[Book Review] Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia

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‘Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia’ by Lukas Straumann is a controversial book that uncovers the modus operandi of a multi-billion timber industry accused of wiping out the ancient rainforests of Sarawak, home of the last nomadic tribes of Southeast Asia in the heart of Borneo, Malaysia.

It argues two major points: first, the violations of  indigenous people’s rights, including plunder of their source of subsistence; and second, fraud and deceit spawned into the global financial system perpetrated by logging barons.

Straumann calls for the prosecution of criminals who are responsible for the destruction of pristine rainforests, displacement of people, and death of indigenous cultures. It invites a course of action to salvage the remaining forests in Borneo. The book raises questions such as: Is here a hope and redemption for the indigenous people? What lies ahead in this ravaged wilderness? Is palm oil or 12 mega-dams the answer to bail out communities from poverty? What are the implications of this crime for the rest of humanity?

The book also questions the credibility of judicial systems, the police, the FBI, the United Nations’ agencies, Interpol, and other international watchdogs mandated to protect human rights, stop corruption, and to ensure environmental sustainability.

The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), like other NGOs, works for social and environmental causes. BMF has exerted all means to seek justice for the rainforests, the Penans, and the victims of reprisal. However, Straumann is far from optimistic.

The book dissects the system of corruption and environmental crime that befell Sarawak. A model that examines the intricate details of its mechanism, it leads to the understanding of the system that spreads throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, Australia, and beyond. It identifies who’s who in the business and the flow of bribe money, fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering.

Sarawak is the epicentre of environmental disaster with a trail of destruction intruding and expanding into Papua New Guinea, Guyana, Equatorial Guinea, Cambodia, and other territories. To know Sarawak is to know what happened in the other countries, perpetuated by the same logging companies.

Fingers are pointed at the Rolls Royce-driving prominent statesman Abdul Taib Mahmud: “The Most Honourable Chief Minister of Sarawak.” He rose to power in 1986 with the help of his uncle and ruled for three decades. While in office, he allegedly amassed assets totalling US$15 billion. He heads a business empire scattered all over the world and shared among family members. His real estate portfolio is scattered throughout Ottawa, San Francisco, Seattle, London, Adelaide, Hong Kong and Malaysia. He forged global connections with logging barons, financial kingpins, and corrupt politicians in countries where timber is ready for disposal.

The Timber Industry

The book unravels how the timber trade works with the same principles throughout Asia. Logging companies have to pay hefty bribes in exchange for logging concessions. This is especially true in less developed countries where corruption is rife. Bribe money also allows loggers to cut trees beyond agreed limits.

Straumann identifies the movement of timber from its origin to export destinations. Along with it is the flow of more bribe money to “grease” the export processes. Overseas, money is laundered via financial conduits and using various cronies as fronts.

Straumann names the major logging companies, the “Dirty 6” including Samling Group, Rimbunan Hijau, WTK Group, Ta Ann Group, KTS Group, and Shin Yang Group — all related to Taib’s clan and associates. Major markets include Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan, to name a few.

The forest of Sarawak alone is given to four logging companies, all involved in clearing 18 million hectares of forests around the world and transforming them into palm oil plantations.

Loggers operate in poor and vulnerable countries, while real estate and related businesses are invested in more developed countries.

In the book, Tasmania demonstrated its power to stop bulldozers from clearing the wilderness. An activist became a media sensation when she climbed a 60-meter-high eucalyptus tree which she named the “Observer Tree” and sat there for 449 days to deter the Ta Ann Group.

Taib probably cannot betray his Colombo Plan benefactor. He got his law degree from Adelaide University, a beneficiary of Australia’s post-war scholarship. He later made donations amounting to $7 million to the university’s Centre for Environmental Law and in return he was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 2008, a courtyard was named after him.

The Adelaide University Environmental Collective holds a rally to pressure the Vice Chancellor of the Uni to change the name of the Taib Mahmud courtyard. (Photo: Supplied)

The Adelaide University Environmental Collective holds a rally to pressure the Vice Chancellor of the Uni to change the name of the Taib Mahmud courtyard. (Photo: Supplied)

 

Brazilians were also up in arms against logging into the Amazon rainforest and, so far, they have succeeded driving out the timber mafia.

Other regions, however, are not as lucky as Tasmania or Brazil and they can be exploited anytime at Taib’s whim, the book suggests.

