Logging companies have been accused of turning a blind eye to the allegations for nearly a decade.
In recent months the Penan tribe, armed with blow-pipes, have been blockading roads in an attempt to halt logging companies entering their ancestral lands.
Dressed in loin-cloths – semi-nomadic tribesmen hunt with blow-pipes: bamboo canisters for poison darts and their machetes hang at their waists. These are the Penan, living in the jungle of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo.
Back at their camp Leong Abid, a tribal chief, told me how the traditional Penan way of life is under threat from the logging companies.
He describes how they are destroying the land where they hunt – in many areas the wildlife – the fruit they pick – the fish in the rivers – has all but gone. If this continues, he says, there will be nothing for his children.
The roads built for and by the logging companies reach deep into the heart of the jungle. It is estimated that only 3% of the primary forest in Malaysian Borneo remains.According to the government and the companies logging has its positive side: progress. It has, they say, given remote tribal communities access to schools, clinics and other villages.
But our investigation has uncovered disturbing evidence that it has also exposed young women and vulnerable school girls to exploitation, abuse and rape.
I spoke to Mary, a teenage girl who was tending to her baby daughter amid swarms of flies. The child’s legs were covered with running sores. It’s a desperate scene. Mary fell pregnant after she was raped.
With the help of a translator she tells her story. How she was hitching a ride to school and was picked up by a logging company driver and two other men. They stopped off overnight. She was dragged from her room, beaten unconscious. She awoke naked – left in the dirt.
The federal government of Malaysia has set up a national action committee to investigate allegations of sexual abuse.
Its report alludes to a dozen separate cases – mainly school girls hitching the four hour ride to and from school – children as young as 10.
“The findings were basically that there was indeed sexual exploitation of the girls – especially where school children who during the journey back and forth from the schools have to use the transport provided by the lorries and lorry drivers of the timber companies,” says Ivy Josiah, one of the authors of the report.
“They were open to exploitation either sexual harassment or sexual molestation and even rape.”
“From what we understand this became the norm – it has been happening over a period of 10 years – and it is systemic in the isolated areas like the jungles of Sarawak.”
“I think this is where we get confused I think… the Penan are a most interesting group of people and they operate on different social etiquette as us… a lot this sex by consensual sex,” says James Masing, the Sarawak Cabinet Minister for Land Use.
When I told Mr Masing that I had spoke to a young girl who said she had been beaten unconscious and raped, he replied: “They change their stories, and when they feel like it. That’s why I say Penan are very good story tellers.”
The main logging companies operating in the area are Samling Global Ltd and the Interhill Group.
Both companies say their own internal investigations found no evidence of sexual abuse or rape by their employees and that they are cooperating with the authorities.
Hundreds upon hundreds of stripped timber trunks are stockpiled at the Samling logging storage depot. Caterpillar track grabbers load barges waiting to ship their cargo down river for export.
Since the 1980s the Penan communities have been fighting through the Malaysian courts to try and protect their lands. But it is a lengthy process and, in the meantime, the government continues to issue licences and the companies continue to log.
“To win their case to maintain the kind of life they have – as it is today with the present policy that the government is having – I’m very pessimistic of that – I don’t see any hope for them in the future.”
Disheartened by the legal process, the Penan are now taking matters into their own hands – armed with machetes and blow-pipes, they recently set up blockades.
Unga, a Penan tribesman, told me that the logging companies were “destroying the way of the Penans’ life”. And he said that the Penan would use blockades, blow-pipes and machetes to defend their culture, adding “we believe we can win”.
The allegations of rape and the blockades have started to draw international attention to the plight of the Penan, so far considered a national domestic issue for the state and federal governments of Malaysia.
But two years ago the HSBC bank pulled out of Samling following concerns about its logging activities. And now campaigners hope more international pressure may yet be bought to bear.
Story by Angus Stickler
BBC Radio 4