Community-based monitoring among the Penan of Malaysian Sarawak

Sarawak, Malaysia
Indigenous Penan participatory forest monitoring
Measuring felled trees to see if they are in line with permitted diameters
Key Lessons 
  • This case study shows that in situations with the most urgent need to secure land rights, monitoring and mapping can be essential, but are also likely to bring particular risks.
  • The data from the monitoring project will be used to meet several objectives for the indigenous Penan people - both direct, such as supporting court cases to obtain land rights and informing their sustainable land and resource-use plans, and more indirect, such as community empowerment.
  • Community-based forest monitoring overcomes issues in data collection that would be encountered by outsiders, such as the use of local units or complex responses that cannot be well interpreted by non-native speakers.

The indigenous Penan of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, were one of the last nomadic groups of South-East Asia. Under pressure from successive governments, many groups began to settle in the early to mid 20th century and to cultivate rice. The Penan’s territories extend over North Eastern Sarawak, with communities heavily dependent on forests for their livelihoods and cultural identity. However, their forests are being rapidly destroyed by logging companies and plantations, which have been granted concessions without consulting the communities or recognising their traditional land rights - a legal requirement, given laws on Native Customary Rights (NCR). Many communities have submitted cases to the courts, some of which are expected to begin to be heard this year (2016).

Ensuring that NCR are recognised requires the Penan’s traditional and current use of the forest, and their cultural connection with it, to be documented. Furthermore, since the Penan settled relatively recently and are undergoing rapid environmental and social changes, information on resource use is urgently needed to inform sustainable land and resource use plans. However, widespread corruption and a law against participatory mapping make this work complex.

This monitoring programme is being developed as a collaboration between the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), a Swiss NGO, and a local Penan organisation (who cannot be named for safety reasons). It aims to collect data on resource use, agriculture, land rights, land cover, and illegal logging. The data will be used to inform NCR court cases; to support the development of plans for sustainable land and resource use; to highlight illegal logging; and to campaign on behalf of the Penan.

The testing phase was conducted between March and July 2016, with training taking place in November of the same year. The implementation phase is planned to begin in February 2017, and to continue until at least 2020.

International Forest Agenda/s 

Policy context

For several decades the Malaysian state of Sarawak has been under a highly corrupt system of governance that saw ministers using forest concessions and related industries to finance a small political elite. This has been investigated by Global Witness (here) and BMF in a book detailing the extent of corruption (summarised by National Geographic), who identified corrupt and speculative land deals, kickbacks from concession grants and evasion of Malaysian taxes, among other activities. The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud (often referred to simply as ‘Taib’), and his family have been at the centre of these allegations.

As a result Sarawak has one of the highest rates of deforestation in South-East Asia, with an estimated 5% of the state’s primary forests remaining, and a large proportion of South-East Asian timber exports coming from this relatively small state.

This has had devastating impacts on several indigenous groups in Sarawak who rely on the forests for their livelihoods. A number of communities have submitted court cases to have their traditional land rights recognised. However, many of these cases are still pending, with several waiting to be heard for over a decade (the complexity of the process is outlined here). Meanwhile, following a court decision to uphold the Native Customary Rights claims of the Iban community of Rumah Nor in 2000, the Sarawak Land Surveyors Ordinance of 2001 was implemented, which rendered community mapping activities effectively illegal. Since community maps are often essential to demonstrating traditional land claims in court, this severely impedes the ability of communities to have their rights recognised, as discussed here.

Nevertheless, a number of communities and partner organisations have continued to map community lands, and maps created since the ban have been recognised in court (for example, this court victory of 2016). In this context, many communities and NGOs practice discretion in their activities, but continue to support the principle that communities should be able to map their lands, if they choose to do so.

Community participation

The project is a collaboration between BMF and a local organisation run by Penan community members, which has been working on Penan land rights for over 30 years. In the development phase, BMF and this local Penan partner visited ten villages to test pilot surveys and to consult with community representatives on the scope, objectives and methodology of the monitoring programme.

In the implementation phase, all data will be collected by community members. The data collectors are comprised of two groups: the monitoring team and nine ‘regional coordinators’. Their monitoring roles are described below. The regional coordinators are local leaders, elected by communities to represent them in land-right issues and to undertake related responsibilities, such as travelling to meetings in nearby villages or in the city. For the monitoring project, their roles will extend to data collection.

Data analysis will be conducted by the local organisation and BMF, depending on the specific purpose of the analysis and skill sets available.

Monitoring methodology

The programme will monitor multiple aspects of environmental and social change among the Penan. Specifically, it will cover hunting, non-timber forest resource use, agricultural production and dynamics, community wellbeing (including aspects such as income, health care and education), and illegal logging.

The regional coordinators will each be responsible for between one and five villages, and will conduct short, monthly surveys with individuals in these communities, covering resource-use, wellbeing and agricultural production and dynamics.

The monitoring team will travel to participating communities on a regular basis to carry out monitoring that requires more specialised training, such as conducting group surveys, and collecting data on illegal logging, land rights, and certain aspects of agriculture. They will also offer advice to the regional coordinators to support them in their monthly surveys.

This model was developed based on findings by Luzar et al. (2011) that the success of community-based forest monitoring in terms of ongoing motivation and data quality was improved with strong social institutions and regular contact and support from local NGOs.

Digital technology

Data will be collected using Geographical-Open Data Kit (GeoODK) on smartphones and tablets. The monitoring team will collect the data from each village when they visit, and will send it to ODK Aggregate once they have internet signal. The resultant data can be viewed and analysed by the project managers of the local organisation and BMF.

Achievements and challenges

A particular issue that has been encountered is asking questions that require the interviewee to make a quantitative estimate, such as distance to the last successful hunt. Some respondents reply in kilometres, and others in hours travelled as a proxy for distance. Such issues need to be accounted for in the survey design.

However, such issues also highlight the benefit of community-based monitoring as opposed to data collection by outsiders. Since the data collectors were familiar with the area and culture, and were native speakers, they could overcome many issues such as this.

Nevertheless, the objectives and purpose of data collection were quickly understood and agreed by the communities, with many people being more eloquent in explaining the importance of monitoring than the project managers and team members themselves. This hopefully bodes well for the ongoing sustainability of the programme.

It is hoped that the process of gathering data and regularly discussing forest management will help support community empowerment by creating new skill sets and strengthening cultural identity (as people understand more about their traditional land areas and connections to it).

The policy context creates obvious challenges and risks, such that Forest COMPASS is unable to share the specific steps that BMF and its partner take in response. However, BMF has general information on its approach to mapping here, and this detailed case study shows how community mapping has continued to be used by other indigenous communities and NGOs in Sarawak to support their land claims, despite the Sarawak Land Surveyors Ordinance.