Forest Liquidation for Japan's Infrastructure



Following is a photocopy of a Tokyo Journal article from their July issue which excerpts the recent book "Borneo Log: The Struggle for Sarawak's Forests", providing details of the links between massive industrial deforestation of Borneo's rainforests and Japanese consumer and throw away products. Japan's infrastructure has largely been built upon the wholesale destruction of the world's oldest rainforest ecosystem.

Borneo Log
story and photographs by William W. Bevis
Copyright Tokyo Journal

Tokyo is a world away from Sarawak.
But the rain forest's timber may be as near as the plywood in [wowzers] your kitchen cabinets.

The road through Sarawak's rain forest has been finished for some months now. It dips and curves through 200 kilometers of hills and ravines from Sarawak's northern coast to the mountain crest at the border of Kalimantan province.

Where these roads go, the loggers who built them will follow. Much of the area, indeed nearly 80 percent of the rain forests in Southeast Asia, have been stripped of marketable timber, leaving irreversible environmental damage. Much of the wood is now part of Japan's infrastructure, since it was used as forms for concrete molds. And in every area where rain forest ecosystems have seen damage, the indigenous peoples have suffered as well, some to the point of near extinction.

In this way, the survival of Sarawak's Penan, Iban, Kenyah and Kayan tribes may depend more on decisions made in Tokyo than on the hunting, gathering and communal living skills that have enabled them to live as they have for more than a thousand years.

These links between radical, unsustainable change in the Sarawak rain forest, social and economic upheavals for the forest's people, the assault on native land rights and consumption patterns of highly industrialized nations are what drew William W. Bevis, a visiting professor at Toyo University in Tokyo, to Borneo.

Traveling to the top of the Baram River, Bevis explored what the ongoing environmental disaster has meant both to those who are caught up in a system that leads to needless consumption and to those who are laying their lives on the line to stop it.

If logging continues at its current pace, the rain forest ecosystem that sustains Sarawak's natives will cease to exist in five to eight years. Bevis, along with his wife, were among the few Westerners ever to venture upriver in the Baram, beyond the logging. Will they also be among the last?

It's not easy, when you finally meet the enemy, and you like him. It is night, giant cicadas and grasshoppers the size of cigars are banging against the screens and against the outside of the house. We open and close the door quickly, and mount the stairs to a large, white, empty living room on the second floor, above the offices of Tebanyi timber camp.

Five hand-sized moths and butterflies are already inside, brown and white and black on the walls near the fluorescent lights.

Tired from a day of bouncing in a pickup truck on rutted dirt roads, Fujino (who prefers to go by family name only) and I sink into the beige cushions of a chair and sofa. Newspapers are stacked on the coffee table: the Sarawak Tribune from the capital, Kuching; the Asahi Shimbun, from Tokyo. The room is a little bare, a little functional, made of planed boards painted white.

We are three days upriver by boat, or one long day by logging truck, all the way up to the edge of virgin forest, at the end of logging in Borneo. Fujino is the manager of the camp. He is 55 and looks 30. Fit, wiry, smart, with an open smile.

I have come with him from Miri, on the coast, in a Samling Timber Company pickup. "You're not from Greenpeace, are you?" he had said over the phone. I replied that I was a professor, open-minded I hoped, representing no organization, and that most of the publications on logging came from his opposition. I said I would like to hear the other side. What I did not say was that I had been in and out of his district for six months.

Now we sit, on the second night, in the headquarters of his timber camp. It is February, but in this rain forest 140 kilometers north of the equator, all months are hot and wet. We have been talking of Japan. "The most closed country in the world," he says, laughing. "They should open their doors."

"To the rest of Asia?" I respond, incredulous.

"Yes. They have an obligation."

"But then," I protest, "it would not be Japan."

He smiles. In Borneo I have found a Tokyo liberal, while to him I sound like a nationalist discovering the cult of the emperor. He puts water for tea on a hot plate. I realize I have rarely heard a Japanese say "they" in reference to their countrymen.

