For some travellers, the Penan have a mystique beyond that of any of Sarawak’s many Orang Ulu groups, as a kind of poster child for the ongoing struggle for native peoples’ rights. That status is largely thanks to the high-profile campaign waged on their behalf by the Swiss activist Bruno Manser in the 1980s and 1990s. Manser lived with the Penan for many years and became a thorn in the side of the Sarawak government, successfully drawing the world’s attention to the destruction of their traditional forest habitat, though his PR successes had little impact on the juggernaut that is Sarawak’s logging industry. The Penan lost their champion when Manser disappeared in 2000, having trekked alone from Bario to meet the Penan in the jungle; he was never seen again, but the campaign he founded soldiers on (wbmf.ch).
Most of Sarawak’s twelve thousand Penan live in the upper reaches of the Baram and Belaga rivers. Their language is of the same family as Iban and Malay. Traditionally they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but these days the vast majority live in tiny villages – thanks not simply to habitat loss but also to the inescapable embrace of the outside world and the cash economy. Their old staple of sago has often been supplanted by rice, which the Penan grow like the Iban, in jungle clearings using shifting cultivation. Many Penan still struggle to make ends meet, both in towns where they may be in poorly paid work, and in their villages, where food is in reasonable supply but cash hard to come by. Another perennial problem is the lack of formal identity documents, without which many Penan cannot access services, education and jobs.