Can Borneo's Tribes Survive 'Biggest Environmental Crime of Our Times'?

By Simon Worrall for National Geographic

Published January 11, 2015

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called the deforestation of Sarawak, a sliver of rain forest on the island of Borneo, in Malaysia, "probably the biggest environmental crime of our times." In his new book Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia, Lukas Straumann investigates that crime. Straumann is director of the Bruno Manser Fund, which works to protect tropical rain forests.

Speaking from his office in Zurich, Switzerland, Straumann describes the nexus of corruption and weak governance that has allowed Malaysia's timber barons to destroy much of Sarawak's rain forest and export that model to other parts of the world, how his organization is using everything from GPS mapping to the courts to help the Penan people of Borneo fight for their homeland, and what we can do to assist them.

Many readers will not be familiar with Sarawak. Give us a virtual tour.

Sarawak is a state the size of England—one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, which is the world's third largest island. It also contains one of the oldest rain forests on Earth, which once almost entirely covered the island. But today less than 10 percent of the primary forest is left. Sarawak is one of the hotspots of global deforestation.

Gordon Brown called the deforestation of Sarawak one of history's worst environmental crimes. Give us a picture of the destruction.

Sarawak possesses one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth. Initially, logging companies come in for so-called selective logging, taking the oldest and most valuable trees out. A couple of years later they come back and get the rest of the bigger trees. Often they return for a third time, after which nothing much is left to be harvested.

If indigenous communities living in the rain forest want to build a school for the children, they can't find the timber to construct it. They frequently don't have access to clean drinking water because all the rivers have been polluted. And while the timber barons have become billionaires, the communities have remained very poor. Maybe there is a road. But do these people have a car to drive on the road? Most of them don't.

Tell us about the Penan—and how their lives have been affected by illegal logging.

The eastern Penan were some of the last hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia. They had a unique, ancient lifestyle, with sago as their staple food. They also relied on hunting wild boar or deer and fishing. They have more than 1,500 words for plants, many of which have a use in their ethnobotany.

In the mid-20th century, with the encouragement of the former British colonial power and Christian missionaries, they slowly became settled. But a group of them decided they wanted to remain nomads and carry on their traditional lifestyle. Today that's become virtually impossible, because much of their habitat has been destroyed.

The villain of the piece is a man named Abdul Taib Mahmud, aka Taib. Tell us about him and his family.

Abdul Taib Mahmud was born in 1936, one of ten children of a craftsman. He was able to attend school through a scholarship from the Shell Oil Company, because Sarawak is also an oil state. Later he went on a scholarship to Australia, where he studied law.

Shortly after independence, he returned to Sarawak and managed to become a minister in the first state cabinet at the age of 27. He's remained a minister ever since, and that office has made him extremely rich. He's on record as saying that he has more money than he can ever spend.

His family have also made billions, though we don't know how much money is his own and how much is theirs, because he hides it so well. They have stakes in over 400 companies in 25 countries, as well as having investments in Western countries like the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia.

Describe the connection between timber and politics in Sarawak.

In the 1960s a model of political economy developed in Borneo that intimately linked the power structures to deforestation. Politicians used their power to hand out timber concessions to businessmen in return for bribes and kickbacks. That model was very successful because it kept them in power. It became very hard for challengers to get hold of similar amounts of money to front their election campaigns. Taib has now lost the office of chief minister. But he's still there, as the governor of Sarawak, and his family has a stranglehold over the economy in Sarawak.

This model, which linked corruption, destruction of the environment, and disrespect for indigenous rights, was so successful that Malaysia's timber barons sought to export it. First, because the rapid depletion of the rain forest in Sarawak meant they couldn't "grow" it there.

It was also risky to depend on one despot. So they went to other countries, preferably with very weak governance, like Cambodia after the civil war or Papua New Guinea. They also went to Guyana, in South America, and to western Africa.

Today they're among the largest suppliers of mainland China with tropical timbers from western Africa. So Sarawak became the breeding ground for a model that has proved destructive not only in Borneo but everywhere there are tropical forests.

Proof of Taib's corrupt actions came to you on a memory stick. Describe what happened—and what it contained.

One of the whistle-blowers I met during my research gave me a memory stick with secret files from Sarawak's Land and Survey Department. These showed that large tracts of state land had been handed out by Chief Minister Taib to his family members, who later sold them at a much higher price.

That was crucial, because all transactions of state land are among the best guarded secrets in states like Sarawak, where top politicians make their money from privatizing public resources into the hands of their families and cronies.

In the chapter "Blowpipes against Bulldozers" you describe the resistance of indigenous peoples to deforestation. Tell us about Harrison Ngau.

Harrison Ngau was the founder of the Sarawak section of Sahabat Alam Malaysia, which is basically the Malaysian section of Friends of the Earth. He grew up in the native community and became an iconic leader of the indigenous people of Borneo, first as a campaigner and later as a lawyer.

