As the Forest Shrinks, Tribe Faces Extinction : Borneo: Loggers and the Malaysian government-- which some say are one and the same--are pushing the Penan people out of their habitat. Protests go unheeded.
The Borneo headman drew his clenched fist to the midnight fire, opened his palm to the moon and revealed the flint he kept in a bamboo box around his neck.
“This was handed down by my grandfather, and he got it from his grandfather,” says Along Sega. “I’ll show them that I have more power in this fire-maker than all the loggers put together.”
The next morning, a shotgun blast boomed through the jungle. It silenced the shrilling cicadas. One young tribesman reached for his poison blowpipe, another for his spear.
The gunshot, almost certainly fired by a hunter from a nearby logging camp, was a reminder that here, hundreds of miles from paved roads and electricity, seemingly centuries from modern civilization, Along and his Penan tribe are fighting a losing battle.
All the loggers put together greatly overpower the people known as the lost tribe of Borneo, among the last rain-forest nomads in the world. Along believes only 260 Penans still live in the jungle. He can’t be sure because they don’t count one another. Nor do they track time or age.
“But we are dying,” Along said. “Of this we can be sure.”
The timid nomads are being stampeded out of their dark jungle homeland. Logging, and the tug of city life and modern ways, are pushing them to extinction with the turn of the new millennium.
Environmentalists estimate that in the Borneo state of Sarawak, home of the Penans, 70% of one of the world’s oldest forests has been denuded, at a rate nearly twice that of the Amazon.
Most of the 9,000 Penans on the Malaysian side of Borneo have moved into temporary government settlements. About 63 families remain in the jungle, living off hearts of palm, wild fruit, bear and boar.
The wild game has dwindled, the rivers are polluted by logging waste, and many trees whose bark and leaves provide everything from snakebite antidotes to contraceptives have died out.
“Tell them to stop the bulldozers,” Along urged a rare Western visitor who had slipped across logging territory in northeastern Sarawak and hiked into the rain forest with a Penan guide. “Tell them to give us back our lives.”
In the jungle, bare-chested with loincloth, Along was a compelling sight. A man in his late 50s, his dense black hair was severely cropped at the forehead and shaved above his ears. Each earlobe was pierced with a three-inch hole, then jammed with a tight spiral of bamboo that dangled to his neck.
Three weeks later and 350 miles west, in the Sarawak capital of Kuching, he cut a different figure. He seemed sadly out of place among the McDonald’s restaurants, the businessmen with cell phones, the Muslim women on mopeds with helmets over their head scarves. He wore the blue jogging pants that his Western visitor had left at his camp. He and a dozen other Penans had come to the city to mount yet another protest against the loggers.
At the center of attention was a short, wiry man with a shaved head and an infectious laugh, a former shepherd from Switzerland named Bruno Manser whose lone battle for the Sarawak rain forest has won international renown.
If the Penans regard anyone as their savior, it is Manser. The 45-year-old Swiss has spent 15 years crusading for the Sarawak rain forest and lived with the Penans from 1984 to 1990. He joined thousands of them in confronting the bulldozers in highly publicized logging blockades. Expelled from Sarawak, he has returned secretly several times.
On his latest visit, he had just walked 150 miles from the Indonesian side of the island to elude authorities and mount another stunt to get the government’s attention.
He intended to fly a para-glider into the compound of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s highest official. But he kept crashing or getting tangled in trees. Finally the propeller broke. Things didn’t look good.
Manser’s difficulties would cause few Malaysians to shed tears.
Malaysia, which shares sovereignty over Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei, is famously prickly about Westerners telling it what to do, and the logging issue is part of that broader East-West standoff.
Already in 1992, on the eve of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was denouncing Manser’s campaign as “the height of arrogance.” Today his words are echoed by Barney Chan, general manager of the Sarawak Timber Assn.
“I know that it’s not politically correct to say, but you have a bunch of white guys running around telling the brown man what to do,” Chan said. “It’s a situation whereby very few people, 260 Penans, are on one side, and on the other side you have a few hundred thousand people benefiting from logging.”
By “white guys,” he meant U.S. Vice President Al Gore and other international figures who have lent public support to Manser’s cause.