Fujino has been away a long time. He came to Southeast Asia in 1964, he says, taking the pot off and pouring the water through a green-tea strainer into a cup. I am having Anchor beer, courtesy of Samling Timber, cold from the refrigerator next to the television. Fujino joined the lumber import section of a trading firm right out of college in Osaka, and ever since he has followed Japan's tropical timber trade: the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, neighboring Sabah in north Borneo. Now most of those forests are gone.

Listening to the hailstorm of insects on the screens, walls, and roof after a day of rain, and smelling the sweet heavy cool of night, I am struck again by Fujino calling this "poor" forest.

"Oh yes," he says. "This is the worst." That's why it's the last in Southeast Asia, I suppose to myself. "In Sarawak we get eight tons per acre average, less up this high. Sabah was fifteen tons per acre, Indonesia was more. The Philippines"-he seems nostalgic now, eyes distant-"went 60 to 70 tons per acre. You could practically clear-cut that forest, and it was better wood too. Mahogany, teak. Here even the eight tons is mediocre, half meranti and half mixed."

"Here you get eight tons per acre?" I ask.

"At best."

"But you say a good-sized meranti is five to eight tons?"


"So you're harvesting only one tree per acre?"

"If it's a big tree."

"And that's all the marketable timber?"


I look out the screen past the banging bugs into the night mist, thinking of what I've seen around his camp the last two days. The huge road cuts, the slides, the 50 bulldozers and front-end loaders scattered in the mud in front of the repair shed (over 100 others are out in the forest), and the trucks. And what I've heard and seen during the last six months in and out of the Baram: bulldozers appearing with no warning where people have hunted and gathered the forest for generations; Sarawak Minister James Wong's position-"There are no native land rights"-repeated by lumber companies to frightened natives in isolated longhouses upriver; traditional cultures forced suddenly into a new economy; damage to the forest.

Now all this will come up here, to yet another virgin district, for only one tree per acre. I know Fujino says they can make ... on one tree per acre, but it seems stranger than clear-cutting. Why not leave the land alone? Does the world need the timber that much? This timber, the world's oldest rain forest? This cheap, just underselling Canadian fir? The natives' desires and rights do not enter the economics.

A single tractor team skids a log an hour from the forest, where the feller dropped it, out to the nearest logging road. There are 50 skidding teams working out of Tebanyi camp. A log an hour is an acre an hour, so the mechanical system of my world is advancing through the vegetable system of the natives' world at 50 acres an hour, here, at this one camp. To send logs to Japan to make plywood to build the Tokyo that my fellow Americans bombed-I can't help thinking. Suddenly I do not feel adequate to the subject.

I listen to a monster insect thumping its brains against the outside wall and open another Anchor beer. It has started raining again. Within seconds the few drops have become a deafening roar on the zinc roof, making conversation impossible. We wait a few minutes; it subsides.

"The natives don't want this to happen," I say absent-mindedly, looking at the window, lost in the screen's kinetic art: white bug bellies crawling on a field of black damp.

"Don't want what?"

"The logging. Even the ones who work in your camp. They won't tell you, but they tell me. They wish the logging had never come."

"They agreed to it. All the middle Baram longhouses."

I look around, surprised at my friend. Does he believe that? He is staring into his tea. The middle Baram has seven longhouses, each with an elected "headman" or chief, and one district chief called a Penghulu, from the main longhouse, Long San.

I have been told often over the past six months how the headmen and the Penghulu have been given the authority by the government to sign legal documents on behalf of the longhouse. Now the headmen are bribed by the lumber companies to sign. I know what agonizing divisions this is causing in the longhouses. An elected headman can be removed, but they are aristocrats, and upriver, traditional authority is much respected; opposition to authority is antitribal. After all, perhaps two hundred people must share one porch, deep in a jungle. Criticism of the headman, much less removal, is a trauma for the entire longhouse. Opposition to logging, then, often means opposition to a headman's decision and so runs counter to adat, or customary native law, and carries a heavy stigma. Little wonder that longhouses are under great stress.

His eyes are misty.

No reply. He studies the banana, then looks away, and we sit a moment in embarrassed silence. He knows he has been caught in a lie, and he is ashamed.

