The Multinational Monitor



Disappearing Trees, Disappearing Culture

by Robert Weissman

MARUDI, SARAWAK, MALAYSIA-Timeless images of the rainforest notwithstanding, history is moving at a chainsaw's pace in the tropical forests of Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.

Government-sanctioned logging is destroying Sarawak's primary forest at an astonishing rate, as timber companies work through the night under floodlights to satisfy international (overwhelmingly, Japanese) demand for tropical hardwood. III recent ,ears, nearly 3 percent of Sarawak's primary forests have fallen annually, a rate too fast to allow the forest to regenerate. In 1993, the logging rate declined significantly, with export Volume filling by about one-third, as the Malaysian government sought to comply with an International Tropical Timber Organization recommended annual quota. However, new threats of expanded palm oil and other export-crop plantations, as well as a proposed giant hydroelectric dam, promise to make up for any slackening in logging's contribution to forest destruction.

A far-reaching, heartbreaking cultural annihilation is accompanying the forest destruction. Approximately 70 percent of Sarawak's one and a half million people are indigenous; among the main ethnic groups are the Penan, the Iban, Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit and the Lun Bawang. Sarawak's indigenous are overwhelmingly agrarian and still significantly forest-dependent people whose way of life is quickly being chipped away with the stripping of the forests.

The Penan, a nomadic and semi-nomadic people whose population numbers about 9,000, are the most severely hurt by the logging. The last forest dwellers on Borneo, the Penan depend almost entirely on the forest for their subsistence.

In Conjunction With other 'Indigenous groups, the Penan ha\ -e undertaken a remarkable, non-violent direct action campaign against the timber companies, blockading logging roads and halting tree-cutting for months at a time. But the campaign itself has strained the well-being of the indigenous communities, especially of the Penan, and so far they have been fighting a losing battle. The loss of Sarawak's forests is making the lives of the Penan immeasurably harder, and sapping their spirit.

Ecological horror

The extraordinary extent of the logging in Sarawak is imposing tar-reaching changes on the region's delicate ecology

The logging companies are systematically destroying Sarawak's previously uncut forests. These primary forests are the richest sites of biological and animal diversity, since the\, remain relatively undisturbed.

Although logging regulations require the companies to selectively cut only large trees-the idea being that the younger trees will regenerate the forest cover - these limitations on cutting have done little to protect the forest. According to the World Wildlife Fund, even at the prevailing rate of seven trees taken out per hectare, the extraction process - that is, the dragging of the cut trees to the roadside - leaves an average of 34 percent of a forest stand open. Building the logging roads, which now criss-cross most of Sarawak, requires additional forest clearing. The World Wildlife Fund reports that about 12 percent of the total forest is cleared for roads, trails and landings.

The clearing of substantial portions of the forest and especially the cutting of the forest's biggest trees, which act like an anchor for the ecosystem, has major ripple effects on non-cleared sections of the forest. Bushes and other vegetation that Occupied a particular niche in the pre-cut forest often do not survive in the post-cut ecology. The decline of vegetation and the breaking up of the forest deprive wild animals of food trees, as -well as feeding, breeding and migrating grounds, cutting into their population.

The extensive clearing of the forest has also caused widespread soil erosion and the siltation of mountain streams and waterways. This has reduced the fish population.

The overall effect for the indigenous population, particularly for the Penans, is predictable their food supply is disappearing and life is becoming immeasurably more difficult.

Wild boar, for example, are an important mainstay of the Penan diet, but their numbers are falling sharply. "Before, it took a day or less to catch a wild boar," says a man at the Long Late Penan community. "Nowadays, if we are lucky, we can catch one in a week.,,

Another Penan mail at Long Win tells a similar story about catching fish. "Before it was easy to catch fish the water was clear, and even as a small boy I could catch fish just by using a stone," he says. "Now, even if we use a fishing net we sometimes cannot get any fish."

Fruits and vegetables too are becoming harder to find in sufficient quantities to feed the Penan.

"We are suffering," says the man at Long Win. "We don't hare enough food like we did before."

Legal rights and wrongs

The Penan and other indigenous people in Sarawak have a strong legal, not just moral, claim oil the contested land. Malaysian law provides guarantees for native customary rights (NCR) land. Indigenous people can stake a claim to NCR land by felling virgin jungle, planting fruit trees, occupying or cultivating the land, or using the land for burial grounds or for rights of way. They can also acquire NCR rights "by any other lawful method." Legal representatives of the Dayak people assert that "any other lawful method" should include use for customary purposes or hunting and gathering.

But the indigenous people of Sarawak, who have continuously seen state power used against them, not for them, have not been able to prevail with this legal claim.

Blocking destruction

Watching their communal lands being appropriated and destroyed, and having had their entreaties to the government for protection ignored or rejected, the Sarawak indigenous launched a stunning direct action campaign to stop the logging.

In March 1987, the Sarawak indigenous staged their first blockade of a logging road. Altogether, they set up about two dozen blockades, using logs or wooden struc tures together with scores of men, women and children sitting, standing or lying in the roads. Logging stopped for several months.

Toward the end of 1987, the police forced the indigenous to dismantle the blockades, and the Sarawak state Legislative Assembly passed legislation making the blockades illegal.

