How basket-weaving is helping Malaysia's displaced Penan people

This photo shows several Penan families and the baskets they've woven. Photo: Penan Bags Europe/Facebook
This photo shows several Penan families and the baskets they've woven. Photo: Penan Bags Europe/Facebook


On the island of Borneo, widespread deforestation has left dozens of Penan families with no other choice but to flee their ancestral homes. Once displaced, these hunter-gatherer tribes, who had lived in harmony with the rainforest for thousands of years, found themselves without a livelihood. However, an NGO has helped some Penan women start businesses selling traditional baskets.

Sarawak is the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. After years of logging, spearheaded for the most part by three Malaysian companies — Samling, Interhill and Shin Yang — the state has been virtually stripped bare of its traditional forests. NGO Survival International says the rate of deforestation in Sarawak is among the highest in the world.

Deforestation has had catastrophic consequences for the region's ecosystem. As well as depriving many species of their natural habitat, it also causes silt to build up on riverbeds, killing off fish and thus leaving the Penan people without a crucial source of food. Giant palm oil plantations have sprouted up in the place of ancient rainforests, providing the raw material for products such as biodiesel and cosmetics.

The Penan have been fighting back against the exploitation of their ancestral homelands since the early 1980s. But they've hardly stood a chance in the face of big business. Attempts to block the construction of giant hydroelectric dams fell flat. As a result, many families have been forced to leave the forests and relocate to big cities such as Miri, living in poverty on the margins of society.

That was the fate that befell 35 Penan families, who were living in terrible conditions on the edge of a golf course when our Observer met them. The men were paid miserable wages to keep the grounds looking trim, while the women were jobless. A golfer who saw them reached out to a local NGO. When our Observer heard about the families' plight, she decided to help the women learn a trade so they could make a living. To do so, she enlisted the help of a Malaysian who had already led a project in neighbouring Brunei to teach women to weave baskets.

A Penan woman weaving a basket. Video sent by our Observer.

"They aren't just baskets. They're a way of spreading public awareness about the situation facing the Penan people"

Isabelle Stevens is a teacher at the international school in Miri. She is also the co-founder of the project aimed at helping the Penan.

When we first met the Penan women in October 2014, they didn’t trust us. Only ten women came to our first meeting and only four of those agreed to try the project, even though we told them that we would provide them with all the materials they needed and we’d organize for someone to come and teach them to weave. But their initial reluctance gave way to widespread enthusiasm and eventually all 35 women signed up.

Most of the women were taught how to weave by the teacher who we hired, though some had already been taught by their mothers and grandmothers. But the women who learned from their family had been taught to do it using liana vines and bamboo, materials that are virtually impossible to get now because of the deforestation. We now make our baskets out of plastic. For the more expensive models, we sometimes add rattan around the edges. But you have to spend days walking through the forest just to find some.

The Penan women weavers use these strips of plastic to make the baskets. All photos were published on the Facebook page Penan Bags Europe.

Penan women weaving baskets.

10,000 baskets sold in two years

The women started making baskets with patterns inspired by the traditions and culture of the Penan people. I began distributing them to my expatriate friends in Miri, including those who had helped fund the project. When local people - particularly Malaysian people with Chinese backgrounds - saw Westerners strolling around with the bags, they wanted them too! More orders started coming in. Some expats returned home and now we've started getting orders from further afield, such as the United States and the UK. We've sold more than 10,000 bags in two years, each one costing between €10 and €20, depending on the model.

Examples of different types of baskets.

We try and maintain fairly large profit margins in order to give back as much as possible to the Penan community. As such, we've helped them to do up their houses and to buy things like mattresses and water filters. Today, each family has their own washing machine and some even have their own television sets. All of them can now afford to eat meat.

Our priority remains making sure that their children get an education. We've paid a teacher to come in and work with the youngest. The older children attend a government school in Miri. They give me much hope: out of 44 children attending school in Miri, 34 have already achieved exception results. Our project could end up benefitting their entire generation.

Our Observer delivering electric appliances to the Penan families. They were bought using money made from the sale of the baskets

"These women now earn even more than their husbands"

These women now earn much more than their husbands, which has changed their status both within their own families and the village itself. They're respected more, especially by their husbands, some of whom even help them to prepare the baskets.

Our goal is to make the village self-sufficient. There's still a long way to go, and it won't be easy. These families are extremely poor to begin with. But given that the project has already created a lot of wealth, we've set up a foundation to make the entire process more manageable and transparent. I'm looking at setting up another one in the Netherlands to help distribute the baskets across Europe.

Would you like to help Isabelle and this group of Penan people? Head to the Facebook page Penan Bags Europe, or write to us using the address and we'll put you in touch!