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Castles on Foundations of Sand

In a tropical forest, the cycle of growth and decay proceeds far more rapidly than in a temperate woodland. Fallen leaves begin to rot almost before they hit the ground, and the nutrients they contain are quickly drawn back up into the canopy. As a result the forest floor is virtually devoid of organic soil. This, coupled with the abundant rainfall, make deep root systems unnecessary. In fact, ninety percent of the roots do not penetrate further than twelve centimetres (five inches) into the ground. In the absence of deep root systems, many of the largest forest trees are supported by immense buttresses which flare out from the base of the trunk.

In any other part of the world, these lands might be deserts. Only rainfall and temperature, and the rapid manner in which nutrients are recycled, insulate the forest from the poor quality of the soil and permit the luxuriant growth. The rain forest is quite literally a castle of immense biological sophistication built on a foundation of sand.

The removal of this forest cover sets in motion a chain reaction of biological disaster. Temperatures increase dramatically, relative humidity falls, and rates of evapotranspiration drop precipitously. With the cushion of vegetation gone, torrential rains wash away the remaining nutrients and cause chemical changes in the soil. Much of the newly exposed ground, especially areas that have been compressed by heavy machinery, may turn into a rock hard pavement of red clay from which not a weed will grow. In other areas sun tolerant plants invade the clearings, growing into a wretched entanglement of half-hearted trees. Whereas the floor of the primary forest is relatively open and easy to traverse, the dense underbrush of the secondary forest can be virtually impenetrable.

In Sarawak, one of the most immediate and dramatic consequences of logging is the siltation of rivers. Streams that formerly flowed clear are now choked with mud and logging debris. Heavy rain increases the amount of suspended silt, often causing the death of thousands of fish.


Today the Penans find themselves overwhelmed by the frenzy of logging that has gripped Malaysia over the last three decades. It is a rate of forest destruction twice that of the Amazon and by far the highest in the world. In 1983 Malaysia accounted for almost 60% of the total global export of tropical logs. By 1985, three acres of forest were being cut every minute of every day. With the primary forests of peninsular Malaysia becoming rapidly depleted, the industry turned to Sarawak.

In 1971 Sarawak was exporting 4.2 million cubic meters of wood. A decade later exports had more than doubled and by 1985 they had reached 10.6 million cubic meters. In that year over 600,000 acres were logged. An additional 12.7 million acres, representing 60% of Sarawak's total forested area, were licensed for future logging. In 1990 the annual cut had escalated to 18.8 million cubic meters. In the Baram River drainage alone, there are today more than thirty logging companies, some equipped with as many as 1200 bulldozers, working one million acres of forest on lands traditionally belonging to the Kayans, Kenyahs and Penans. Within the territory of the Penans alone, 72% of the forest is officially designated for commercial exploitation. Most observers consider this figure to be misleading. Evidence on the ground suggests that much of the lowland forest essential to the Penan has already been cut, and what remains is slated to be logged.

Logging practices in Borneo in the last decade have plundered an extraordinary natural resource. Waste in the industry has been estimated as high as 50%. Ninety percent of the wood that is exported leaves Sarawak as unprocessed logs, resulting in a significant loss of revenue and employment to the State.

The Politics of Timber

The politics of timber in Sarawak begin and end in money. In 1976 the value of timber exported from Sarawak was US$138 million; by 1991 the figure had reached US$1,292 million. In a state where a majority of the 1.5 million inhabitants are subsistence farmers, this income represents a staggering concentration of wealth. Far from benefiting the rural poor, forest management in Sarawak has been subverted to serve the interests of the ruling elite. The authority to grant or deny logging concessions lies strictly with the Minister of Resource Planning. There is no competitive bidding, nor any legal or technical restrictions on who may be awarded a concession. Recipients have included relatives, friends, political associates, and even the Sarawak Football Association.

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The Role of Japan

More than 98% of Sarawak's timber is exported in the form of raw logs, virtually all of it destined for Asian markets. The three largest importers are Korea (16.4%), Taiwan (22%), and Japan (46%: 1989 figures). The role of Japan in the Sarawak timber industry is pivotal. The country depends on Malaysia for more than 85% of its tropical wood imports.

Japanese banks provided the start up loans for local logging companies. Japanese companies supply the bulldozers and heavy equipment necessary to extract the logs. Japanese interests provide the insurance and financing for the Japanese ships that carry the raw logs that will be processed in Japanese mills and dispensed as lumber to construction firms often owned by the same concern that first secured the wood in Sarawak. Once milled in Japan, the wood produced by the oldest and perhaps richest tropical rain forest on earth is used principally for packaging material, storage crates, and furniture. Roughly half of it is used in construction, mostly as plywood cement forms which are used once or twice and then discarded.


In 1987, Dayak resentment and anger over the impact of logging reached a flash point in the Baram and Limbang Districts. After having appealed in vain for over seven years to the government to put an end to the destruction of their traditional homelands, the Penans issued on February 13, 1987, a firm and eloquent declaration of their intentions:

"We, the Penan people of the Tutoh, Limbang, and Patah Rivers regions, declare: Stop destroying the forest or we will be forced to protect it. The forest is our livelihood. We have lived here before any of you outsiders came. We fished in clean rivers and hunted in the jungle. We made our sago meat and ate the fruit of the trees. Our life was not easy but we lived it contentedly. Now the logging companies turn rivers to muddy streams and the jungle into devastation. Fish cannot survive in dirty rivers and wild animals will not live in devastated forest. You took advantage of our trusting nature and cheated us into unfair deals. By your doings you take away our livelihood and threaten our very lives. You make our people discontent. We want our ancestral land, the land we live off, back. We can use it in a wiser way. When you come to us, come as guests with respect.

