Images of a Forest People : Punan Malinau – Identity, Sociality, and Encapsulation in Borneo

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: This is a study of groups of forest foragers and horticulturalists in the Malinau River basin in northeast Borneo. These groups are known to themselves and others as Punan, or more specifically – in order to distinguish them from other groups of Punan (or Penan) living in other parts of Borneo – as Punan Malinau. Scholars have debated whether the Punan are to be regarded as ‘genuine’ rain-forest hunter-gatherers or rather should be considered as groups of ‘runaway farmers’ who have left the fields for a life as professional collectors in the forest.The study is based on anthropological fieldwork carried out in Indonesian Borneo from August 1990 through May 1992, with shorter revisits in September–October 1997 and February 2000. The first three chapters offer a detailed overview of the many aspects of the recent hunter-gatherer debates in anthropology and related disciplines. Chapter four provides a description of the ethnic setting, giving brief information on the various ethnic groups of the area. Chapter five gives an ethno-historical sketch of the Malinau area, with particular reference to the last 200 years, during which the history of the Punan Malinau is intimately intertwined with that of the sedentary Merap. Chapter six presents general data on Punan subsistence, settlement patterns, social and political organization and local variation. In Chapter seven the focus is shifted from subsistence to ‘mode of thought’. A number of distinctive features of Punan sociality are explored – such as immediate return, individualism, opportunism, and sharing. Many of these features not only regulate internal relationships, but also serve as a collection of efficacious ‘tools’ by which social and natural resources of all kinds are examined and manipulated, including the management of contacts with surrounding societies. The concept of ‘encapsulation’ therefore becomes an important element in my discussion. Chapter eight, finally, is devoted to the situation at the turn of the millennium. In the course of the 1990s, a growing number of powerful outsiders started interfering with the local situation, including NGOs, and timber and mining companies. This was a time of increasing competition for land and various new sources of income among the people of the Malinau area. A Punan NGO was founded in the context of expanding political awareness, where lobbying for recognition and funding, from governmental or non-governmental organizations, became increasingly important. These developments show that the imaginings of the Punan, as well as their livelihoods, identity, and encapsulation are still a dynamic process.

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