gatherers who live in and from Borneo’s rainforests. The Penan became internationally known in the 1980s through Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser. They hunt with blowpipes and poisoned arrows, fish and collect fruits and plants. Since 1970, over 90% of the rainforest in Sarawak has been cleared and palm oil plantations are spreading. Due to the loss of their livelihood, most Penan have been forced to settle.

In the area of the upper Limbang river the clan around Headman Peng Megut has managed to defend their area against the timber industry until today. They are some of the very last Penan who still roam the rainforest as nomads. But their paradise is threatened by deforestation activities and new plantations. They have set up blockades to prevent the loggers from entering. The blockade has already been destroyed three times and they have rebuilt it every time. But the loggers who bought the logging licenses for this forest from the corrupt government are not giving up. They keep trying to penetrate this last area of primary forest. If the Penan’s land rights are not finally recognised by the government, their unique culture will soon have disappeared just like the world’s oldest rainforest.

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The Book

The book «Doomed Paradise - The Last Penan in the Rainforest of Borneo» is published by the renowned Zurich art and photo book publisher «Scheidegger & Spiess». It will be published in September 2019 parallel to a photo exhibition at the Kornhausforum Bern.

The 120 carefully edited pictures with detailed captions provide exclusive insights into one of the last nomadic cultures in the world through the proximity I have gained to the inhabitants. The photo essay is supplemented by two experts on the Penan:

Ian Mackenzie, the Canadian linguist, has spent many years researching and recording the language and myths of the Penan. Some of these oral legends will flow into the book and provide insight into the Penan’s thinking and feelings. This will also give back to the people themselves some of their culture: written down, the legends will be available to the Penan for reading and reading aloud.

Lukas Straumann, Managing Director of the Bruno Manser Fund, writes a foreword with the most important background information on the Penan and their culture. He classifies the current situation historically and politically and provides the reader with an overview.

All texts and also the legends to the pictures are printed in German, English and Penan. The photography expert Nadine Olonetzky accompanies the creation of the book from the publisher’s side. It is designed by the award-winning graphic artists of the Atlas Studio in Zurich.

In order to cover the costs for graphics, printing, editing and proofreading, we need your support – become part of this project!

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I spent many weeks with the Penan nomads in the rainforest and was able to participate in their daily lives. The family of Peng Megut has become my second family.

I experienced their traditional life in the forest, the cosiness of sitting together by the fire in an open hut in the middle of the rainforest, eating sago and game, and listening to stories. I have seen the incredible beauty of nature and experienced the feeling of being part of it. The friendliness of the Penan and their tradition of sharing have shaped me. I was afraid after meeting a cobra. I witnessed the horror when they discovered that their forest was being sold and is to be cleared. I saw the brutal destruction of the loggers. I was there when the blockades were built and destroyed. I accompanied Peng Megut when he got on a plane for the first time to meet his lawyer in Kuching. On the last trip I heard the howling of the chainsaws all the time.

My friend Peng Megut and the Penan need help, he asked me to tell the people in my home country what I experienced in the rainforest of Sarawak. I want to keep this promise with this book.

The monograph «Doomed Paradise - The Last Penan in the Rainforest of Borneo» is aimed at a broad audience, as well as professionals and educational institutions. Its goal is to draw attention to the unique culture of the Penan and their threat from the deforestation of the rainforests. The topic raises socio-political questions that also affect our consumer society. Global warming and palm oil consumption are directly linked to the machinations of the timber industry.

The production of this book is supported by public institutions and Swiss foundations. However, 20,000 francs are still missing to secure the financing.

Thank you very much for your support!