Sarawak tribes step up forest struggle

Wednesday, August 14, 1991

By Dean Geoffrey

Tribespeople in the mountainous rainforests of Sarawak have been battling logging companies with a network of blockades for four years. Australian and other international activists recently participated in the protests, and several were arrested. Just returned from Sarawak, DEAN GEOFFREY reports.

Tribal singing drifts faintly through the still, twilight rainforest air. For a moment I struggle to remember exactly where I am. Is this real? Am I really in the jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia? Is that sound the Penan singing? A gentle tribal people that I used to just read or watch videos about. Yes, this is real.

I'm at their blockade camp with 300 Penan tribespeople from many different villages. Some have walked for days to get here. A kilometre farther down the scar from the blockade is the end of the logging road. Beyond is the virgin rainforest, the clear creeks, the animals, the medicine, the food, the rattan, the land the tribespeople need to survive.

A representative of the logging company came yesterday and said they would bring in the army and police and arrest everyone if the blockade continued. Headman Juman Giong from Long Lamei said: "For the sake of the forests and the sake of the Penan people, I am willing to die to defend our traditional forests.

"The logging companies come to our land and the rivers become dirty. The animals leave and our forest is destroyed. We have appealed to the chief minister of Sarawak several times for help, but we never get a reply. All we want and all we need is our land. That is why we blockade and why we need to call on Australia and other foreign countries to help us defend our lands."

Word of the logging company's threats spread quickly through the valleys, and within three days another 230 Penan had joined the blockade. There were 532 Penan at the blockade when the company officials came back. No action was taken.

This blockade, in the Ulu Baram district near Long Sung, has been holding now since June 21. An earlier blockade in the Upper Limbang region lasted for just four days and resulted in 30 arrests. More recently, eight Dayaks from the Iban region were sentenced to six months' jail, and one to nine months, on charges of criminal intimidation.

Japan imports 80% of the timber from Sarawak's rainforests. If consumers boycotted goods and services of the companies that are involved, they would be doing a great service to the Penan.

One Japanese company heavily involved in logging operations in the Tatu region is Diaya Malaysia, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, which makes Nikon cameras as well as cars and trucks. Other large Japanese companies involved in rainforest logging include Sumitomo (associated with NEC and Mazda), Nisho Iwai (Sharp and Daihatsu), Marubeni (Nissan and Canon), and C. Itoh (Pentax, Shiseido cosmetics, Fujitsu, Fuji, Isuzu). A tourist boycott of Malaysia would also be a good idea.

Australia imports more than 200,000 cubic metres of rainforest timber from Sarawak annually. This timber mainly comes in as meranti and is commonly used in plywood, skirting boards, framing, panelling, furniture, etc. There are alternative timbers and particle boards that will do the same job as rainforest timbers. These timbers are usually grown in plantations and produced in Australia.

On August 22, Australian Democrat Senator John Coulter will attempt to introduce a bill banning importation of rainforest timber. Some letters to the prime minister supporting this bill would be useful.

It is a great shame that our minister for foreign affairs, Senator Gareth Evans, put on such a snivelling display in his recent discussions with the Malaysian government. It's fine for Australia to seek better relations with our neighbours, yet we shouldn't forget Malaysia's repressive, undemocratic regime.

Under the Internal Security Act, any political activist can be held for up to two years without trial, and media reports are tightly controlled by the government. The politicians themselves are among the large holders of timber concessions. Sarawak environment minister James Wong is head of the Limbang Trading Company, a huge timber company.

Meanwhile, as the forest falls, the Penan and other Sarawak tribespeople are driven closer and closer to cultural genocide.

In Australia, the Sydney Rainforest Action Group, which seeks a ban on importing rainforest timbers and supports land rights for indigenous peoples, has organised a rally in support of the Penan and the rainforests. On Saturday, August 17, people will meet at Town Hall at 12 noon and march to Circular Quay. On August 22 at 8.30 a.m. there will be a blockade of the Malaysian Consulate, 67 Victoria Rd Bellevue Hill, in solidarity with the Penan. Inquiries to SRAG, 519 4039.

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