Sarawak, Malaysia's Forests Decimated
OVERVIEW & SOURCE by EE
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
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."
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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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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