As the rainforest is destroyed and indigenous communities are forced to find livelihoods outside of the forest, many communities are losing their rich cultural heritage. Government schools encourage students to assimilate into mainstream culture, and actively discourage the use of traditional language and cultural practices. Indigenous languages, stories, art, and dance are being lost as elders pass away. The Borneo Project’s Indigenous Education program fosters culturally appropriate schools and books to indigenous Penan communities across Borneo.
Since 2008, The Borneo Project has channeled financial and volunteer support to three Penan community preschools in Long Latei, Long Belok and Ba Abang, in eastern Sarawak. These communities have been active in territory demarcation, reforestation, logging-road blockades, and lawsuits to establish rights to ancestral lands. At these innovative schools, Penan children learn to read, write, and prepare for school using indigenous language books and materials. Parents and elders learn to read in afternoon classes. Teachers, who come from the village, receive continual training and support. Field coordinators visit the villages every seven weeks to bring the teachers’ salaries, food, art supplies, and teaching materials. These schools are managed and maintained by PACOS Trust, a community-based organization dedicating to supporting indigenous communities.
Our Indigenous Language book project, launched in 2011, focuses on publishing Penan language books and handing them out for free—one book per family— in Penan villages. We use art by indigenous Penan artists, and where that is not available, we work with the Beehive Collective in Machias, Maine, who provide beautiful sketches of tropical wildlife. We have currently published two titles, Frog Myths and The Story of the Flying Dragon and Turtle.