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When trees fall

 The Big Issue Australia 18 July 2019

As Malaysia’s forests shrink, people who still call the jungle home are turning to friends, and photographers, to publicise their plight. (518 Words) - By Michael Green

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Bapa Sagung and Anit test new blow darts.Photo: Ashleigh Penan

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Photo: Ashleigh Penan

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Bapa Sagung at rest while women make baskets.Photo: Ashleigh Penan

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Anit’s collection of boar jaws.Photo: Ashleigh Penan

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Photo: Ashleigh Penan

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Landscape cleared for another palm-oil plantation.Photo: Ashleigh Penan


After two plane trips, two ferry rides and a five-hour 4WD journey, Bapa Sagung finally returned to his home in the jungle of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo. The headman of a small community of the Penan people, Sagung had journeyed to the Malaysian city of Penang to attend a conference organised by conservation organisation, Friends of the Earth. Australian photographer Conor Ashleigh returned to Sarawak with him. "It was the first time [Sagung] had left the jungle," Ashleigh says. "You could tell how uncomfortable he was as he stood itching in these nasty jeans and plastic shoes. But he went [to Penang] in a final plea to tell his story to people who cared." The Penan are one of the last nomadic, hunter-gatherer cultures in Southeast Asia. Ashleigh spent a week with them: his series, Plight of the Penan, documents their daily existence. "I was blown away by the way they lived," Ashleigh says. "They're still subsisting from the jungle - they hunt for meat with blow darts, and tap the poison sap from one particular tree. They harvest sago from palms and collect medicines from plants. Life isn't eight-to-six in the city." But their jungle is vanishing, progressively clear-felled and replanted with oil palms. Sarawak officials are aiming to be Malaysia's largest palm-oil producing state by 2020. The nomadic Penan have long fought the deforestation, but with no success.

"For decades there have been movements to raise awareness, but nothing has changed. Unless something dramatic happens, they'll become something of the past," Ashleigh warns. "I'm trying to portray these people as they start their slow transition into a different way of life. Their children will be that first generation who will no longer be nomadic."

The 23-year-old photographer has always been spurred by a belief that images have the power to create change. And while he's never considered himself a bystander in the stories he photographs, he found his time with the Penan particularly affecting. "I was profoundly moved by my time there. I was given a name in the Penan language, meaning 'Eager One', which probably has to do with my bouncing around like a puppy dog and constantly asking questions."

Before he left Sagung's community, he asked the headman what he should do with the photos. "He said, 'Tell everyone. Tell as many people as you can about us. I want people all across the world to understand about what is happening to the Penan.'"

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