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UNESCO’s Erasure of Indigeneity at Mulu Park in Malaysia

Authors: Haley DeLoach*, University of Georgia, Amy Trauger, University of Georgia
Topics: Indigenous Peoples, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: National Parks, Indigeneity, Tourism, Land Rights, Political Ecology
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Gunung Mulu National Park (Mulu Park) in Sarawak, Malaysia, is the most studied karst landscape in the world for its abundant biodiversity and extensive cave systems. It is currently safeguarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the good of the planet and for visitors to admire. The Penan and Berawan people belong to indigenous groups who live in communities outside of Mulu Park. This research discusses and analyzes representations of nature and erasures of indigeneity produced by UNESCO and the stories UNESCO, Park management, and the local people tell about the landscape. Indigenous people lament that deforestation, development pressures, and discriminatory state-initiated land grabs make them especially vulnerable. However, it is important--and not yet explored--to speculate the possible impact of UNESCO’s conservation paradigm on the lived experiences of Penan and Berawan in the Mulu area.

During pilot research at Mulu Park in the Summer of 2019, I found that the ontologies of nature and culture understood by UNESCO and Park management differ significantly from the stories and values locals use to describe their home terrain. The incorporation of UNESCO’s Outstanding Universal Values enables illegal encroachment on native customary land for the creation of a nature theme park, and simultaneously condones the destruction of the surrounding indigenous land for commercial palm oil. In addition, the Park’s commodification of environment and culture, discriminatory employment patterns, and shaming of indigenous lifeways work to silence people and erase their stories.

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