Bullying Tactics

Opposition to the logging brings repercussions. Ross Boyert, an insider who tipped off Straumann on the inside operation, faced the consequence of backflipping. Boyert filed a legal suit against Taib including breach of contract, fraud, and infringement of labor laws. Boyert also attempted to expose Taib’s properties overseas with proxy ownership among his kin. As a result, he was stalked, bullied, and psychologically tortured before he committed suicide.

Bruno Manser, the founder of BMF, is one of the most vocal activists that speak for the Penans. He explored Borneo and lived in the rainforests with the indigenous people. He has been on the watch list of Taib and was warned not to go back to Sarawak. He defied warnings, went back, and in 2000, he disappeared in the forest without a trace. In 2005, BMF officially announced he is presumed dead.

Penan activists were not spared. Harrison Ngua, for example, who was working for Sahabat Alam Malaysia, an environmental and human rights organization, was jailed for months while he was blindfolded and interrogated.

Hope for the Rainforest

The rainforest of Sarawak is one of the ancient rainforests explored by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a contemporary of Charles Darwin. It contains some of the most diverse flora and fauna on the planet.  It has been a home of the nomads for many generations —until the loggers came.

Straumann describes the helplessness of the Penans as they watched from the sidelines heavy machinery cleared the rainforests. The last “noble savages” of Southeast Asia were robbed in a broad daylight –  right before their eyes.

As of writing and publication of the book, Straumann has suggested the removal of Taib  from power. But even so, what is done cannot be undone.

It could be said that the logging industry does not monopolize environmental destruction, but Sarawak is symptomatic of a bigger issue of our time. The coal, seam gas, rare earths, and other resources industries have been drilling and extracting to satisfy insatiable greed for profits. The Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, the Arctic in the North Pole, and the Pacific Ocean’s bed are but few other examples where multinational companies are destroying the environment. Grassroots around the world are now standing in the gap to pressure governments and banking institutions to stop the madness once and for all.

James Lovelock came up with Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the planet is a  self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep itself healthy by controlling the interconnections of the chemical and physical environment. He likens the planet to a nurturing mother capable of renewal and regeneration. But with the scale, magnitude, and pace of destruction, scientists predict a bleak future. Humans have been destroying the planet’s life-support system beyond its capacity to regenerate.

Australia’s leading scientist, Tim Flannery, in his book ‘Here on Earth’ (2010), pleads a cause for planetary justice. He argues there is a new awakening of humanity that can give hope to the survival of the planet.  He suggests people need compassion and to care more than ever before.

Straumann, however, grapples for a solution. Perhaps, the motto of the White Rajahs for the original inhabitants of Borneo would somehow help: “Dum spiro spero (As long as I breath, I hope) — for what dies last is the hope for justice and a better future.”

The Malaysian government wanted this book banned. Taib already lodged a full probe into its allegations. Straumann, nonetheless, is unfazed.

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* Some of the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s

The print and Kindle editions of ‘Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia’ can be bought on Amazon.com

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Malaysia: Petitions to stop mega-dams fall on deaf ears

The construction of 12 multi-billion dollar dams in Sarawak looks to be going ahead despite petitions lodged by indigenous people to the Malaysian government. Now the case is calling the attention of the United Nations to look into violations of indigenous people’s rights.

Two road blockades have been erected in a desperate effort to stop trucks and machineries that are building the 1,200 MW Baram Dam. One blockade was erected near Long Lama, on the shores of the Baram River, with a second blockade near the proposed dam site, according to NGOs monitoring developments.

The blockades aim to show resistance to the dams and to pressure the Malaysian government to stop the destruction of local communities ahead of a UN meeting in Geneva where the Human Rights Council will discuss Malaysia’s human rights records.

Anti-dam protestors at IHA 2013 Congress held earlier this year. (Photo: Supplied)

The Baram Dam is the fourth of 12 dams that will displace up to 20,000 people and submerge a rainforest area of over 400 km sq.

Peter Kallang, spokesperson for Sarawak’s SAVE Rivers Network, said it is unacceptable that any work should commence before an Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) has been carried out.

Indigenous communities including Kayan, Kenyah and Penan are also calling on all employees of Sarawak Energy and its contractors to halt work for the planned dam. The communities have installed camps near the blockades with the intention of staying indefinitely to protect their rights and their ancestral lands.