The timber industry produces $1.5 billion in annual revenue and provides good livelihoods for 100,000 families. It says it’s tired of Manser and others crying environmental and human devastation. And it is offering to set aside land for the Penans.
“With or without Bruno, we--meaning the government of Sarawak--are on the side of the Penans, and we’re willing to help the Penans,” Chan said.
Logging began sweeping across Mississippi-size Sarawak in the 1970s, and Malaysia quickly became the world’s No. 1 exporter of tropical hardwoods for scaffolding, chopsticks and furniture.
But by 1991, even the pro-logging International Tropical Timber Organization warned that Sarawak would be denuded within 13 years if the 150 timber concessions didn’t cut production drastically. It recommended halving exports and halting logging on steep slopes to prevent erosion.
The government insists it responded well. Within five years, it says, exports were more than halved. And last year, Sarawak’s state government passed legislation banning all commercial hunting in an effort to protect tribal food sources.
Asia’s 1997 economic crisis also intervened. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand, the biggest customers for wood, cut their purchases, and by the following year exports were down 30%.
Four-fifths of Sarawak is covered in forest. More than half of it is licensed for logging under a system that fells 8 to 12 trees for every 2 1/2 acres, replanting and then allowing the forest to regenerate for 25 years. About 12% of the rain forest has been set aside as protected areas for national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Although the plan appears solid on paper, environmentalists say that it isn’t happening in reality, and that erosion and river silt have already destroyed ecological gene pools long before regeneration can occur.
“Only the most remote areas of Sarawak haven’t been affected by logging,” said Thomas Jalong, coordinator of the Sarawak branch of the environmentalist Friends of the Earth. “Logging activities are now carried out right in the interior, and most of these areas are sensitive ecological zones.”
Only seven hours by foot from remote Penan territory, many patches of balding cliffs are visible where trees have been uprooted.
“We may be on the losing end now,” Jalong said. “Despite all the campaigns and all the concerns, . . . the logging activities still go on undeterred.”
Logging, poaching and man-made fires to clear land for palm-oil plantations have cut deep into Sarawak’s rich wildlife. The red-haired orangutan, found only in Borneo, faces extinction, its numbers down from an estimated 180,000 a decade ago to no more than 30,000 today.
Also on the endangered list is the hornbill, Sarawak’s state bird, which is known for its huge curved beak and piercing call.
It is revered by the Penans.
“When the hornbill calls, it’s like hearing our father speak. It makes us feel warm,” said Along. “But now we don’t hear our father speak to us anymore.”
Before daylight fades--early in a land where sunshine rarely breaks through thick vines of mossy elephant ears--the Penan men clear the jungle at the bank of the Limbang River. They whack down wiry palms and put up a platform so everyone can sleep above the wet ground and leeches massing at the scent of human flesh.
The women weave a rooftop of palm fronds for protection from the never-ending drizzle, and the children clip kindling for the fire. They flick bloated leeches off their ankles as they boil a thick paste of sago palm and tapioca starch.
Later they will wrap themselves in faded batik sarongs and hum and rock one another to sleep.
Most Penans who have moved into settlements have been converted to Christianity, but nomads are largely animists who believe nature has a soul and forest spirits must be protected and undisturbed.
Their poison darts, made from the latex of the ipoh tree, are only used to kill big game. A hunter will often return with a baby bear or monkey, which becomes part of the clan and will never be eaten.
The Penans never walk directly toward another person, and when they pass by, they bend slightly and bow. Eye contact is rare.
“Never once in the course of six years did I see a Penan interrupt another, let alone shout at or assault another,” Manser writes in his 1996 book, “Voices from the Rainforest.”
They are a people unsuited to confrontation. But the ruin of their habitat has forced many of them into an existence of pleading and demanding and blockading, all contrary to their nature.
One of the main problems, according to some environmentalists, is that the government and loggers are one and the same.
Ruled for a century as a private fiefdom by the Brookes, an adventurous English family, Sarawak was ceded to Britain in 1946. In 1949, the British awarded a timber concession to James Wong Kim Min, who pioneered hill logging with bulldozers and made a fortune.
Wong is now Sarawak’s environment minister.
