Articles

Borneo Death Blow – full documentary


In the remaining jungle of Borneo, lives a tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers. They’re known for their survival skills and for the deadly poison they use on their blowpipe darts the Penan My name is Raphael Treza. I’m a musician and film-maker I’m going to spend the next three months with the Penan tribe of Malaysia My journey begins in Kuala Lumpur Then a flight to Borneo the third largest island in the world bigger than France or Texas it’s divided into 3 territories Indonesian Kalimantan in the south which means burning weather island and Brunei and Malaysian Borneo in the north From the air I catch a glimpse of what the palm oil industry has done to this country I land in Sarawak a Malaysian state that’s seen massive deforestation. A land where activists get killed or disappear During a period of over fifty years the Malaysian government has overseen the destruction of the vast majority of Borneo’s primary rainforest selling it for billions of dollars as timber Half of all the world’s annual supply of tropical timber comes from Borneo and it’s replaced with rubber plantations and oil palm trees the products of which are now used in around half of all packaged supermarket goods. Very few national parks have been created in Sarawak to protect what is considered to be the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on Earth hosting one third of all plant species on the planet and an estimated 30 million insect species Less than 10% of Sarawak’s primary rainforest remains intact and where the land still looks green it’s mostly secondary forest growing for more timber The forest grows back so densely that it’s no longer habitable for its biggest and most endangered species like the orangutan and sun bears The Penan were the only tribe of hunters-gatherers able to live as nomads in the primary rainforest of Borneo settling for a couple of months in temporary huts, collecting only what they needed before moving on to other hunting grounds A peaceful, good-natured people the 15,000 Penan who lived here didn’t stand a chance against the powerful logging companies supported by a mafia state government When they started blocking logging roads, many were arrested and even tortured. Most of them ended up in cities, forgetting their precious survival knowledge. Today, only a few families have kept their traditional way of life. But as crucial space is missing, they are forced to live part-time in camps and villages. Bala is a semi-nomadic Penan tribesman. He’s recently had to take shelter in a village when his forest was cut down. He’s using a bamboo segment as a container, to fill with the deadly tajem, the poison applied to the tips of his hunting darts. The tajem tree, or Antiaris Toxicaria, grows up to forty meters high. It’s widespread all over south Asia and tropical Africa. In its raw form, the sap is deadly when it enters the bloodstream, causing lethal cardiac arrhythmia but, through a special refining process, ithe penan make it even more powerful. It is then fatal, in less than two minutes, depending on the size of the prey. It’s ideal for hunting as it doesn’t contaminate the meat The Penan rely on foreign trade to procure iron in return for resin, animal skins and handicrafts. Bala carefully cleans the residual deadly sap from his machete Bala pours the harvested latex into a pot made of dried leaves. These pots are also made from green leaves for boiling water and cooking meat. He is careful to heat it at just the right distance from the flame to avoid boiling the sap. As night falls on the forest of Borneo many species risk leaving the safety of their burrows. To make the poison more powerful, the Penan follow a special recipe. They combine several plants in specific proportions. The darts are then coated in the poisonous mixture, dried by the fire, and are ready to use. Richard is a sedentary Penan. He was born ten years after his family was forced out of the jungle in the nineties. He works in a nearby national park. He’s from one of the few villages that still has access to the untouched rainforest and reserve the right to practise traditional blowpipe hunting. He’s joined by his cousin. They search for their favourite meat, the wild boar. It’s become harder to find due to human activities around the border of the park. Blowpipe hunting is a matter of stealth and patience. During the day every animal is on their guard. This squirrel got lucky. Richie has found some bamboo shoots. They will provide a vegetarian meal for tonight. Later, they’re boiled to clear the cyanide it naturally contains. The rivers running through the national parks are clear and free of pollution from logging, which erodes the ground and makes the water muddy. The Penan can still practise fishing here. They use homemade spear-guns. They also fish in swamps, using