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How To Steal A Forest

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 184 - June 1988

How to steal a forest
The Penan have lived in harmony with the forest for thousands of
years. Now NI describes the minutes ticking away on the barricades.

[image, unknown] The date is late October 1987. The place is northern Sarawak, East Malaysia. A crane hoist swings idly in the breeze. The Nissen huts, bulldozers and other logging machinery lie abandoned. The camp is deserted, except for a guard sheltering from the blazing sun under a canopy of palm leaves.

'No-one has worked here since March,' he snarls, gesticulating up the muddy welt of a track that leads into the jungle itself. 'Go look up there. You'll see why we had to stop.'

Where he points, a crude barrier lies across the road and a crowd of people stand defiantly before it: old people and children, mothers suckling babies and men in loin cloths armed with blowpipes and spears. Most are Penans, the oldest inhabitants of Borneo's 180-million-year old jungles: among the last true hunters and gatherers that exist anywhere. They are protesting because the timber companies are wrecking the Penan homelands: nowhere in the world are forests being chopped down with such speed and ferocity as in Sarawak.

Rosylin Nyagong has brought her two year-old child to the blockade and explains how the loggers have altered her community's way of life: 'They mowed down our forest and they levelled our hills. The sacred graves of our ancestors were desecrated. Our waters and streams have been contaminated, our plant life destroyed. And the forest animals are killed or have run away.

'The forest provides us with wild sago and fruits for food, 10 kinds of wood for our blowpipes and many different plants as medicines for headaches and sprains, wounds and other ailments... The forest is our source of survival. Without it we'd all be dead yet now there's little left.'

It is mid-afternoon. The air trembles with heat. All over northern Sarawak the Penan are mounting similar blockades, bringing the timber industry to a virtual standstill. In a statement signed on behalf of 27 communities they declare 'Development does not mean stealing our land and forest away from us. Development to us means:

· recognizing our land rights in practice

· stopping the logging in our forests so that we can continue to live

· introducing a clean water supply, proper health facilities, better schools for our children.'

Many Penan have walked days to help on the blockades and assisted by other tribes from the forest they maintain a continuous 24-hour vigil. Most - including the children - survive with only one meal a day of rice and tapioca leaves, for there is no time to gather food.

Under Malaysian law, the Penan have minimal land rights. Under their own law, the timber companies are thieves. 'This is the land of our forefathers and their forefathers before them. We have every right to defend our land,' says one elderly Penan.

Since 1985 the Penan have been begging the Government to protect their forests. They have been met by a stone wall. Timber is the second largest source of revenue in the state of Sarawak. In 1985 Sarawak alone produced 39 per cent of Malaysia's logs. And timber was Malaysia's biggest export earner in 1986, fetching $1.7 billion foreign exchange.

Locked in the Penan's forests are billions of dollars worth of hard cash, waiting to swell the profits of the timber traders and fill the coffers of the state. Though most of the logging companies are locally owned, the export trade is controlled by big foreign companies, mainly Japanese, and most trees end up in rich countries. There, amongst other things, they are made into disposable chopsticks.

The time is 3.45 pm precisely. There is not long to go. The Malaysian Friends of the Earth (Sahabat Alam Malaysia) has filed four cases against the loggers on behalf of the Penan. But it will take 12 years before a date for the hearing can be set, and at present rates of logging, the forests will be totally destroyed before the creaking judicial system even begins to consider the case.

It is 3.46 PM 'Until we die, we will block this road,' says an old Penan woman. She could be right.

It is 3.47 PM There is no time left. The police appear. They smash up the barricades. They shoot bullets into the air. They drag 42 barricaders away and lock them up. Another six are arrested for burning down the bridge used by loggers to extract timber from Penan lands.

When the barricades were knocked down before, the forest people re-built them. This time the wooden barriers are ground deep into the mud.

Corruption and the Minister's golf
The best way to improve your golf is to chop down the rainforest,
according to the logic of one Malaysian Minister.

'I will not bow to experts. I am the expert; I was here before the experts were born,' cries Datuk Amar James Wong, Sarawak's Minister of Environment and Tourism. The scene is a meeting between Wong and an International mission on Native Rights and Rainforests in January 1988.

Datuk Wong finds no conflict of interest in being a timber tycoon and the Minister of Environment. He owns Limbang Trading, one of the country's most prosperous timber companies, which controls over 250,000 acres of timber concessions in Limbang, Sarawak. Some sources even claim he currently controls over 650,000 acres of forest concessions.

During the course of the meeting, Wong makes no bones about his contempt for conservationists. Hear this: 'Don't worry: within five years of logging all the animals and birds are back with more fruit and nuts than before - logging is good for the forest'. Nor is he concerned about climatic disruption - 'We get too much rain in Sarawak - it stops me playing golf'. And his interest in the Penan and other tribal forest dwellers is not high either. Witness: 'We don't want them running around like animals - shouldn't they be taught to be hygienic like us and eat clean food like us?'

Wong called a press conference to rebut the claim by an environment group that logging causes greater damage than shifting cultivation. It backfired when conservationists demanded Wong's resignation as Minister of Environment. He declined saying: 'Logging is my bread and butter, since I was a pioneer in upland logging in 1949. I can be held responsible for damage caused by logging but my conscience is clear. And I am no hypocrite.'

As Environment Minister, Wong is responsible for the protection of flora and fauna in the world's oldest jungle, in the tropical forests on the coastal strip of Borneo called Sarawak. Yet the international mission on 'Natives' Rights and Rainforests' found evidence that Wong's own timber company sells timber that is on the protected species list of the Government's Select Committee on Fauna and Flora. Ironically, Wong chairs this Select Committee.

Wong is amongst a dozen Malaysian Members of Parliament (Including the Government's Chief Minister, Deputy Minister of Defence and Assistant Minister of Land Resources) who are shareholders in Sarawak's 180 million-year-old rainforest.

The political conflict between the jungle profiteers has brought further disclosures. During the last election campaign, the present Chief Minister claimed that his predecessor, Tunku Rahman, had appropriated the alarming figure of $3.5 million in timber concessions. In retaliation for this exposure, Tunku Rahman listed the names of prominent politicians and their associates said to have hundreds of thousands of timber concessions connected with the Chief Minister.

The quickest way to become a millionaire in Sarawak is to become a politician. Political power means the politician decides on timber concessions, and logging licenses mean instant wealth for the holders. As Datuk Wong states, 'This land does not belong to the natives. It is State land'. With the stroke of a pen, the land and birth rights of the natives are signed away.

The web of economic and political interests enveloping the lucrative timber industry helps to explain why the many requests, protests and blockades of the indigenous communities have failed to get a sympathetic official response. Native leaders and conservationists were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act in October last year.

Police and the army now protect the flow of bulldozers to the forests. And the Minister of Environment himself has taken legal action against the natives and their human blockade. It is no more a question of the Government logging the forests for the public good and state development. It is an unhappy combination of both public corruption and private greed.

The author of this story is a Malaysian who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

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