Resisting the loggers: Swiss explorer film spotlights threatened Malaysian tribe

by Beh Lih Yi | @BehLihYi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 September 2019 17:16 GMT

A scene from 'Paradise War', a film about Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser and the Penan people in Malaysia's rainforests, who are among the world's last hunter-gatherers. Photo courtesy: A Film Company

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Indigenous activists hope the $6 million film will bring their plight to international attention and prompt Malaysian authorities to pause logging

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A film about one of the world's last hunter-gatherer tribes living in Malaysia's rainforest premiers on Thursday, with its indigenous actors urging authorities to formally grant them land rights after a decades-long battle.

"Paradise War", which debuts at the Zurich Film Festival, follows the 1984 expedition made by intrepid Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser who lived with Malaysia's Penan nomads and made their plight globally known.

Most of the estimated 10,000 Penan people in eastern Malaysia on Borneo island are no longer nomadic and instead live in settled communities dependent on forests for food and building materials.

Their way of life has come under threat by the recent clearing of forests for logging, oil palm plantations and hydroelectric dams. A small number of Penan are thought to maintain a nomadic way of life.

Indigenous activists hope the $6 million film will bring their plight to international attention and prompt Malaysian authorities to pause logging.

"After more than 30 years of logging on Penan land, we call for a logging moratorium and for the official recognition of our lands," Nick Kelesau, a Penan elder who plays the role of an iconic headman in the film told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Manser, the film's main character, campaigned to protect the Penan's ancient way of life from modernisation and to fend off loggers before he disappeared in the Malaysian rainforest in 2000.

"Manser's story is more relevant than ever," said the film's Swiss director, Niklaus Hilber.

"With increasing globalisation and the ever-growing demand for natural resources, protecting the rainforest and its indigenous people has become an ever more urgent task," he added.

The film was shot in a remote jungle on the Indonesian side of Borneo island with a crew of Penan actors, the majority of whom have no acting experience.

The Penan have set up road blocks to stop logging trucks as part of a campaign to protect traditional lands and dozens have been arrested, sometimes on charges of illegal protest.

Very few still wear traditional loincloths but the Penan maintain strong ties to the forest and forage for rattan for weaving and medicinal plants.

The state of Sarawak, where the Penan live, last year passed a law to better protect indigenous people and their right to ancestral land but native groups said it fell short of fully recognising the land as theirs.

The Penan community has in recent years used drones and oral testimonies from village elders to map out the territory they live on and wish to own.

Worldwide, indigenous and rural communities customarily own about half the world's land, but only have legal rights to 10 percent, according to the United Nations. (Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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