bread. It takes only three seconds to catch a fish. Now it’s my turn to try. A few Penan families still live as semi-nomads in the remote jungle. Langub, a sedentary Penan guides me to meet them. He needs the help of a Penan couple who live on the way. We arrive at a camp built with the help of some sedentary Penan to facilitate meetings between the nomads and their relatives who have left the forest. Saya lives here a couple of months a year. With his two sons, Tyon and Ajai, his wife and his two daughters. The Penan keep female names secret to outsiders, so they’ll remain a mystery. For lunch, there’s rice, turtle and a mix of tapioca flour the Penan call naon, which tastes like water. Their main source of food would traditionally come from the sago palm tree. Saya and his kids are taking me to harvest its trunk. The Penan take great care to not damage its roots, so the palm will continue to thrive. He first collect some moss called jakah, an essential survival element used to light fires. The palm heart is typically made into a nutritious, non-perishable flour, but it’s also eaten raw. At the junction of two paths, Saya shows me Oroo, the Penan’s way of communicating with other members of the tribe, using signs made of branches. The code always begins with the Penan motto, jah kenin “we have the same heart” In the few villages bordering reserved areas, the Penan have been offered jobs in the national parks and are allowed to hunt in untouched regions of rainforest. In tourist places like these, the government appears to have made an effort to build a brand new hospital, but as I’ll learn later, nothing has been arranged for the Penan who’ve been forced to settle down in remote villages. Like most tribes in Borneo, Penan families share living accommodation, called longhouses. Their woven craft is made of rattan, a vine that can reach a length of more than 200 meters and can be crushed to use as a natural toothbrush. It’s now being replaced by plastic. The Penan used to be animist, worshipping the forest spirit called Ballei Like most tribes in Borneo, they’ve been Christianised. Nyapun was one of the first Penan chiefs to be forced to settle down. He says he’s probably 89 years old. The Penan used to live in the present. The canopy would hide the sky so they couldn’t count moon phases or years. He is gathering fern shoots and tapioca leaves for lunch. Like most tribesmen in rural Borneo, Nyapun never leaves his house without a weapon for self-defence. The spear attached to the end of his blowpipe is a reliable secondary weapon Tribal wars are still in living memory and encountering wild animals like giant pythons and sun bears could still be a deadly. Nyapun’s second wife plays nose flute. They live in this compound with their children and grandchildren. Two villagers guide me to a remote Penan camp at the end of a logging road. These dangerous, abandoned roads are prone to landslides and sinkholes. A few pockets of primary forest were spared from the chainsaws. Penan are known to be very shy, which makes their adaptation to the outside very challenging. The villagers have a hornbill as a pet. Hornbills are the emblem of Sarawak. Many different species exist all over Asia. Like the Great Hornbill, here filmed in Cambodia. Older Penan folk suffer most from their lost nomadic lifestyle, and struggle to adapt to life in the villages. Many suffer from depression or have lost their minds. I’m back with Bala. He shows me how to make Penan barkcloth. He cuts a beripun tree and beats it to remove the bark from the trunk. The Penan use over 1,500 names for plants. Most of them are used in their ethnobotany. He softens the bark by beating it. These were the traditional loin-cloths until cotton replaced them. This plant is used by the Penan to treat snake bites. It’s one of the most useful medicinal plants in the jungle of Borneo, which is loaded with deadly snakes. This same plant saved the life of Swiss ethnologist and activist Bruno Manser. He spent six years living with the Penan in the eighties, unifying and rallying them against the loggers by helping to block logging roads. The Malaysian government put a price on his head. He disappeared in the jungle of Sarawak in 2000, following his return from Europe. He was declared dead in 2005 and remains as a hero for the Penan. Though I hope I won’t need it, I decide to keep some for the rest of my trip. Another very powerful medicinal plant in Borneo is Kratom. It’s known to treat opiate and alcohol addiction. It’s also used against fever and to relieve stress and anxiety. I now travel to the south of Sarawak, near the Indonesian border, to meet the Iban, who are known as the head hunters. Their name is also the Lakya which means “the strong men”. They used to practise head hunting on other tribes, including the Penan, and some families still keep skulls as trophies in their