The Penan Traditional Culture In The Contemporary Period Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Culture, People, Forest, Environment, Government, Politics, Development, Life

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/02/15

The Penan Traditional Culture in the Contemporary Period

Indigenous cultures play a primal role in society, in terms of contributing to cultural diversity and enriching the society with traditional knowledge and language. Across the world, the number of indigenous people exceeds 370 million, 5 percent of the world’s population (Kipuri, 2009:1). These indigenous people uphold their traditional cultures; however, modern development has strained the efforts of indigenous people to practice their traditional culture. The upsurge of infrastructure development, such as hydroelectric dams, roads, and gas and oil pipelines, in the territories of indigenous people, has robbed them of their ancestral lands. In addition, these infrastructural developments have supported deforestation for the selfish purposes of logging. Governments have publicly endorsed the unfavorable logging practices in the sense they even participate in the logging in their capacity. It has been fostered by the government’s capability of privatizing public facilities including environmental resources, such as forests. Besides, the indigenous people are excluded and discriminate against in political, social and economic dimensions. In fact, their ways of life are negatively affected by the modern pursuit of economic growth across the world. As a consequence, indigenous people have emerged as the most destitute and illiterate people in the society (Survival International, 2007:1-2). To add insult to injury, the traditional cultures, expressions and knowledge of the indigenous people are patented and marketed in museums and other places without neither their participation nor consent (Ghorbani et al., 2013:15). It is apparent that indigenous people have been on the receiving end of the modern developments compounding these factors. In this discussion, the traditional culture of the Penans and the social, cultural and ecological changes that have impacted the sustainability of their way of life in the contemporary period.
The Penan emerges as one of the famous indigenous culture in Asia. Sarawak, the home state of the Penans, is the largest state of Malaysia and comprises of 38 percent of the Malaysian territory. Sarawak savors a landscape of soaring mountains, caves, rivers and tropical rainforests (Brosius, 2009:135). With a population of over 1.2 million people, Sarawak has twenty-six ethnic groups of which the indigenous primeval people, better known as the Penans, are among them. The Penans are the last of their kind, nomadic hunter-gathers, and occupies the Sarawak’s remote interior. Approximately, there are over 7,600 Penans, of which over a thousand still remain in the forest upholding their ancient way of life (Cultural Survival, 2014). The Penans are among the few nomadic rainforest societies in the world.
The traditional culture of the Penans is similar to that of their relative indigenous groups. The Penans are related with the roaming Maku of the Northwest Amazon and the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire. Rather than practicing agriculture, the Penans traditionally depended on the wild populations, such as the sago palm, for carbohydrate provision. In their capacity as hunters and gathers, the Penans passed across the remote and immense forested uplands that bring about a plethora of tributaries of the Baram River. In essence, the forest plays a key role for the Penans in the sense that it responds in a myriad of ways to their physical and spiritual needs. The roots of the forest trees were used to cleanse whereas the leaves were used as medicine. The magical plants, edible fruits and seeds enhanced the ability of hunting dogs besides being used to drive out the forces of darkness. In addition, some plants produced glue that was used to trap birds, whereas others yielded gums and resins for trade. Twines were utilized for making baskets; leaves used for shelter and as sandpaper; and wood was used to make musical instruments (Davis, 1990: 86). In this sense, the Penans regarded the plants in the forest as sacred and are born from the same earth that bears humans. The forest encompassed the life of the Penans.
The traditional culture of the Penans was also nonhierarchical and egalitarian. The social structure of the Penans was grounded on an extensive network of responsibilities, which stems from the ecological suitability of the forest environment that they were adapted. The traditional culture advocated for social equality among the people in the sense that each person was expected to be self-efficient in hunting and gathering. Even though some individuals would prove to be more talented in executing creation, social roles than in another, the traditional culture encouraged each person to have the capacity to take part in every societal activity, albeit in an indiscriminate manner. There was no activity that was specifically associated with men or women; there was no gender division. What is more is that the traditional culture was nonhierarchical in the sense that despite the existence of the headmen and elders, there was no form of hierarchy. Nevertheless, the Penans gave ultimate respect for elders (Davis, 1990: 102). Intrinsically, in the traditional culture of the Penan, there was no specialization and no form of hierarchy due to the prevailing circumstances of the forest environment and yielded a strong communal bond.
As a manifestation of the strong communal bond, the traditional Penan culture entailed a meticulous sharing process. Given that the Penans depended on the forest and each other for survival, the virtue of individual generosity was institutionalized in the Penan traditional culture. The motivation of embracing individual generosity is to overcome the inevitable dubiety that underlies the hunting and gathering way of life. The social behavior of sharing was instilled in children from the early stages and rather than doing this through stringent discipline, children and youths learned to share through the acts of their elders. In fact, the greatest transgression of the traditional culture of the Penans is the failure to share. Once a person failed to share, the Penan people would laugh at the victim rather than being angry at him or her (Cultural Survival, 2014). This is because of the strong communal bond that existed in the traditional Penan society, as well as the forest environment that the Penan people inhibited.