All this is going through my mind, and more: in November, I read the middle Baram timber agreement with Samling while angry natives surrounded me, pointing at their own names, saying they had never signed. What they had signed, they said, was a different document, which was later inserted into the timber agreement. I am very curious to hear how Fujino handles this subject, especially since his company says "There are no native land rights," and then goes to great lengths to obtain logging agreements on this same "non-native" land.

I take two sips of beer to calm the mind and hold the tongue, a habit learned in Tokyo. Finally I look at a butterfly on the wall, big as Madame Butterfly's foot, and ask: "The headmen and the longhouses agreed to the logging, or just the headmen?"

Fujino studies a banana in the dish. He picks it up. "The agreements are signed by every head of household-there's a list of names attached to the agreement; you can see it."

I like Fujino a lot. He has been kind and open, and I think a good deal more of Samling Timber Company for having met him. But either my information is wrong or he does not know what his company is doing, or he has no idea how much I know. For the first time, he is lying to me.

"I was told at Long San," I say, "that the middle Baram longhouses, every one of them, rejected the agreement in 1986, in `87, and again in `88. You're proceeding under the `88 agreement. Only the Penghulu, the headman, and the two committee members signed. And I was told that they were paid. By Samling Timber." Suddenly his eyes grow dim. He peels the banana, says nothing, and will not look at me.

"That list of names attached to the agreement," I continue, "are you certain that they had read the timber agreement and were signing? Or is that just a census of the longhouse attached to the contract against their will?"

His eyes are misty. No reply. He studies the banana, then looks away, and we sit a moment in embarrassed silence. He knows he has been caught in a lie, and he is ashamed. God bless him. In all of Sarawak and Tokyo, I will not meet another timber man who shows shame, and I realize instantly that if I ever write this story I will have to use Fujino, my friend, to get to its heart. But then, we are not meeting because of the justice in this world.

I flip through my notes again, wanting to change the subject. "If you had a chance to reply to your opposition, to native activists and the environmentalists, what would you say?" He hesitates. We drink some beer. The rain has stopped, the eaves are dripping; one cicada honks.

Fujino speaks in oddly disjointed sentences: "Land rights are an internal problem for the Sarawak government. My job is to execute what the boss directs. You have to remember that a free market and overproduction push down the price. We're lucky if we get half the possible timber out of an area, so we're not making so much money. You can't calculate profits at 100 percent production at top price." "How much time is left here?" I ask.

"The best is already gone. In ten years it will be finished."

The fact that as a reply to the opposition, all this has missed the point is point enough. I don't want to badger him. We drink tea and chat about fishing in Montana, my homesick memories filling his fantasies of living again up north-cold streams, bright trout, crisp air with the steel smell of snow.

We are about to go to bed. I hand him a one-page summary of the history of native land rights, which I had written in November to show to ministers and lawyers on both sides of the issues, to measure the differences in perception. To my surprise, he is interested, and wants to look at it right away. He reads with obvious, painstaking care: since 1958, "tribal land can pass into individual ownership (and out of the tribe); existing customary rights can be extinguished by the government ("six weeks from notification in the Gazette"); timber concessions on tribal lands are granted in Kuching with no prior consultation.

As Fujino reads my page-long summary on native land rights, I busy myself picking up the room, looking at the Japanese magazines, Jump and Friday, on top of the VCR. I know the last sentence of my page, and out of the corner of my eye, wait for him to reach it: "Natives have lost almost all control over the land they and their ancestors have inhabited for generations."

Finally he finishes, puts the page down and looks up. "I have never heard this," he says slowly and-I believe-honestly. "That's very difficult for them."

He has been in Southeast Asia cutting forests for 30 years.

Later, in bed, alone in the three-bed dormitory room of the timber camp, I turn on the light. My mind drifts back over journeys first with family, then with my wife, then alone, and I recall especially the series of events that, four months before, in the fall, had led up to the meeting at Long Moh. That was when the native activists and Samling Timber met head on. That was when, at the top of the upper Baram, Samling asked the natives to sign another timber agreement.

