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Weavers of the forest: Penan of Sarawak

by Lye Tuck-Po

13 September 2023


"Trade with surrounding longhouse communities has long been a major component of the Penan economy. Traditionally this trade has been based on the collection of forest products and weaving of rattan by Penan, who exchange these for items such as metal, cloth, salt and tobacco, and various sorts of manufactured goods such as flashlights. . .Both in the past and at present the Penan have been known for the fine woven rattan mats (burat) and baskets (bukoy) which they produce, and this continues to be the primary source of cash for Western Penan today" (Brosius 1992:141, 142).*
Old friends chatting at night while she weaves a mat. Long Wat, Sarawak, 2010.
"Among contemporary Penan, women are the exclusive processors and weavers of rattan. As such, they play a key role in the production of mats and baskets for trade" (Brosius 1992:149).*
These photos were shot in 2009-2010 in the communities of Penan Talun (Asap resettlement centre), Long Wat, and Long Jek. The Penan Talun were the only Penan community affected by the Bakun Dam. Long Wat is now resettled near the Murum Dam. Long Jek remains where they are.
Weaving, as far as I can tell from what I hear (I haven't been back to these communities since 2010), remains an important source of cash, and women still dominate in crafting the mats and baskets. Men may bring home rattan from their trips to the forest but women also collect rattan when they are able to.
 
* Brosius, J. Peter. 1992. The axiological presence of death: Penan Gang death-names. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

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