An Australian man’s efforts to save the oldest culture in Borneo – Penan Cultural Festival

The Penan village of Long Bangan in the Tutoh area of Sarawak, Malaysia, has been a hive of activity as the people prepare for this year’s cultural festival.

A stage area has been built and an atui (log drum) constructed, both decked out with traditional decorations, and over 150 kilograms of rice and other food staples have been purchased.

The highlights of the festival will be a blowpipe competition, a demonstration of how to make traditional Penan clothing from tree bark, and the construction of a nomadic jungle shelter.

There will also be demonstrations on how to make and play traditional Penan musical instruments, including the ureng (nose flute), pagang (stringed bamboo instrument) and keringot (mouth harp) as well as elders recounting traditional Penan stories and legends.

The festival will open with a “sign walk”, where different Penan jungle signs from sticks and leaves will be explained.

The festival has been organised by Paulus Lucas, the Secretary of the village Security and Development Committee. Paulus said he wanted to organise the festival as he is worried the young Penan are losing touch with their culture. Paulus said “the Penan culture is the oldest culture in Borneo and my people have been living in the forests here for over 40,000 years”.

Due to a lack of Primary Schools in Penan villages many children as young as six have to travel far from their homes to attend boarding school, and then spend many years away from their family.

Paulus said “…my people want education and development but we do not want to lose our culture.”

He said “…other Dayak groups such as the Iban and Kayan have development and still have retained their culture. If this is truly 1Malaysia why can’t the Penan also have both”.

Paulus said that “…although there are 80 school-aged children in Long Bangan and another 40 under 6 years old we do not have either a pre-school or a primary school in the village”.

Paulus has organised for the Headman and a number of Penan youth to travel from 18 Penan villages in the Baram/Tutoh area to attend the festival.

The festival is being funded by Brett Pritchard, an Australian climate change specialist who is currently studying the feasibility of carbon offset projects in Sarawak.

Brett now lives in Queensland but was born in Hobart, and has a bachelor of Natural Environments and Wilderness Studies (BNatEnvWildStud) from the University of Tasmania. He studied Climate change science and policy at the Australian National University as part of his degree.

He lived in Long Bangan for in the early 1990’s to conduct a 2 year Permaculture project, the very first such project in Malaysia. During this project he taught the Penans how to raise trees from seed, and then assisted in the planting of 5,000 fruit trees and 5,000 sago palms in the jungle around the village.

Brett Pritchard said “…it is terrible to see how much erosion of culture there has been in less than 20 years”. He said that “…only a generation ago the Penan were credited as having a wider botanical knowledge than any other group of people in the world, and now many of the children cannot recognise the traditional fruit trees in the forest”.

Mr Pritchard went on to say “…there are untold riches for Sarawak if that cultural knowledge is utilised and just a small proportion of the Penan traditional fruit or medicinal plants are commercialised.”

“For example there is one fruit the Penan call Bua Lewing that tastes like sweet lemonade that would have a massive market if it were available in Australia, Europe and America.”

Local company Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel Sdn Bhd are funding for a group of local journalists to travel into the village by cover the event.

Tropical Adventure is organising a more tourist orientated Penan Rainforest Cultural Festival for August 2011, with some of the proceeds to fund next year?s village festival. Details are available at

The Director of Tropical Adventure, Richard Hii, said “…as the oldest culture in Borneo and possibly the oldest forest-based culture in Asia not only Sarawak but the whole world will be impoverished if this culture is allowed to disappear”.

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