Indigenous families who were forced to leave their longhouses in Murum found out that there is no replacement housing provided as promised.

Protestors against the dams. (Photo: SAVE Rivers)

The Bruno Manser Funds earlier said the construction of the Murum dam would not have been possible without support from Western engineers and managers including Hydro Tasmania, a state-owned Australian power supplier which provides technical advice on dam construction.

Apart from the petitions sent to the Malaysian government, the BMF has also organized an online petition to build international pressure against Sarawak‘s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and his plans “to flood the rainforest and to displace indigenous people.”

The online e-petition will be sent to the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to the Sarawak state government, and to Sarawak Energy Berhad and RECODA (Regional Corridor Development Authority), the executing agencies.

The BMF has asked the prime minister to intervene in the Murum Dam where impoundment started to displace people last month but, so far, the petition has been ignored. Related article here.

Blog Link: The Green Journal at Asian Correspondent

Bob Brown joins fight to save Sarawak rivers

Re-blogging:

Former Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown flew to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, this week to give his backing to a large group of local communities opposing the controversial mega dam projects in the region.

Former Greens Senator Bob Brown addresses delegates to the SAVE Rivers’ alternative conference.

More than 300 local indigenous people held a rally in Kuching amid the International Hydropower Association’s (IHA) biannual conference – the IHA World Congress on Advancing Sustainable Hydropower  – which runs from May 20-25.

The congress is the world’s largest gathering of dam builders and financiers to discuss industry issues. It is also a venue to share practical experiences, policies, and solutions to climate, water, and energy challenges.

Australian-owned Hydro Tasmania (HT) is involved in the controversial dams and is also a sponsor of the event.

HT joined the project as a technical adviser to Sarawak Energy, the dam-building authority of the multi-billion Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).  The project involves 12 highly controversial dams projected to produce 28,000 MW of power.

Bob Brown poses with dam activists during the IHA Congress.

SAVE Sarawak Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers), which organised an alternative conference, said the dams would affect tens of thousands of indigenous people and flood over 2,000 square kilometres of rainforest.

The project is said to be lacking environmental impact assessments despite repeated demands from the affected communities. SAVE Rivers also says that China’s Three Gorges Corporation “began construction on the 944 megawatt Murum Dam in 2012 before its environmental impact assessment had even commenced, leaving affected communities with no option to negotiate resettlement outcomes.”

SAVE Rivers said the dams would be the energy backbone of the Sarawak government’s SCORE Initiative, the plan to rapidly industrialize the state primarily through the expansion of aluminium smelting facilities, palm oil plantations, and other commodity sectors.

Brown, accompanied by Jenny Weber of the Huon Valley Environment Centre, addressed the SAVE Rivers’ alternative conference while HT Chair David Crean and CEO Roy Adair are taking part in the IHA conference.

At the alternative conference,  indigenous communities were given a voice to oppose the dams being built on their land. On Wednesday, they arrived carrying banners saying ‘Respect Native Rights’, ‘Stop Baram Dam’, ’IHA Stop Collaborating With Corrupt Regime’, and ‘No More Dams,’ among other signs.

Protesters flash banners opposing the dams in Sarawak.

The dams are project of the Sarawak state government of Abdul Taib Mahmud who is under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after amassing a fortune of billions of dollars while in office.

Brown said in a statement: “Hydro Tasmania’s senior officers are addressing this conference of the world’s biggest dam builders on ‘sustainability’ while the indigenous people of Sarawak are protesting outside and while HT has four consultants working on these megadams which international organizations have condemned as involving gross corruption.”

In 2011, the IHA launched a voluntary auditing tool for dam builders to assess their social and environmental performance, called the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP). Zachary Hurwitz, Policy Program Coordinator at International Rivers, said  HSAP may be useful to guide dam builders and governments on sustainability. However, he admits the risk that “dam builders could use it to greenwash the worst dams, especially given such a context of heavy-handed repression and corruption.”

More protesters say ‘no to dams’.

In December last year, Peter Kallang, chairman of the SAVE Rivers group of Sarawak Indigenous leaders and James Nyurang, village headman from the Baram River Region, led a tour to Australia and called on Hydro Tasmania to pull their support out of the controversial dams. Related article HERE.

Blog Link: Asian Correspondent