Today he has a land-rights law firm in Sarawak. He was awarded a Right Livelihood award in 1987 for his commitment to assist the Penan people, which is a major international recognition, and he has continued his work ever since.

One of the problems indigenous peoples have in resisting the loggers is that without a written culture, land claims are hard to justify. Tell us about the mapping project—and how history and geography can be used to support indigenous land claims.

The Penan first started mapping their traditional land claims in the 1990s. They were inspired by the First Nations of Canada, who had become successful at mapping their traditional lands and claiming rights over them. Some of the Penan's friends in Canada said, Look, why don't you start doing this? It's basically the same legal system inherited from the British.

So what we've done over the last ten years is systematically map the traditional forests of the Penan, first from their memories, then from the field. We trained Penan crews to use GPS to record not only land use but also cultural sites. For instance, trees used to make blowpipes or poison darts. These trees are very well known. Some even have names. They're what you can call culturally modified trees, because you can see they've been used for ages.

The Penan have to prove they've occupied and continuously used their lands since before 1958. So these trees are an important indication. We also record oral history and genealogies. All of this information is collected as evidence that the Penan have used those lands.

We're very excited because in March the first two court cases we helped eastern Penan communities file will go to trial in Malaysia.

Another hero of the story is a Swiss activist called Bruno Manser. Tell us about him—and the mystery surrounding his disappearance.

Bruno Manser was what you could call a typical 1980s activist who was looking for a people who lived without money—close to the origins of mankind, as he called it. He stumbled on the Penan in a book by a British explorer of northern Borneo in the 19th century.

Bruno decided to go and look for these people. He joined a cave expedition and approached them and asked if they'd allow him to live with them. They were happy to have a foreigner interested in their lifestyle, and they introduced him into their way of life and culture. You could say he went native. He adapted to such an extent that the Penan called him Lucky Penan. He was also crucial in helping the Penan organize resistance against logging by staging blockades of logging roads in the late 1980s and '90s.

One theory is that he was murdered. Is there any truth to that?

We simply don't know. So I can't speculate. What we know is that in May 2000 he disappeared in the jungle of Borneo. Either he was murdered, or he had an accident. Perhaps he just wanted to disappear. We don't know. Nothing has ever been found. Not even a backpack. So it's very hard to say. We know he had many enemies. He also took risks, it needs to be said.

What is the connection between money logging and palm oil?

The oil palm is today the single biggest threat to the world's rain forests, particularly in Southeast Asia but increasingly in other parts of the world. Once the forests have been logged three times, not much valuable timber is left. So the logging companies become plantation companies, diversifying their businesses from timber to palm oil. They frequently cut down significant tracts of former rain forests and start planting oil palms, a crop that has a very high yield. Palm oil is the world's most used vegetable oil. It's also increasingly used as an agro fuel. This worries us quite a bit, because the demand for food is limited but the demand for fuel is basically unlimited.

Describe the role of multinational banks in aiding the deforestation of Sarawak.

The timber companies need access to international capital markets, and they want to have that access through the biggest banks. So multinational banks have an important role in providing working capital for Malaysian timber conglomerates like Samling Global, which was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2007, with HSBC and Macquarie in Australia acting as book runners. American banks like Goldman Sachs, or European banks such as Deutsche Bank, have also been closely connected to the Taib regime in Sarawak.

Leaked documents we received showed that UBS, a major Swiss global bank, had accepted up to $90 million in illicit payments linked to the timber trade in Borneo. We filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland, and they opened a criminal investigation, which is ongoing.

The book ends with a sign of hope. Talk about the Penan Peace Park.

The Penan Peace Park is a unique project. Eighteen indigenous communities from eastern Penan decided they wanted to protect our forests. They said, We can't wait for the government to do that. We don't want to just go on blockading logging roads either. We want to have a vision of our own as to how we can develop sustainably, based on using products from the forest but also on ecotourism.

So in 2010, they founded the Penan Peace Park. It's one of the best preserved primary rain forest areas remaining in northern Sarawak. The communities are very proud of it.

We're now demanding that the government of Sarawak officially recognize the Penan Peace Park, thus allowing these communities to continue their traditional lifestyle and control their own natural resources as they've done for hundreds of years.

What can our readers do to help the Penan people and others like them around the world?

They can do several things. Sustainable consumption is very important. So too is consumer awareness. What products do you use? Use recycled paper instead of fresh-fiber paper. Try to avoid palm oil, and make sure that the timber you're buying is Forest Stewardship Council-certified and sustainably produced.

Something people tend to forget as well is that if they have a pension fund, they're also shareholders. Write to your pension fund or bank and ask them if they're trying to foster sustainability with their business partners. The finance industry has a key role in bringing about change. Today, sadly, it's not interested in these issues—only consumer pressure can force it to change its business models.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

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