That meeting, November 27, 1990, was when it was visible, when the gap between our world and theirs was bridged in a moment of contact clear as an arc welder's torch-if we can look at it. That was when Mr. Sei of Tokyo, regional manager of Samling Timber, sat down on the Long Moh veranda with the upper Baram Penghulu, seven headmen, and 100 natives. At that time and place, the insatiable appetite of Mr. Sei's people and my own for the resources of this Earth met some of the last hunting-gathering-farming inhabitants of the Southeast Asian rain forest, a going concern for over 100 million years, with about 10 years left. For a few hours on that porch the children stopped flut-flutting up and down bare boards on bare feet, the women stopped weaving rattan mats, and the 20th century happened. The dogs knew something was up and stayed clear. Only the roosters, strutting in the security of their little pea brains, were safe from the sense of change.

Consider the gap bridged on that porch. The ten largest banks in the world were then Japanese, fueled by the Tokyo real estate market.

[more photos] Marubeni, C. Itoh, Nissho Iwai, Sumitomo, Mitsui, Mitsubishi-in order of their 1990 imports from Sarawak, come to a poor nation in Southeast Asia. They have money to offer for logs. They drive very hard bargains, but they can pay for any volume the country can supply. If the country cannot guarantee a large and steady supply of logs, Japan will shop elsewhere. The Sarawak government "gives" a timber concession to a politically connected person; that person retains a local Chinese timber company to do the logging; one of the world's largest banks, in Tokyo, says to the Chinese company that capital investment is no problem. Need 300 bulldozers? Pay us back in logs. Meanwhile, it has been up to the state government to clear away any impediments such as native land rights, which have disappeared in Sarawak since the coming of logging to Southeast Asia. So when Mr. Sei of Tokyo sits down on the porch, representing a Sarawak Chinese company tied to Hong Kong funding (including Citibank) and Japanese import firms and banks, he has a leverage that is hard to imagine. Those firms would not have come to Sarawak if the ducks were not lined up.

On the other side of the porch, Mr. Sei faces seven headmen and a Penghulu. They all live upriver, in the longhouses. As aristocrats, they may control a good deal of land, but they are still well off only within the terms of the local economy. In that economy, in upriver Borneo, rubber is the main and often the only cash crop. An acre of tapped rubber trees around Long San earns about $2 a day; a family tapping all it can manage might earn $170 a month. Into this world comes Mr. Sei.

I was told that Samling promised each of the seven headmen of the middle Baram $200 (500 Malaysian ringgit) a month for the life of the concession, to sign. And Samling gave them $200 cash up front. This was all hush-hush, of course, and later the longhouses refused to ratify the agreement. But the headmen had already signed. To the headmen, this was big money; to Samling, it was not a significant investment for a district that would yield $3.6 million of timber, gross, per month.

The idea of a Japanese import house associated with one of the world's largest banks, a Chinese timber company with its Hong Kong backers, and the Sarawak government, sitting down with seven natives who have been told they have no rights, and are not allowed to have counsel present, seems unfair.

While our leader Joseph Wang Tingang took charge of the gathering in the longhouse room, Richard (a logging worker) translated for me. I flip back and find the page in my journal.

It was 10pm on a November night at Long Anap, Richard's home. We sat cross-legged under a kerosene lantern on rattan mats and linoleum. In the room were: four children against the wall; five older men and four older women on the floor (these in shorts, slacks, sarongs, polo shirts, tattoos, women with earlobes stretched by brass rings past their shoulders and arms tattooed solid blue, from knuckles to elbows, some men with traditional bowl haircuts and short pigtails); and on the raised dais, another six men as well as strange bearded me, sole object of interest to the children. >From this dais, Joseph led the meeting for over an hour, in Kenyhan dialect. The discussion became heated, never with shouting or interruption, but with quickening, articulate intensity.

"Will you win at Long Moh?" I whispered to Richard. "Will they turn down the logging agreement?" "I don't know. Joseph says the longhouses are strong, but the company has been going up there for weeks. It's hard to say what the headmen will do." It will be a fight."

"If the logging were stopped," I asked, "what would the longhouses do? Live the old way?" He smiled and shrugged. "No. Live their way."

Excerpted from Borneo Log: The Struggle for Sarawak's Forests by William W. Bevis, copyright 1995, with permission of the University of Washington Press. Available in local bookstores, or from the University of Washington Press, P.O. Box 50096, Seattle, Washington, 98145; e-mail Price is US$19.95, paperback.

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