“No-one knows the forest better than the Penan!” This is what I caught myself exclaiming out loud as I trekked through the interior of Borneo with my Penan companions. Observing fruits, medicinal plants and even bioluminescent mushrooms that I thought only existed in the fictional world of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar, I was reminded of the very same sentiment captured by Eric Hansen (1988) in his incredible journey (on foot!) in the 1970s through Sarawak with his Penan guides.
The Penan are one of the main indigenous groups in Sarawak. Traditionally forest nomads, they are famed for their intimate knowledge of the Borneo rainforest. Despite settling from the 1950s onwards, the Penan often maintain an almost semi-nomadic lifestyle. While working on a rural electrification project in the village of Long Lamai, I was struck by how the Penan’s extensive traditional knowledge of the forest seemed to lack instrumental value with respect to climate change adaptation. Indeed, while recognising that the seasons were increasingly punctuated by extreme weather events (e.g. flood, drought) there was little in the way of adaptation at both the individual- and community-level. I had an inkling that part of this was because the traditional ecological knowledge of the Penan seemed to be based on a long-term understanding of the Borneo rainforest (as a lived-in environment) and therefore struggled to grapple with the rapid changes in the climate that have been experienced in recent years.
I was preoccupied working on other projects for the next two years, but after moving from Cambridge to Hong Kong, I was now a short flight away from Sarawak. My collaborators and I obtained a small grant and we set about investigating the instrumental value of the Penan traditional knowledge system on climate change adaptation. Working together with Penan in six villages (Long Luteng, Long Win, Long Latei, Long Leng, Long Kerangan, Long Jenalong and Long Urang), we operationalised this as a research question by seeing if knowledge of the Penan forest sign language (Oroo’) was systematically related to correct perceptions of climate anomalies (see our paper for methods, results and a frank discussion on the limitations of our findings). Try as we might, our data showed little evidence of any systematic statistical association.
Photo: Garen Jengan (a Penan elder) constructing an Oroo' sign
As many indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, here-and-now adaptation is extremely important, and it needs to be done right. I think it’s fair to say that, overall, indigenous knowledge systems and their instrumental value to climate change adaptation are often romanticised. This may inadvertently lead to oversimplified strategies that rely disproportionately or solely on leveraging traditional ecological knowledge. While remaining deeply cognisant of the critical importance of empowering indigenous people to design adaptation strategies for their communities, our results suggest a note of caution in romanticising indigenous knowledge systems and their capacity to adapt to the present and future impacts of climate change.