Since 1987, there have been periodic surges of blockades by the Penan and other indigenous groups. The police have responded with mounting repression, arresting hundreds of indigenous people. Although the blockades have not halted the logging, until 1993 they, were the only thing that slowed its pace.

The logging protests have come at a high cost, however. The experience of staving in jail is traumatic for many Sarawak indigenous people. Being restricted to a small cell is extraordinarily difficult for many indigenous prisoners who are accustomed to free movement in the jungle. The indigenous also complain that their jailers mistreat them, placing large groups of them in overcrowded cells which exacerbates their anxiety about confinement and providing them with inadequate food and toilet facilities.

Maintaining the blockades also has a high price, requiring an enormous time and labor power commitment In the most prolonged blockade in Sarawak, for example, 300 Penan in the Upper Baram area of the Sarawak interior blocked a road for seven months in 1993. The responsibility to maintain the blockade meant that fewer people were able to spend less time collecting jungle produce and hunting. Coming on top of the already diminished availability of food, this resulted in a food shortage for the blockaders. During the blockade, six Penan children and three adults reportedly died from causes believed to be related to the lack of food and clean drinking water.

Concentrated cronyism

Sarawak statc government officials say outside activists have prompted the Penan and other indigenous Protestors to stand in the way of progress and their own best interests.

The government insists it is respecting the cultural needs of Sarawak's indigenous population and especially the nomadic Penan. In 1993, it set aside 80,000 hectares of primary forest for the officially acknowledgcd 1,000 nomadic Penan. But Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), the Malaysian affiliate of Friends of the Earth and an advocate for indigenous peoples' rights in Malaysia, points out that most of the set aside land is in an existing national park, and is therefore already protected. Thcy also fear that even the set-aside land is at risk.

The Sarawak government also claims the logging of the state's forests has brought prosperity to all of Sarawak's citizens, including its indigenous people "It's induced a degree of mobility of people and contributed to making inaccessible areas accessible," Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib told the Asian Wall Street Journal in a typical statement in 1988. "It's benefited a lot of people. You can see [indigenous] Ibans and Kenyahs becoming truck drivers; some are earning as much as people with B.A. degrees."

There is little doubt the sale of cut logs has brought in foreign exchange to Malaysia and contributed to the building up of Sarawak. But, contrary to government claims, the income for the timber industry has not been evenly spread. Control of Sarawak's logging industry is concentrated in a narrow elite which maintains close tics to political leaders.

The details of ownership of the secretive industry emerged in 1987 in a bizarre set of accusations and counter- accusations between candidates running for the office of Sarawak's chief minister. The tit-for-tat charges revealed that logging concessions had overwhelmingly been awarded to companies controlled by cronies, family members and political allies of the current and former chief ministers. The government revoked licenses and concessions covering 1.25 million hectares from associatcs of former Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman; Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib explained that the revocation was designed to prevent the "wealth of the State from being concentrated in the hands of a few individuals." The next day, however, Tun Abdul Rahman revealed that one third of the state's timber concessions - totalling about 1.6 million hectares-had been allocated to associates of Tan Sri Taib. Virtually all of Sarawak's largest logging companies, including Sarawak Plywood, Samling Timber, Kehutanan Scntiasa and Kcruntum, were implicated in the charges.

A cultural tragedy

Among the most shocking and discomforting of the changes sweeping over Sarawak is the severe disruption of the indigenous populations' cultures, most dramatic in the case of the Penan.

The government is aggressively encouraging the Penan to abandon their nomadic traditions, settle in fixed locations and take LIP intensive agriculture. The government's public justification for this policy is that engaging in intensive agriculture rather than hunting and gathering and light agriculture will improve the Penan standard of living. The fact that settled communities need fit- less land to survive than semi-settled or nomadic communities Suggests that the government may have ulterior motives, however.

Long Bangan is a government-created Penan village. Located near the Mulu National Park, the government presents it as a model village; it takes foreign dignitaries and journalists to the Village to counter negative publicity about its mistreatment of the Penan. But even Long Bangan presents a rather grim Picture. The transition to farming forces a radical reorientation of the Penan culture, one that is not smoothly accomplished. The new "farmers" have to be paid wages to till their own land. One new farmer told Multinational Monitor that he was uncertain who owns the crops that his people harvest.

The cultural breakdown is no less harsh for those trying to preserve their nomadic and semi-settled ways and adhere to tradition. The intrusion of the cash economy and modern Culture that accompany the logging companies' invasion has undermined sonic of the Penan's cultural pillars. Adolescent girls at Long Win, for cxample, are embarrassed and reluctant to demonstrate traditional dances to visitors. They prefer to listen to Western music and dance to songs by U.S. performers such as Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Similarly, reports SAM's Chee Yoke Ling, the Penan tradition of oral history and story-telling is giving way to listening to newly acquired radios.

The eradication of the forest is forcing the most wrenching cultural changes oil the Penan; in destroying their means of Subsistence, it is also destroying their way of life. Once-proud elders at Long Win have been reducd to begging visitors for money. "We cannot get food for ourselves and have no way to earn money," agonizes one older woman. "Please give us something."

Table of Contents