>Conservation in Sarawak

by Lorna Salzman

I would appreciate the opportunity to respond to Richard Primack's review of Rainforest Conservation in Sarawak in your March 1991 issue (5:1, 126-130). Primack has omitted many important facts and distorted others, and readers need a more complete picture than he presented.

Nowhere does the author mention that the ITTO is an organization consisting of and established by the timber industry, primarily Japanese interlocking corporations. Its findings and its thrust have been quietly repudiated by the leading conservation organizations in the United States, chiefly for its lack of concern for the rights of indigenous people. ITTO has shown little concern, additionally, for biological diversity and has concentrated on "sustainability," that is, for the timber companies.

The chief concessions in Sarawak are leased out to the Japanese, such as Mitsubishi, Itoh, and others; many of the concessions are held by the Sarawak minister of environment, Mr. Wong. In response to worldwide protests over the genocide of the Penans, the remaining nomadic hunter-gatherers, concessionaires increased their logging to a 24-hour-per-day basis. Protests by tribes have resulted in injuries and deaths, including two young girls last summer shot by the military who were protecting the timber interests.

Primack's statement that "only a small percentage, mostly Penans" want to stop the logging and that "it is this small group of Penans who are receiving virtually all of the international media attention" is not only contemptuous but oblivious to their plight. It is as if someone were to say that dolphins or peregrine falcons are only a small percentage of the world's fauna but get most of the attention. It is the threat, not the numbers, that counts.

Primack focuses not at all on human rights and genocide of the Penans, and not at all on biological diversity. Since the Penans are a human population living within the forest, they are part of the forest's ecosystems and biota and contribute to both local and human genetic (as well as cultural) diversity. To pass off their plight is insensitive and insulting. And to characterize Bruno Manser, a Swiss anthropologist who has lived with them for seven years—and with whom the Penans left Sarawak at great risk to their lives to inform the world of the incumbent genocide—as "adventurer" strains patience as well as the credibility of the rest of Primack's review. At one point, before Manser was forced into hiding, he was detained by Malaysian police, who confiscated over 300 pages of his diaries with his exquisite drawings of Penan tools, artifacts, local plants and animals, etc., which probably constituted a unique collection of information on Penan life and culture. Some of these were shown in the film Blowpipes and Bulldozers and I can attest that they are extraordinarily beautiful.

Primack praises the Sarawak Forest Department and its purported network of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. But since these sanctuaries lie apparently outside the areas where the Penans live—the only remaining intact primary forest in Sarawak—one wonders what the purpose and value of these sanctuaries are. Furthermore, it is nothing to boast about if a country founds a sanctuary in one place and destroys an entire native culture elsewhere—a culture living harmoniously within that forest, a culture eminently suited to being its caretakers.

The Penans have been placed in internment camps by the Malaysian government, although Primack seems unaware of this or chooses to ignore it. This is the chief reason that only about 1000 Penans still live in the forest. Photos of these camps are distressing, doubly so because they are for humans; if animals were kept in these enclosures, with silted polluted water, animal rights activists would be on the rampage. Needless to say, the Penans in these camps are suffering severe epidemics of diseases that their nomadic life formerly held at bay. They can no longer hunt, fish, or gather and are being forced into a sedentary agrarian way of life that can be termed nothing less than ethnocide.

That non-nomadic Malaysians support logging is probably indisputable; it is equally indisputable that resettlement (and logging of primary forest) is being encouraged and subsidized as a way to pacify settlers and relieve population pressures. The Indonesian transmigration of literally tens of millions of Indonesians from the islands to the state of Kalimantan on Borneo is a similar example. Mr. Wong of Sarawak said publicly, in a recently screened film, that the Penans should join the twentieth century and civilization, and stop all this nonsense about hunting and gathering; Mr. Primack seems to share these sentiments, as he skirts the thorny and ultimately serious ethical issues raised by the disappearance of the Penans, as well as the complicity of international organizations which the U.S. government and its agencies implicitly support or explicitly fund.

The real issue is just why Mr. Primack has devoted so much time to the "sustainability" of forests, and no time whatsoever to the sustainability of the forests so they can support indigenous people, or to the survival of tribal cultures, which form, within the human species, the equivalent of populations within plant and animal species. In this light, an ecological rather than a utilitarian one, the Penans need to be protected from extinction just as much as a local population of birds or mammals or trees. Yet in the case of Malaysia, they are treated with less concern. No wonder that scientists and wildlife managers are regarded with suspicion by the Third World and by citizens in the United States; they do not seem embarrassed by their double standard and their placing of nonhuman species before human welfare. It is time to recognize that the needs of both can be served without sacrifice, and that ecocide nearly always involves ethno- and genocide. This is the context so sorely lacking in Primack's distorted reporting.

Source: Conservation Biology. Volume 5, No. 3, September 1991, pg. 265-66.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.