Tomorrow is Malaysia Day, commemorating the establishment of the Malaysian federation on 16 September 1963. In conjunction with Malaysia Day, the film The Borneo Case will be screened in 30 cities worldwide.
Here’s a trailer of the film – it’s well worth going to see it:
The film focuses on four people who have worked to expose the corruption behind the destruction of Sarawak’s forests. Mutang Urud is a Penan from Sarawak. Peter John Jaban is a DJ who worked on Radio Free Sarawak. Clare Rewcastle Brown is a journalist, who set up the website Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak. Lukas Straumann, executive director of the Bruno Manser Fund and author of “Money Logging: On the trail of the Asian Timber Mafia”.
“The land is more important”
Mutang Urud was friends with Bruno Manser when he lived in Sarawak in the 1980s. Manser moved to Sarawak to get away from modern industrial society in Switzerland. For six years, he lived with the Penan. He helped organise blockades against the logging that threatened the Penan’s way of life and the forests.
Manser left Sarawak in 1990, after the Malaysian government declared him “enemy of the state no. 1”. He campaigned internationally for the rights of the Penan and to protect their forests.
In the film, Mutang talks about his decision to join Manser on his international travels:
This was the longest blockade we had. Nine months. About 200, 300 people staying there at a time. This was the time when I said, “Well, you know, to heck with my consequences. The land is more important. The forest is more important. So that’s why, right there and then, somwhere on this mountain, I decided OK, I’ll go on the world tour.”
They went to 24 cities and 13 countries. “To me there was so much hope in the world to save us.” He went to Rio for the Earth Summit in 1992.
“When I went to the United Nations, I thought this is the government of governments. Where they can make decisions over and above Sarawak, or Malaysia. As a very naive person at that time, I thought that was it! Things will change. In the end I said, what am I doing here, you know. If I do all these things outside, the world knows about it, but nothing is happening to protect the forests. It doesn’t help. So at one point, I became disillusioned about it, about all this campaign overseas. If my voice, if my work does not carry weight back home, it’s useless for me.”
When Mutang returned to Sarawak, he was thrown in prison and tortured.
Mutang now lives in Montreal, Canada. In the film we see him at home with his wife and children. While there, he listens to Radio Free Sarawak and hear news about a series of 12 megadams planned for where he used to live.
The film follows Mutang going back to Sarawak. He visits the Bakun dam which has flooded the land where he used to live. “In the middle of the rainforest they’ve made a sea!” he says when he sees the reservoir.
Clare Rewcastle Brown is a journalist who set up the website Sarawak Report in 2010. Brown grew up in Sarawak. In the film she says,
Very few people I met later in life had ever heard of this place, but I kept my ears open and I began to hear about the really very worrying things that were happening to the environment and to the people there.
Sarawak Report is hugely successful website, reaching over 100,000 hits a day. “To begin with we were turning up the odd thing. The more you dig the more you disturb, and then people start coming to you,” Brown says. But Brown’s research has led to her computer being hacked, the radio station being jammed, and to death threats.
The film follows Radio Free Sarawak DJ Peter John Jaban on his way back to Sarawak. He visits the Murum dam, which was 70% finished at the time. Construction of the dam started without the consent of the local Penan community. They still hadn’t been informed properly about whether their land and homes will be flooded. “They didn’t ask in such a way,” one of the villagers says. “They just built it.”
“Who is the dam for?” he asks. “Who asked them to come here?”
Almost 90% of Sarawak’s rainforest is gone, thanks to former Chief Minister and current Governor of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Taib was Chief Minister of Sarawak from 1981 to 2014. Under Sarawak law, politicians are strictly forbidden from earning money from private business. Yet Taib has amassed a huge fortune. In his book, “Money Logging”, Lukas Straumann estimates that the Taib family has pocketed around US$15 billion from the destruction of Sarawak’s rainforests.
Mutang visits the Bruno Manser Foundation’s office in Basel, Switzerland. Straumann plots the companies with links to Taib on a white board. It’s a web of offshore bank accounts, holding companies, and wealth managers. “The scale of money laundering from logging worldwide is massive,” Straumann says. “Interpol has estimated that more than US$30 billion are laundered a year.”
“We’ve linked Taib, and those close to him, to 400 companies in 25 countries,” Brown says.
Several banks are involved in the story, including Goldman Sachs, UBS, and HSBC. But the most involved is Deutsche Bank. “They set up a joint venture with the Taib family in Malaysia through which the Taib family’s personal real estate in North America is being held,” Straumann says.
Taib finally resigned as Chief Minister of Sarawak in 2014. In London in May 2015, the new Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, announced that there would be no new logging concessions and no new palm oil concessions in Sarawak.
The destruction continues
According to analysis by World Resources Institute, only 26% of land with tree cover in Sarawak is outside industrial concessions and protected areas.
Logging in the existing concessions is also destructive. Earlier this week, 47 NGOs, including Bruno Manser Fund, wrote to the International Olympic Committee in protest at the Committee’s failure to take sufficient action to prevent the use of illegal and unsustainable tropical timber in construction work for the 2020 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo. The letter states that,
In April of this year, tropical plywood supplied by a Malaysian timber company called Shin Yang was discovered on the construction site of the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium. Shin Yang has been previously implicated in systematic destruction of intact rainforests, illegal logging, and human rights violations in Sarawak, Malaysia. Tokyo 2020 authorities not only confirmed the use of wood supplied by Shin Yang, but are continuing to use wood sourced from this controversial supplier.