Kelesau Naan never went to school. He signed his name with a thumb print and spent his entire life living in the jungles of Borneo. But among his tribe, the Penan, he was a visionary and an inspiration.For years, he had organised his people in a desperate defence of their home and heritage: the pristine rain-forest in the deep interior of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
As headman of the village of Long Kerong, Mr Naan - who was in his 70s but did not know his exact age - had put his name to a lawsuit asserting the Penan's right of ownership over their native land. He organised blockades of the logging roads to try to prevent the bulldozers and chainsaws destroying his home as they had stripped the rest of the island.
Now he is dead, possibly murdered, allegedly by agents of the loggers whose lucrative business he was putting in jeopardy. His broken skeleton was found last month - two months after he was reported missing - and yesterday 100 relatives and neighbours lodged a police report demanding an investigation. Micheal Ipa, his nephew, said: "We believe he has been killed by people involved in logging."
Mr Naan failed to return home on October 23 after going to check an animal trap close to Long Kerong in Sarawak, part of the Malaysian division of the vast island of Borneo. His family reported that some of his bones were broken, suggesting that he had been assaulted.
The Sarawak jungle is a dangerous environment and there might be several reasons why an old man came to grief there - poisonous snakes, falls from trees or sudden illness. But such are the tensions in a region so remote that it takes several days to reach by boat, logging road and foot that the suspicion of foul play will linger.
Similar accusations were made in 2000, when Bruno Manser, a Swiss shepherd who became a prominent campaigner on behalf of the Penan, disappeared without trace while travelling alone through the forest. His remains were never recovered and he was declared dead by a Swiss court two years ago.
Mr Naan was one of four Penan plaintiffs in a claim for land rights that has been awaiting judgment since 1998. The state government of Sarawak has always insisted that, because members of the Penan hunt the creatures of the forest rather than cultivating it, they have no claim on the land where they live.
In 2006 Mr Naan was a signatory to a letter from 17 village "head men" appealing to the British timber merchant Jewson to stop buying wood from Samling Group, one of Malaysia's biggest logging companies. After the appeal was reported in The Times, Jewson company stopped buying timber from the disputed area.
The Penan are the human equivalent of an endangered species: authentic nomads, the last hunter-gatherers in Asia. For thousands of years they have lived deep within Borneo, surviving by hunting wild boar, monkeys, snakes and fish and harvesting jungle plants. But today only a few hundred of the 9,000 Penan live a fully nomadic life beneath temporary shelters too simple even to be called huts.
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Most, like Mr Naan, have settled down to a life of hunting combined with rice farming, living in simple villages. Some have done so by choice, but many have been forced to abandon their nomadic traditions because of the destruction of their jungle habitat by the companies that cut down trees for pulping into plywood for use as hoardings and on building sites. The logging destroys the forest plants, food for men and the creatures they hunt. Most animals flee from the noise of the chainsaws and those that remain are hunted by logging workers, who pursue them with shotguns.
Deprived of its binding cover of plants and trees, the soil washes down into the rivers, which become polluted and inhospitable to fish.
Dying for a cause
- Sister Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old American nun, was shot dead in Brazil in 2005 while fighting to protect the Terra do Meio region from loggers. Within days, the area was declared a protected site
- Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and environmental activist, became a posthumous icon in Brazil after he was murdered in 1988 by ranchers opposed to his campaign to protect the Amazon from deforestation
- Aldo Zamora was collecting data on illegal logging for Greenpeace in Great Water forest, Mexico, when a logging gang ambushed his car and killed him in May 2007
- Kinkri Devi went on hunger strike against a court's refusal to hear her case against a mining project in Himchal Pradesh. She won her case and an award for her efforts. She died this week
Sources: Amnesty International; Times archives
© 2008 The Times Online