Friday, June 4, 2004

Friday, June 04, 2004

From The Times
June 4, 2004
Jungle tribes losing war against loggers

From Andrew Drummond in Upper Baram, Sarawak

In former days the people here would have taken heads with machetes in retaliation for what has happened to their land and livelihood.

But at a dayak longhouse 160 miles up the Baram River in Sarawak, Borneo, a headhunter's descendant in a land ravaged by logging companies was almost apologetic as he welcomed me into his home.

'I'm so sorry there are not so many people here to greet you,' Dato Stephen Wanollock, a member of the Kenyah tribe, said. 'Most of the young people have gone to the towns. Our community has dropped from nearly 1,000 to 400.'

In the Second World War his ancestors took Japanese heads when the Borneo tribes went to war behind enemy lines under Major Tom Harrison, of the British Special Operations Executive.

They won that jungle war, but they have now lost the war against the Malaysian Government and private logging companies. Parangs (machetes) and blowpipes are no match for the guns of the police who support the business interests.

It has been a bitter 15-year war, with the Government under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister, who castigated foreigners for interfering in Malaysian affairs and talked of the inevitability of the tribal people coming into the 21st century.

The population at Dato (the Malaysian equivalent of 'Sir') Stephen's village, Long San in the Upper Baram, has diminished because logging has destroyed its food sources and polluted its water. Instead the Orang Uluâ, Sarawak's upriver people, are fast becoming urban squatters in the seedy coastal towns of Malaysian Borneo.

Their tragedy is little reported. Environmental activists are frequently deported and then blacklisted by the Government. But Long San's experience is repeated in longhouses ' huge wooden communal dwellings accommodating up to 2,000 people ' the length of the Baram.
The river has been replaced as the main highway into the interior by unmarked logging roads that carry the machinery in, and the inhabitants away to drugs, alcohol abuse, and prostitution.

The Times flew to Long Akha, the SAS's former jungle training base, then travelled 300 miles along those poorly marked roads after being invited by environmentalists to view the destruction.

At Long San young Kenyah girls came out to demonstrate their hornbill dance, gently swaying and bobbing and weaving their hands to make patterns in the air with hornbill feathers.

In a few years time most of these girls will be gone. Where once it took a month to paddle down river to the coast and back for basic provisions such as salt, today they can get there in a day and many do not come back.

Dato Stephen, 66, quit his community at Long San as a youth. Educated at a Catholic mission school, he came back years later as a respected lawyer. He is one of the lucky ones. But even his legal skills could not stop what the Government calls natural progress.

From a hill outside Long San one can see vast swaths cut from the jungle. The forest canopy, once up to 150ft high, has been partly replaced by sprawling plantations of 10ft palm oil trees. Logging lorries kick up huge dust clouds on the ridges.

Hopes were raised by a landmark anti-logging case in 2001 when Ian Chin, a Malaysian judge, ruled that the indigenous people of Borneo had 'native customary land rights'.

But no sooner had the Ibans, Kelabits, Kenyahs, and Kayans started drawing the natural borders from which their communities fed than the Government's land office banned their mapping and fined or imprisoned those who flouted the law.

Road blockades have failed to stop the loggers. The last blockade was last September along the Peluta River, a tributary of the Baram, when jungle-dwelling Penans with spears and blowpipes lost to the bulldozers of Rimbunan Hijau, a logging company which, according to Greenpeace, 'arms its staff, makes people sign agreements at gunpoint and also uses torture'.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the local Friends of the Earth group, concede that the battle is lost in circumstances uncannily similar to the American Wild West: 'The sand is already in the cooking pot. At a time when the rights of the indigenous people are increasingly being recognised by governments the world over it is appalling that the Sarawak state government is going in the opposite direction,' the group says.

Saging Anyi, a Sahabat representative, said: 'My own Kayan community, Uma Bawang, has dropped by 30 to 40 per cent. They go to the towns and the lucky ones get good jobs, but others become part of the social problem. Young girls take jobs in bars and nightclubs here. God knows what goes on in these places but it is the sex trade.'


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