Penan histories: Contentious narratives in Upriver Sarawak

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In the late 1980s the Penan of Sarawak, East Malaysia, became an environmentalist cause célèbre for a campaign of protests, blockading logging roads in an attempt to preserve the rainforest areas in which they lived. The explanation of this eruption of protest became a focus of political dispute.
Penan Histories shows how this dispute was centred on the construction of different actors as the subjects of the protests—Should the protests be written off as the work of meddling environmentalists? Or do the Penan have something of their own to say?—and examines how any narrator of social events must make such assertions and be responsible for the political consequences thereof. Against this background, Penan Histories sets out to re-narrate the recent past of a Penan village. It is an ethnographic examination of the transition from nomadism to agriculture and employment in the timber industry, to protest against that industry, and back once more to working as loggers; a story also of cultural change, collective action and individual corruption. This work will be of interest for all those concerned with the ethnography of indigenous groups in South-East Asia and with the politics of indigenous peoples. More broadly it has significance in its consideration of the textual, political issues we face in narrating and explaining the actions other people in other places.

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