"We, the representatives of the Penan people, urge you: Stop the destruction now. Stop all logging activities in the Limbang, Tutoh, and Patah. Give back to us what is properly ours. Save our lives, have respect for our culture. If you decide not to heed our request, we will protect our livelihood. We are a peace-loving people, but when our very lives are in danger, we will fight back. This is our message."

On March 31, 1987, armed with blowpipes, a group of Penans erected a blockade across a logging road in the Tutoh River basin. In April, a hundred Kayans at Uma Bawang blockaded a road that pierced their territory. By October, Penans from twenty-six settlements had joined the protest.

This was the beginning of one of the most remarkable resistance movements ever mounted by an indigenous people. Whole villages moved onto logging roads, building makeshift shelters directly on the right-of-way. Often the protests lasted for months, and when they were finally suppressed by government forces new ones sprang up in other areas. At their peak, the blockades halted logging in half of Sarawak. Although frequently assaulted by armed police, soldiers, and company goons, the protesters remained peaceful. In every instance, the actual barriers were mere symbols, a few forest saplings bound with rattan. Their strength lay in the men, women and children who stood behind them.

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The International Campaign

The following is quoted from the book "Nomads of the Dawn".

The Dayak cause was taken up in Malaysia by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) - the national affiliate of Friends of the Earth. For several years, members of SAM, led by S. M. Mohd Idris, and represented in Sarawak by Harrison Ngau, had championed indigenous rights and rainforest preservation, and called for a moratorium on all logging activities in Sarawak. In 1987, Harrison Ngau was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act. This flagrant abuse of justice drew international attention, not only to the victim, but to the cause he championed.

In 1988, international concern became manifest in a series of dramatic developments. In July of that year, a motion was placed before the European Parliament calling for all member nations to ban timber imports from Sarawak until it could be demonstrated that the industry was not detrimental to the biological and cultural integrity of the region. The import ban did not pass, but it came close enough to stun Malaysian officials. In Australia, meanwhile, dock workers threatened to refuse to unload timber imported from Malaysia. In Japan, Japan Tropical Forest Action Network (JATAN) called for a boycott of all tropical hardwoods, a strategy that was later taken up in the USA and Australia by the Rainforest Action Network. In Britain, several large furniture makers announced that they would no longer use certain tropical woods. In the Netherlands, municipal councils refused to grant building permits to construction projects that specified the use of tropical timber. In November of 1989, a second motion came before the European Parliament calling for the release of all detainees in Sarawak, and the resolution of the conflict in a manner satisfactory to the indigenous peoples. This time the motion passed unanimously.

In 1990 support for the protection of the Sarawak forests grew, as media attention prompted spontaneous actions by concerned individuals and organizations throughout the world. In September, two Penan representatives, Mutang Tu'o and Unga Paren, accompanied by Kelabit activist Anderson Mutang Urud, embarked on a world tour that took them to 25 cities in thirteen countries on four continents. In six weeks they spoke directly to an estimated 50,000 people, and millions more saw them on television. Private meetings were held with a number of influential individuals, including U.S. Senator Al Gore, H.R.H. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Madame Mitterand, First Lady of France, John Fraser, Speaker of Canada's House of Commons, and Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development [the Earth Summit].

Lobbying efforts continued in the following year. In February of 1991, Anderson Mutang Urud and Unga Paren traveled to Brussels to address a group of European parliamentarians. In July, Mutang spoke in Geneva to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous People. Two months later, Mutang Tu'o and Mutang Urud traveled to New York and met privately with Javier Perez de Cuellar, the Secretary General of the United Nations. In January of 1992, Svend Robinson, Canadian Member of Parliament, went to Sarawak as part of a Human Rights Mission to Asia. Against the wishes of the Malaysian government, and guided by Mutang, he traveled to the Long Ajeng blockade, and later issued a strong condemnation of the Sarawak government.

On February 5, 1992, three weeks before the dismantling of the Long Ajeng blockade, Anderson Mutang Urud was arrested without charge, held in a windowless room, denied adequate clothing or drinking water, threatened with violence, and interrogated around the clock. On March 4, he was formally charged with operating an illegal society, the Sarawak Indigenous Peoples Association, and released on bail, with a trial set for September. He was warned of dire consequences if he engaged in further international campaigning. Advised by his lawyers that he faced certain incarceration under the Internal Security Act, he left the country in March and entered exile in Canada.

Mutang's case became an issue of international concern. His treatment by the Sarawak authorities was condemned universally in the western media and by politicians, church leaders and the environmental community. On April 2, in Washington, U.S. Senator Al Gore introduced Senate Resolution 280, which called for the protection of the Sarawak rainforest and the rights of all indigenous peoples in the state. In May of 1992, Mutang Urud brought the campaign to the Earth Summit in Rio. On December 10, representing all the Dayak peoples of Sarawak, Anderson Mutang Urud addressed the 47th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Text of Mutang's speech

The above is based in large part on information from the book Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest by Wade Davis, Ian Mackenzie and Shane Kennedy (Pomegranate Art Books, San Francisco, 1995)

The illustrations are also from Nomads of the Dawn. View the photo credits.

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