Ever since the chainsaws arrived on the shores of Borneo, in 1946, the island’s ancient rainforest, home to more than 40 distinct Indigenous Peoples, has been routinely burned down, clear cut, and replaced with monoculture tree plantations, agricultural land, vast crops of oil palm and hydro developments.
Sufficed to say, the island has been extensively denuded. According to the World Catastrophe Map, “Today, only half of Borneo’s forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s.” And “With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year – an area equivalent to about one third of the size of Switzerland – only peat and mountain forests would survive in the coming years.” That is, unless something changes in the region.
The deforestation rate in Sarawak, which joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, far surpasses that of the rest of Borneo–and for that matter, all of Asia combined. A new study by SarVision (PDF) shows that Sarawak’s rainforest is being destroyed more than three times faster than all of Asia. In the last five years alone, the rate of deforestation reached “a staggering 10 percent, compared to 2.8 percent for the rest of Asia,” notes Universiti Kuala Lumpur. According to some estimates, Sarawak has little more than 5 percent of its forest cover left.
It’s as if the Malaysian government–or more specifically, the Sarawak government under the leadership of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud–is trying to get as much out of the rainforest as it can before there’s nothing left to take.
It gives a whole new meaning to the term “fire sale”, especially in light of the upcoming elections on April 16 and the ever-growing campaign that seeks to end Taib’s 30-year reign of plunder in Sarawak: from the relentless destruction of the rainforest to the illegal land grabs to the casual marginalization of Dayak Peoples and the suppression of their Indigenous Rights.
Up to this point, these pressing concerns have been largely ignored by the international community, particularly when it comes to Indigenous Peoples like the Iban and the Penan (who, in the last 30 years, have organized more blockades than any other Indigenous population in the world).
Thankfully, that’s changing now. The Switzerland-based NGO Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) is leading a campaign against the “Taib Rainforest Mafia” and their alleged criminal activities in several different countries including Canada and the United States. You can find BMF’s campaign website at Stop Timber Corruption!
A veritable information war is also being led against the “Rainforest Mafia” with the help of an Iban activist known as Papa Orang Utan and Clare Rewcastle Brown, sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Both individuals are playing key roles in Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak, two independent media outlets that are very critical of Minister Taib.
As Mongabay recently noted, “both outlets have come under heavy pressure from the government of Sarawak, which, together with logging companies which own publications like the Borneo Post, control much of the state’s print media. Accordingly, Sarawak media has lately become very critical of the former British Prime Minister, who recently described the deforestation of Sarawak as ‘probably the biggest environmental crime of our times'”.
In addition to these three online efforts, a series of international protests were just carried out to mark Taib’s 30th Anniversary in office, which fell on March 26. Some of the messages sent out during the protests included “Freeze Taib’s Assets Now”, “Respect Native Rights”, “Save the Borneo Jungle”, and “Stop Illegal Logging on Native Lands” to name a few.
With the Sarawak rainforest nearly depleted, BMF’s campaign comes none too soon. And thanks to Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak, the overall situation in the Malaysian state is finally getting the attention it deserves.
All that’s left, at least for time being, is for the people of Sawarak to get rid of Minister Taib.
Keep an eye on the upcoming elections at election.sarawakreport.org
Follow the Sarawak Report on Twitter twitter.com/sarawak_report
Sign BMF’s petition: Stop Sarawak Timber Corruption! stop-timber-corruption.org/petition