Taib, the chief minister, is also the forestry minister, whose department grants logging concessions and approves environmental impact statements.
Wong and Taib declined to respond to questions for this report, but Wong sent a copy of his book, “Hill Logging in Sarawak,” an emotional 33-page defense of logging practices in which he proclaims, sometimes through poetry, his love of the land.
He blames most deforestation on centuries of slash-and-burn cultivation by islanders and warns that a boycott of Sarawak hardwoods would result in fewer reasons to protect the forest.
“It would be nice of course if a country could afford to leave its natural resources in a pristine state,” Wong writes. “Every nation exploits its natural resources to survive and provide better living for its people.”
Wong has hostile words for Manser:
“He went around encouraging the nomadic Penans to continue living in their primeval and unhealthy way of life, but he himself after a few years of vacation decided he had had enough . . . --no doubt he missed his Swiss cheese and the comforts of civilization--and ran away from his friends.”
The Penans call Manser Lakei Dja-au, or Big Man. The loggers have dubbed him the new White Rajah, alluding to Sarawak’s past as a corner of the British Empire.
“Bruno has some special power; he’s like a God sent down to us,” says Kayan Etek, another tribal headman.
Manser says he never set out to be a crusader. The Swiss Alpine pastures had become too congested, and Borneo was a magical land he had mused over for years. So he came here “as a human being who loves nature, who loves life and who also loves adventure.”
“That’s when I found the Penans. I joined their life for six years and they asked me for help. If a child is drowning and crying for help, what would you do?”
Manser has consistently badgered the Malaysian government to honor its decade-old promise to create a 1,280-square-mile forest reserve for the Penans in what they regard as their ancestral land.
But a 1958 British colonial law designates all uncultivated native land as state forests. Since the Penans are nomadic and don’t clear land for annual harvest, the law gives them no ownership rights.
“They don’t live for dollars. They don’t ask for anything,” Manser said. “They live only for all the resources that they find in the virgin forests, for the wild game and the wild fruit.”
Government policy is to encourage Penans to move into mainstream Malay culture, become rice farmers, get modern medical care and educate their children under the Malay curriculum.
But the Penans describe the government settlements as little more than tin-roofed refugee camps with dirty water beneath the dreaded tropical sun. They are heartsick for home.
“We want the choice to go back to the forests,” says James Lalokeso, a spokesman for the 1,500 partially settled Penans in Ulu Baram in northeastern Sarawak. “But so far, we have no reserved land, no protected areas, and loggers are operating on our land even as we speak.”
In 1990, the European Community passed a resolution calling for the protection of tropical forests. Al Gore, then a U.S. senator, introduced a resolution in Congress demanding that Malaysia end “the uncontrolled exploitation of the rain forests of Sarawak.”
Even some Manser antagonists have a grudging respect for him, such as Chan of the timber association, who has known him for years.
When Manser called Chan to tell him he was going to para-glide into Taib’s compound, Chan tried to talk him out of it.
“I told him, ‘Don’t be stupid. This is not the Asian way.’ ”
On the second day of the holiday to celebrate the end of the Muslim hajj, or pilgrimage, Manser and his small crew from Europe, armed with a more powerful propeller, tried again to get his para-glider up over Kuching and into the chief minister’s compound.
“I hope the chief minister will celebrate by helping to protect the Penans and one of the most beautiful forests in the world,” Manser said just before he took off, successfully this time.
A dozen Penans had come to cheer him on. Dressed in loincloths and holding their spears, they stood in an open field next to a Muslim cemetery as Manser took flight with his blue parachute, which read: “Taib + Penans.”
As soon as he landed by Taib’s compound, he was hustled into a Jeep and put on a first-class flight back to Switzerland.
One of those squinting up as Manser glided over the blue-tiled dome of the state mosque was his old friend Along, a veteran of logging protests who once spent two weeks in jail. He had been promised an audience with Taib and was prepared to remain in the big city until he had his say or was thrown in jail.
“Our government is like an old grandfather,” Along said. “If the chief minister is not yet ready to talk with his children, then we will just wait until he will see us.”
But there was no audience. The next day, Along was put on a bus and told to go home, back to the jungle where now even fewer trees stood.