longhouses. The Iban don’t use blowpipes for hunting, opting for regular guns. Even though head hunting officially ceased a century ago, the Iban are still remembered as merciless warriors, and guides still advise against entering Iban longhouses without invitation. They are famous for their tattoos. Tattoos represent an important life event like becoming a father. For the first head taken, a tattoo was made on the hand the entegulun The Iban now mix their traditional tattoos with Western styles and foreign travellers come to get Iban tattoos. At Saya’s camp, the family is preparing for a trip through the jungle. Saya’s daughter is petting the family’s monkey. The Penan use them as guards, giving a signal when danger is near. The family prepares to build a camp en route to their next living place. They choose an uphill spot away from mosquitoes and falling trees. Under such changeable weather conditions, they must be able to build a rainproof shelter in under an hour. As part of Penan fashion, they sometimes like to dye their hands with red leaves. The family occasionally leave the forest to trade meat in the villages, but they’re often isolated for months and must light their fires without using a lighter. With his knife, Saya strikes a firestone that he found in the river. Sparks fall on the moss, igniting it. More moss and a bit of cloth help the flames grow. To illuminate the hut at night, the Penan use a plant candle, made from the pod of a vine. It provides light for up to an hour. It rains almost every day in the jungle. Punyau, a readily-combustible wood, is cut and briefly dried above the fire. Tyon is making Penan forks, or atip, some versatile and effective cutlery, which are easy and fast to craft. I leave the nomads to meet a displaced community at the centre of Sarawak. There is no public transport, so I decide to hitchhike. The village is hours away from any other camp and I’m travelling next to 2000 liters of diesel. I come with a present, the book written by Bruno Manser. They can’t read it, but it contains many drawings of what are now rare animals and plants. Some villagers are preparing their blowpipes for hunting the next day. Penan blowpipes are crafted from ironwood, the hardest wood in the jungle. Their making is a long process, drilling by hand on a platform. The use of wooden blowpipes only appeared in the middle of the 20th century when the Penan acquired iron drills. They were previously made of bamboo. Once shaped as a tube and sanded down with a special leaf, the blowpipe is precise up to forty meters. Tribesmen in Borneo have developed a very distinctive style combining modern outfits with traditional survival gear and jeweller High socks help protect against leeches. They wear rattan bracelets and wild boar tusks. Apart from an unused room presented as a school the government has done nothing for these families, in the hopes that they will eventually migrate to the cities. The head of the camp wants to talk to me about the situation here. Sarawak is home to what was once thought to be the largest cave on earth, until one bigger was recently discovered in Vietnam. Three and a half million bats make their home inside. Every evening, they leave the cave in search of fruit and insects. They form swarms to confuse predators like eagles. After nightfall in the camp, the families gather to watch the only Kung Fu movie they have. This giant cicada is one of a thousand different cicada species in Borneo In the morning, the village kids get ready for hunting. Lia, Asik, and their little brothers Yung and Jokim find a thorny palm whose soft heart is used for the darts’ fletching. Without this crucial element, their entire survival in the jungle would be jeopardised. The plug is carved to the right width using a wooden guide. The season for wild fruit lasts only three months a year, and boars have become rare in this secondary forest. As a result the Penan are forced to rely on supplementary foods, like birds and pygmy squirrels. Using the poison, small prey dies instantly. Yung has found a plant used by kids as hair gel. Stingless bees come to drink on our skin. Giant wild bees also make swarms on the remaining tall trees. The Penan use a distinctive tongue clicking to express surprise and approval It’s time for me to leave the Penan. A people for whom kindness, generosity and courage is a way of life. Their ingenuity, and the elegant solutions they employ to thrive in some of the most challenging and complex environments must not be lost. All of humanity could benefit from Penan knowledge of plants and their understanding of nature. One day the tables will turn, and the wealth of every country will be defined by the nature they hold when that day comes, the last Penan families living in the wild may have left the rainforest along with all their secrets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *