Borneo’s husband-and-wife mountain gods look down on illegal logging

The news that Norway has sold all of its shares in a Malaysian timber company it accuses of illegal logging has brought back memories of one of the best experiences of my life, and of a pair of sad brown eyes I wish I had not seen.

My distant cousin with the beautiful dark eyes was lonely, anxious and unnaturally thin. I felt certain that she would die a sorry death.

I had found the forlorn gibbon in a tiny cage in a logging camp in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo in September 1998. Just a few days earlier I had seen gibbons as they should be seen — swinging through the treetops — and had been lucky enough to hear them warbling and whooping their territorial calls from on high. The music they make is unforgettable*.

But after nine days of walking through the pristine forest where I encountered these and many other wonders, my journey had ended with a shocking vision of the future.

I was in the highland forests on an Malaysian Nature Society expedition to record the natural history of an area that had long been proposed as a new national park. Our team included biologists and geologists and local guides who knew the forest inside-out.

Our schedule was tough and our backpacks were heavy but we still recorded 26 mammal species and 67 birds, including the endangered Sun Bear and Helmeted Hornbill, in just over a week.  We found orchids and pitcher plants that exist nowhere else on Earth other than the mountain forests of Borneo.

The highlight for me was seeing the fabled twin peaks of Batu Lawi – a sandstone mountain that the local people revere as husband-and-wife gods who are the original parents and protectors of all highland people.

A couple of days after we had climbed the Batu Lawi’s female peak — with permission of local community leaders — I took this photo (above) from the summit of Sarawak’s highest mountain Gunung Murud. From there we could see that logging roads were already approaching Batu Lawi. Having denuded much of Sarawak’s lowlands, the timber companies were closing in on the riches that remained in this isolated area.

Our expedition report (PDF) urged the government of Sarawak to include Batu Lawi in the national park – but when Pulong Tau National Park was finally gazetted seven years later in 2005, the Kelabit gods were left on the outside, looking in. These ancient protectors were now the vulnerable ones.

As we descended towards our expedition’s end-point in the village of Ba Kelalan we saw just how well advanced the campaign to extract Batu Lawi’s timber was when we found ourselves in a logging camp. It was here that we discovered the caged gibbon.

She may have been a pet but more likely she was destined for the pot, for wherever logging companies go, their workers hunt for bush-meat. A few months later the US Wildlife Conservation Society would publish a paper in Science that conservatively estimated the wild meat trade in Sarawak to exceed 1000 metric tonnes a year. It said that in 1996 workers in just one logging camp there killed more than 1,100 animals — totalling 29 metric tons.

I saw red dusty soil of the recently cleared forest reflected in the gibbon’s haunted eyes and realised that this particular primate would never again swing through the trees. Nor would she ever again disperse the seeds of forest trees whose fruit she ate, species like the ecologically important strangler figs that I was studying elsewhere in Borneo.

The creature’s capture was both an insult and an injury to an ancient forest. Gibbons are supposed to be protected species in Sarawak but laws count for little in remote areas where there is big money to be made from natural resources.

There was nobody about to talk to about the gibbon but we saw vehicles and equipment emblazoned with the logo of the Malaysian logging giant Samling, which had been allocated the area’s logging concessions. And it is in this very area that Samling stands accused this week of “extensive and repeated” breaches of Sarawak’s state regulations.

Norway’s State Pension Fund pulled its investment out of the company after its Council on Ethics concluded in a detailed report (PDF) that Samling’s activities had contributed to “illegal logging and severe environmental damage” both in Malaysia and Guyana.

Samling Global, which operates more than 1.2 million hectares of logging concessions in each of these countries, refutes the allegations.

But the Norwegian report includes satellite imagery of the area around Batu Lawi, which the authorities in Sarawak had approved as an extension to Pulong Tau National Park in May 2008. This meant all logging there should have ceased but the red areas of the image, taken in May 2009, indicate extensive logging within the Batu Lawi reserve area (white line).

Norway’s pension fund is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, so its move to withdraw its investment in Samling on environmental grounds is noteworthy. But even with 8 million kroner (US$1.25 million) in Samling shares, the NPF investment represented just 0.37% of the company’s total worth.

The Malaysia’s Star newspaper quoted a source who said: “The investment fraternity may consider the exit of NPF from Samling as no big deal given its insignificant stake, however, NPF accusations on Samling Global can to a certain extent affect the stock in the long term.”

Nongovernmental organisations such as the Bruno Manser Fund say the move will put the spotlight on logging companies that for years have been accused of infringing the rights of indigenous people.

But unless many other investors adopt the ethical stance of the Norwegian Pension Fund we can probably expect business as usual in Borneo.

[*Update – listen here to a recording of gibbons by David Whitmer]

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