Sarawak, Malaysia's Forests Decimated



Following is an article detailing the continued destruction of Sarawak, Malaysia's rainforests. Since the 1970s, the forests of this portion of Borneo have been decimated to make scaffolding, chopsticks and paper, mostly for the Japanese market. This despite huge local and international protest. Half of Sarawak, a state nearly the size of England, is zoned for logging, 8 percent is to be permanently protected and the rest deforested for development. The Penan tribal peoples way of life has been drastically impacted, and environmental impacts are severe. The point is made that these rainforests are essentially finished as an intact forest ecosystem. Industrial forestry equipment is now being loaded to go to Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere, where the few remaining virgin forests exist. The challenge for the forest movement is to not let this social and environmental tragedy be repeated. This is a daunting task as Malaysian style industrial forestry has established significant toeholds in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific, Africa and South America. Millions of species and their combined evolutionary history are being sacrificed to feed the developed world's throw away societies. Time is short to save remaining rainforests.


Quest for 'green gold' fells one of Earth's oldest rain forests Copyright 1996 Associated Press

May 7, 1996
LONG WIN, Malaysia (AP) -- Deep in one of the world's oldest rain forests, this small tribal settlement awakens most mornings to grinding motors and the thud of falling trees -- sounds that herald the end of its traditional ways.

"I just want to cry when I hear the bulldozers and saws. But what can I do? Nothing," says Juwin Lihan, a leader of the Penans, who have depended on the Sarawak region's once boundless and bountiful forests for generations.

Starting in the 1970s, and accelerating during the last decade, logging has swept like a wave across Malaysia's part of Borneo island, from coastal mangroves eastward to the highlands bordering the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.

In the rush to extract hardwoods to be turned into scaffolding, chopsticks and paper, the loggers have degraded an irreplaceable forest gene pool that had stood largely undisturbed for millennia. The lives of the Penans and other forest people have been forever fractured.

There have been protests -- from U.S. senators to Penans armed with blowpipes and poison arrows, who threw up roadblocks and destroyed logging equipment.

But native people and environmentalists are conceding defeat.

"We seem to have accomplished so little to stop the logging," said Mary Asunta of the Malaysian affiliate of the international conservation group Friends of the Earth.

"The timber companies have left a trail of destruction. Clean rivers have turned the color of tea with milk. Communities where people have lived for ages are being bulldozed after a stranger comes in and flings a document in their face."

"Green Gold"
The governments of Malaysia and Sarawak state take a different view on the harvesting of what they call "green gold."

Officials say the $1.5 billion in yearly timber exports has propelled Sarawak from an exotic backwater into an outpost of the modern world. The industry provides jobs for 100,000 people, while logging roads have opened up once isolated, impoverished areas, they say.

"Even without logging, all human beings exploit nature. We cannot eat the egg without cracking the shell," James Wong Kim Min, the state environment minister, said in an interview.

And while conceding that loggers had caused damage, he blamed slash-and-burn cultivation by some tribal groups for most deforestation.

Half of Sarawak, a state nearly the size of England, is officially zoned for logging, while 8 percent is to be permanently protected and the rest deforested for development.

Asked about World Bank warnings that logging in Sarawak will prove a "sunset industry" if it is not reined in, Wong contended timber is being cut prudently to allow a "sustainable" industry. "Logging will carry on forever," he said.

Sarawak's "selective management system" calls for the felling of 8 to 12 mature trees for every 2-1/2 acres, replanting and then allowing the area to regenerate for 25 years until the next harvest cycle.

Environmentalists say the system may be sound on paper but is greatly abused on the ground. They say companies riddle the forest with erosion-causing trails, then destroy plantlife and animal habitats as they power their way toward the trees they can legally fell.

Ms. Asunta said that when timber companies talk about "sustainability" they mean having a constant supply of logs, whereas conservationists define it as harvesting that does not injure any of the life in an ecosystem, including that of human dwellers.

The effect of deforestation

The Penans say widespread logging has devastated their lives.

"When the forest was not destroyed life was easy," said Liman Abon, chief of Long Block, another remote Penan settlement in northeastern Sarawak ringed by loggers. "If we wanted food, there were wild boar. If we wanted money, we could make mats and baskets for sale from rattan. If we were sick, we could pick medicinal plants. Before, our clinic was the forest."

Long Block elders say a company gives the settlement the equivalent of $8,000 a year for logging on its land. That is meager when divided among some 200 inhabitants, they say, and does not compensate for boar that have fled, medicinal bark that has disappeared or the fruit trees that loggers bulldozed in 1994.

"The government says it's our land, but when the companies come they just take what they want. They don't care," the chief said.

Thomas Jalong, who heads Friends of the Earth in the Baram River region where the Penan settlements are located, says the companies -- backed up by the government -- almost always win disputes over land. None of the legal cases lodged by tribal people is known to have gone against the loggers.

Jalong charges that tribal people are often tricked or put their thumbprints to agreements they barely understand. Officials sent to check that loggers observe environmental and legal safeguards are bribed, he says.

"The biggest problem in Sarawak is that loggers and government are one and the same," said William W. Bevis, an American academic who recently published "Borneo Log: The Struggle for Sarawak's Forests."

Sarawak's chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, also serves as the forestry minister, grants logging concessions and approves environmental impact statements. Wong, the environment minister, personally holds a large concession and pioneered hill logging with bulldozers.

Bevis said that while the government still upholds traditional land tenure, it began eroding the rights enjoyed by tribal groups over their areas in the mid-1950s. By the mid-1980s, when the assault on Sarawak's rain forests intensified, handing out concessions had thus become easier, he said.

An around-the-clock, year-round operation

By 1991, even the International Tropical Timber Organization, which environmentalists regard as pro-logging, warned that Sarawak would be denuded within 13 years if cutting was not drastically reduced.

Logging has tapered off. But environmental groups say the harvest is still ruinous, and they contend the lower volume is due more to the rugged, less productive terrain now being worked.

Malaysia remains the world's largest supplier of tropical wood.

Along the Baram River, cranes rapidly pluck tons of mahogany and ironwood from trucks that have careened through the jungle to its banks. The logs are stacked in barges, which are towed down to vast marshaling areas near the river mouth in an around-the-clock, year-round operation.

"It's pretty much over in Sarawak. The battle is now moving to other places," Bevis said. "The bulldozers are on ships, steaming toward Papua New Guinea and other fresh rain forests."

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