Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court (Part III)

Borneo

A member of Borneo’s Kenyah tribe testing a blowpipe. (Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Library)

In the first and second installments of this story set in Southeast Asia, we met a U.S.-educated Malaysian lawyer who challenges entrenched corporate and political interests in defense of a Borneo tribe and the rainforest they depend on for sustenance.

In this installment, the author tackles some thorny questions. Are Penans Masters of the Rainforest? Can Western legal concepts be applied to an indigenous people whose claim to the land predates colonization?

By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The trial continued; the experts testified another full day.

The Japanese ethnographer, a strong-willed but softly-spoken woman, offered dozens of examples of the competence and, yes, the humanity of the Penans.

Trees bloom in response to the peacock’s song. Dozens of wild plants used for everything from curing hangovers to treating snake bite and upset stomach. The Penans predict the time by the sound of the cicadas. They carve precision blowpipes from tropical hardwoods and make a poison for their hunting darts from the sap of a forest vine. Deceased ancestors are buried in the forest so their spirits could take root as saplings.

Western idealization! The defense attorneys roared. They were, after all, paid high fees for defending the leaders of the nation. Paternalistic arrogance! Fear-mongering! Primitive folk superstitions!

Most tantalizing was the comment by a Singaporean anthropologist: During important festivals, shamans enter a “dream wandering” trance in which they speak a language only the gods can understand.

The audience listening to this testimony had no alternative but to feel that the modest Penans were Masters of the Rainforest.

* * *

The most touching testimony came from John, one of the Penan elders, who had the triple distinction of having received a secondary school education and who was both a Penan shaman and lay Christian preacher. He took 15 minutes to explain how the forest features in the Penan origin myth.

The first man and woman, created from trees themselves, learned about sex by watching a branch from a tree entering a hole in a second tree during a storm.

* * *

Then came the time for Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang and the other Penan men and women to appear before the court.

They were simple people. Ledong had wanted them to wear traditional dress, but the plaintiffs felt that they would be mocked in sophisticated Kuala Lumpur if the men wore loincloths and the women went bare-breasted.

So they were dressed in ill-fitting Western clothes – dark trousers and inexpensive batik shirts for the men, and dark skirts and equally bright batik shirts for the women. Their appearance was like rustics wearing their children’s school uniforms.

They wore distinctive woven rattan caps decorated with large black and white rhinoceros hornbill feathers (an endangered species, but Ledong didn’t think anyone would notice). They couldn’t eliminate their tattoos, of course, and the men didn’t alter their hair styles, which featured a bowl cut in front and a narrow pony tail in back.

* * *

Ledong’s case depended on the testimony of Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tinggang and the others. Would the nature spirits cooperate?

The numina in this case were other-than-human entities that lived in large rainforest trees. These spirits were at the heart of Ledong’s case. He needed to prove three things: that the spirits existed, that they had a basic right to exist and that they would cease to exist if the forest were destroyed.

* * *

Over the years, Ledong had fought the good fight on behalf of native peoples and their ancestral homes.

His first major case took place in 2001, when Chief Justice Lucas Chin of the Malaysian state of Sarawak decided on behalf of the Iban community of Rumah Nor in a land rights case.

Chin realized that his decision would be both criticized and much-cited, and he made the effort to explain the history proving that the Ibans had ownership of the land.

Chin started by analyzing historical tribal ownership patterns, then chronologically dissected the legal situation of indigenous land ownership under the Sultanate of Brunei, the rule of the three White Rajahs of Sarawak, the British colonial period and finally under the Federation of Malaysia.

One of the defense’s arguments was that the Rumah Nor longhouse was virtually uninhabited.

When I visited Rumah Nor, shortly after Justice Chin’s landmark decision, only a few old folks were in residence. The remainder of the people who gave Rumah Nor as their permanent address actually lived in the nearby city of Bintulu, where they were able to more easily find work in Bintulu’s huge liquefied natural gas complex.

There were other legal hurdles that Chin had to address. One was that Rumah Nor’s property boundaries were neither clearly defined nor mapped.

Chin addressed this by accepting the plaintiff’s claim that oral tradition, coupled with natural markers (a stream, an old tree, a waterfall) could serve as legal proof of ownership.

Another problem was the defense’s interpretation of Malaysian law that stated that a community could claim ownership of land only if the land was used for farming.

The Ibans of Rumah Nor, like the tribal communities in the rest of the state, generally practiced “static” farming only near the dwellings – fruit, vegetables, rubber.

But much larger areas further afield were devoted to shifting cultivation to produce “dry rice” in which the growing area was moved every year, leaving large blocks of land fallow to allow secondary vegetation to grow and restore the fertility of the soil. According to the defendants, such land was not “used” and hence not “owned.”

Chin’s decision gave a boost to the now-commonly used term Native Customary Rights, or NCR. His decision was over-turned on appeal.

The forces of what Ledong termed “dark greed and unstoppable ego” were too powerful for the arguments of the simple folk of Rumah Nor longhouse.

* * *

But no matter how you looked at it, all previous legal cases were based on a Western model of jurisprudence.

Spurred on by the cultural and religious beliefs proposed by the three stern, paternalistic desert religions, Western-Jurisprudence basically takes the view that man has dominion over nature, man has both a responsibility to protect nature but also a right to “make nature productive,” and that land ownership has to be proven by Western guidelines.

Ledong was taking a different view.

He was promoting a revolutionary way of looking at our relationship with the natural world. He was challenging the pervasive status of Western-Jurisprudence with a threatening new legal concept based on ancient truths – Ethno-Jurisprudence.

* * *

In a way, this was a last-ditch effort by Ledong. Nothing had worked previously. Blockades.  Negotiations. International pressure. Civil disobedience. Not even the Robin Hood antics of Bruno Manser, the daring Swiss who lived with the Penans for years and helped them earn international awareness for their cause, had helped.

The forces of “development” were just too strong for the beleaguered Penans and their tree-spirit-brothers.

(To read the fourth installment of “Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court,” click here.)


Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include “An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles,” “Distant Greens,” “Curious Encounters of the Human Kind,” “Redheads,” “Share Your Journey” and “Soul of the Tiger” (with Jeff McNeely). This story is excerpted from “Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia,” which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in early 2018. The author can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.

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