Moreover, the traditional culture of the Penans endorsed peacefulness. In the ancient times, the clashes between the indigenous communities were prevalent and inevitable. However, every time the Penans were confronted by hostility, they would run back to the forest. Actually, among all the indigenous societies in Sawaka, the Penans are the only people without headhunting history, which was used as a mechanism to deal with aggression. Surprisingly, the practice of headhunting was uncommon among the Penans insofar that they did not even have a name for it (Davis, 1990: 136). As a consequence, the present day Penan people, when angered, lack the appropriate word to express it and instead they use the peaceful statement: “that is what we do not like” (Roche, 2010). The peacefulness of the traditional culture is attributed to the forest environment and the inexistent social stratification in the traditional Penan society.
However, the traditional culture of the Penan people has become endangered in the contemporary period. The government of Sarawaka has undertaken a development project aimed at improving the standard of life of the people in the rural areas besides palliating poverty in these areas (Government Transformational Programme, 2010:155). As such, the government has built alternative dwellings for the Penans, which are referred to as longhouses. Nevertheless, the traditional culture of the Penan people is at risk of extinction since the longhouses are not suitable for the Penans (Selvadurai et al., 2013: 74). The abundance of food presented by the forest environment is long gone and the Penan people are now experiencing difficulties in trying to find food for themselves and their families. The new practice of farming fails to provide enough food as compared to the traditional practice of hunting and gathering. With farming, the Penan people have to wait for a long period of time before they can harvest. The longhouses are crowded and inappropriate sanitation. In addition, the longhouses have forced the Penan people to separate and the culture of sharing is compromised because of the distance between dwellings (76). Despite the good motive of the rural development projects of the government, the interests of the traditional culture of the Penan people have not been given sufficient consideration.
Underlying the rural development projects is the act of deforestation, which has jeopardized the traditional culture of the Penan people. Besides providing longhouses for the rural dwellers, the government decided to construct better roads, power generating facilities and palm plantations to boost the well-being of the Penan people (Government Transformational Programme, 2010:158). In this sense, deforestation is inevitable and the government has even used deforestation as a source of income through the economic practice of In fact, Sarawak is known for exporting petroleum, timber also brings significant revenue to the government. However, this ill motive of the government is disguised in the palm oil plantation projects that have logging as its precursor (, 2011). The road and dam constructions compel the cutting down of trees. As a consequence, the Penan people are deprived of their habitat, food and medicinal source (Yan, 2012:1). The Penan people are forced to look for alternative ways of making ends meet due to the destruction of the forests that traditionally meant life to them.
The plantation enterprises complicate the efforts of the Penans to follow their ancient way of life. As a way of coping with the novel subjection by the government, the Penans have increasingly resolved to engage themselves in plantation activities in order to at least earn a living. Nonetheless, the inadequacy of the Penan people to comfortably participate in the immense plantation activities comes forth as a major setback. The plantations require a degree of skills and a work structure that supports specialization of labor. Consequentially, the Penans participate in the plantation in a limited capacity because of the disparity in their traditional work structure, which disputes specialization, with that required by the plantations. This is attributed to the vast layoffs of Penans in the plantations (Selvadurai et al., 2013:76). What is more is that the Penans are not used to working under the open heat environment presented by the plantations since the Penan way of life entails hunting and gathering under the covered forest environment. The plantations also prefer foreign workers, such as Indonesians, who are known to be hard-working and this work at the expense of the Penans (Yong, 2014:58). Intrinsically, the Penans are forced to adapt to the conditions of work at the plantations due to the social and ecological changes underlying the contemporary period of vast developments.
In conclusion, the traditional culture of the indigenous groups has been adversely affected by the developments encountered in the modern day society. The Penans, for instance, have been forced out of their habitats in the forest and are now living in longhouses. As a consequence, the copiousness of food provided by the forest is left in the past. Besides, the culture of sharing is imperiled due to the separating of people as they inhabit the longhouses. To boot, the traditional culture of egalitarian and lacking social stratification is threatened by the participation of the Penans in plantations that have different work structures with those of their traditions. The indigenous traditions are endangered and are yet to be extinct. Unless the governments realize the importance of indigenous traditions and giving the indigenous the right to practice their traditional cultures, the future of cultural diversity is bleak.


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