Penan villagers drive away logging company

The Penan community of Long Tevenga in front of their blockade on the logging road. (Photo: BMF)

Long Tevenga/Sarawak,Malaysia – Stories like this do not come too often: villagers come face to face with powerful companies to chop down trees on their forests and they drove them away.

Penan villagers from the province of Borneo demonstrated that people power has prevailed as they won their case against a logging company attempting to extract timber from their forest.

The Penans have been protesting for two years against the logging operations of Lee Ling Timber Sdn. Bhd. They have barricaded the path to the forest and in August this year, their headman Peg Megut urged to strengthen their efforts: they built a house across the road leading to the forest.

Lee Ling returned to the blockade site on October 12, along with the police and representatives of the Sarawak Forest Department. However, the Penan showed how logging activities threaten their territorial rights in the area. They presented recently- completed community maps.

Negotiations between the Penan, the logging company Lee Ling and the Sarawak authorities on October 12, 2018. (Photo: BMF)

Blocked from trespassing their ancestral territory, the Sarawak Forest Department decided to send the logging company back home and stated that Lee Ling should not proceed with further timber extraction without the consent of the Penan village.

Last year, the Penan and the Bruno Manser Fund published a set of 23 maps documenting the Penan’s traditional forest and land use.

(Source: BNF)

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

Image via Amazon.

‘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

Malaysian PM urged to intervene amid Sarawak dam tension

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been asked to intervene in the escalating tension surrounding the Murum dam project in Sarawak.

A police squad was dispatched to the dam site to confront the barricade opposing Sarawak Energy Berhad’s (SEB) hydro energy project.

A police officer fires his gun in the air at the Murum dam blockade site. (Photo: Supplied)

About 30 police officers reportedly bullied 300 protestors on Thursday. Ngang Buling, chairman of the Peleiran Murum Penan Affairs Committee was arrested and brought to the Belaga Police Station for questioning in relation to his involvement in the blockade. A police officer fired a shot in the air to disperse the protesters, sources said. Following the arrest of Ngang, the protesters also asked the police to arrest them. Some of the villagers chased the police vehicle carrying Ngang who is to be held at the station for four days.  SAVE Rivers is reported to be dispatching a human rights lawyer to take care of the case.

On Friday, Buling was released on bail but will face court next month on criminal trespass charge, local media reports.

Protesters marched to the dam site following the impoundment of the dam which started on September 22. According to anti-dam NGOs who contacted Asian Correspondent, residents were not given notice while resettlement agreements have not been put in place.

Earlier, representatives from the Penan community affected by the dam went to Miri to lodge a police report against SEB and the Sarawak State Government for impounding the dam without giving them notice.

Penan people’s representatives at a local police station. (Photo: Supplied)

Community spokesperson Lugan Usang from Long Tangau said in a press statement that the safety and livelihood of his people are at risk. Above the Murum dam, there are still many Penan and Kenyah communities that have yet to move and are still living at their respective villages of Long Luar, Long Tangau, Long Menapa, Long Singu, Long Malim, Long Wat and Long Umpa.

Houses, livestock, farms, fruit trees, and other livelihood are said to be at risk without notice of compensation from Sarawak Energy or from the Sarawak government. If destroyed, there would not be any evidence to claim compensation, Lugan said. The spokesperson also pointed out that the Penans and Kenyahs are not ready to move because the resettlement site at Metalon has yet to be completed.

“The crops and fruit trees which were promised to us by the government to sustain our livelihood have yet to be planted…. The same goes for the school and the clinic, it is not built yet. How are we going to live at Metalon?” Lugan asked.

SEB confirmed  communities directly affected by the proposed Murum Dam Project consists of 353 households with 1,415 people (as of August 2011) comprised of 335 Penan households with 1,304 Penan and 18 Kenyah Badeng households with 113 Kenyah.

The site of the Murum hydro power dam. (Photo: Supplied)

Penans chase SEB CEO  Sjotveit

The Penans chased Torstein Dale Sjotveit, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SEB out from the dam site for failing to meet the demands of the Penans and Kenyah communities.

The Penans accused Sjotveit of being arrogant with no interest at all in negotiation. They said he wanted the blockade to be dismantled and the protesters driven from the area. The Penans chased him out of the site instead, which forced the police to intervene and to take Sjotveit away to a secure location.

Resettlement solutions

SEB has released a 168-page Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) document containing compensation policy by the government. The properties eligible for compensation include longhouses, crops including fruit trees, grave yards, community halls and churches, as well as land.

Most of the key elements of the compensation package were approved by the government in February 2011 and communicated to the affected people, according to the energy company, although local communities say there was no public consultation.

Residents are left on the sidelines while they watch incoming trucks to the dam site. (Photo: Supplied)

However, the Sarawak Report detailed a dark side of the plan which is tantamount to “ethnic genocide“.

A clandestine copy of the RAP reportedly shows that the proposals do not represent any “fair compensation for the displaced hunter-gatherer communities who have lived in the Murum territories for generations and who have lost their jungles and livelihoods to logging, oil palm and soon floodwaters”.

Furthermore, the proposed level of compensation consists of a monthly allowance which falls far below poverty levels even in Sarawak. “State assistance of just RM500 per family (US$157) will run out after just 4 years,” the report said.

Alternative media also reported the hidden details of the RAP which ”tell the shocking truth about the lives of the Penan and their total neglect by the government that plans to wipe out the land which has been their home and provided their livelihood for generations.”

The Penan protesters are urging the prime minister to intervene and to immediately stop the impoundment and displacement of people.

Blog LInk: The Green Journal/Asian Correspondent