How the Art of Weaving Gives New Life to the Penan Tribe

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SINGAPORE, Singapore — The Penan are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe located primarily in the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The people of the tribe are of a gentle disposition and espouse “highly egalitarian” values. At present, there are approximately 10,000 Penans living in Malaysia. Though traditionally nomadic, the vast majority of the Penan now live in settled village communities. However, despite this, the Penan’s dependence on the forest for their survival remains high and it is here that the issue of their growing poverty arises. In response, organizations are leveraging the art of weaving to reduce poverty among the Penan.

The Plight of the Penan

The issue at hand is that the plight of the Penan has deteriorated drastically. Since the 1970s, large-scale commercial logging sanctioned by the Malaysian government has led to the destruction of the forests and tribal lands of the Penan, whose land rights do not receive recognition. The cleared land now houses oil palm plantations and hydraulic dams, adversely affecting the primary sources of livelihood of the Penan, such as hunting and fishing. As a result, poverty among the Penan tribe has risen.

The Penan who tried to dissuade company workers from destroying their homelands often encountered death threats. When a Penan man protesting the logging approached company workers, he was reportedly told, “this is a government project. If you fight us, we’ll kill you.” Many workers also stand accused of rape and the sexual assault of Penan women and girls.

The Art of Weaving

In light of these dire circumstances, the dexterity of the tribe’s women in the art of weaving presents a silver lining for the Penan. For centuries, the Penan women have been making bags and baskets, traditionally known as keva, from wild jungle rattan. When a nomadic lifestyle was still the norm for the Penan, the Penan used keva to carry their belongings from one place to another and the men utilized keva for hunting.

Today, thanks to the help of several organizations, these bags not only serve as testaments to the Penan’s rich culture and skilled craftsmanship but also a means of alleviating poverty among the Penan tribe.

Organizations Supporting the Penan

  1. Helping Hands Penan (HHP): A Brunei-based NGO, HHP’s mission is to support the women of the Penan tribe by facilitating the sale of their hand-woven keva. The revenue goes toward funding the education of the Penan children to help fight poverty among the Penan tribe. The organization also helped to revolutionize the weaving of the Penan women by introducing them to colorful plastic fiber as an alternative to rattan, which has become more costly to acquire. The durability of the plastic and vibrancy of the colors have boosted the popularity of Penan bags among consumers. As of March 2020, the NGO works with more than “100 weavers in 20 villages.” Moreover, HHP provides financial assistance to 150 kids for their primary to tertiary education and gives additional support for applications to higher education institutions.
  2. Penan Bags Europe (PBE): Penan Bags Europe is an NGO founded in October 2014 in the Malaysian city of Miri. The idea to launch the organization arose after the co-founder, Isabelle Stevens, heard of the financial struggles of 35 Penan families. Similar to the efforts of Helping Hands Penan, Stevens enlisted the help of a Malaysian coworker who taught the women of these families how to weave baskets and bags using plastic. Soon to complete seven years of operation, the NGO has seen great success, creating more than 25,000 bags and baskets with its products “used in more than 75 countries.” As a result, the livelihoods of the Penan working for PBE have improved significantly thanks to the provision of steady salaries and education for the children.
  3. The Miri Women Weaving Association (MWWA): The MWWA was established by Shida Mojet in 2016. Like its counterparts, the association aims to alleviate poverty among the Penan living in the Limbang and Miri divisions of Sarawak. Under the banner of the MWWA, Mojet co-founded the Penan Women Project with Ann Wong to tap into the weaving potential of the women as a source of income. Today, the project has 60 weavers, with the founders providing careful instruction on sizing and design to maximize the appeal of Penan products to urban buyers. In addition to the Penan Women Project, the MMWA also supports the Penan with maternity and medical care assistance and teaches Penan families farming techniques, providing them with the necessary tools and seeds.

The Road Ahead

After decades of hardship, it appears that the tide may finally be turning for the Penan tribe. As the women continue to leverage the art of weaving to bring in income, inroads are also being made regarding the protection of the forests that the Penan hold close to their hearts. In July 2021, the Malaysian Timber Certification Council ordered a dispute mediation in response to 36 indigenous community complaints (including the Penan) over unsustainable and non-consensual logging in Sarawak. Additionally, the relevant authorities have endorsed the idea of a rainforest park placed under the custodianship of indigenous communities in Sarawak.

By addressing harmful logging practices and supporting indigenous communities with funding to protect their park, poverty among the Penan could become a vestige of the past.

– Vyas Nageswaran
Photo: Wikipedia

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