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Tribe Fights to Save Earth's Oldest Rain Forest

September 06, 1987|RUTH YOUNGBLOOD | United Press International

MARUDI, Malaysia — Tribesmen fighting to preserve the world's oldest and richest rain forest are barricading roads with their bodies to stop destruction of their jungle homeland by loggers.

Braving a sweltering tropical sun in the daytime and cold mountain winds at night, nomadic Penan tribesmen armed with spears and women and children maintain the vigil, eating and sleeping in turn to avoid breaking the human chains that have halted removal of timber from company camps since March.

The tribesmen, whose ancestors have hunted and fished for centuries in the jungle's lush interior and abundant rivers, are camping out in makeshift lean-tos made of sticks and leaves and surviving on rice and tapioca leaves.

"The forest is our only source of survival," said Rosylin Nyagong, a young mother clutching her 2-year-old son. "Without the forest, we'll all be dead."

150 Million Years Old

At stake in the dispute is control of the 150-million-year-old Sarawak rain forest, one of the world's last surviving rain forests. Environmentalists say the area contains a great diversity of plant and animal species and plays a vital role in balancing the ecology.

Ecologists warn of disaster if logging resumes at its previous pace.

"Sarawak will be turned into a wasteland within 10 years," said S. M. Mohamed Idris. "Logging has reached a catastrophic stage and for what? Twenty billion disposable wooden chopsticks for Japan?"

The Penans have analyzed logging at 20 sites along a 93-mile-long swath in Malaysia's timber-rich state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. They vow to continue their protest until the government halts the logging, recognizes Penan claims of land ownership and promises compensation for the destruction of their hunting grounds.

Nothing to Lose

The Penans figure they have nothing left to lose.

"For generations our forefathers have brought us up to live in the jungle, to hunt and fish," said Juwin Lehan, a tribal chief. "We have been here for thousands of years. How can the companies say we have no rights to the land?"

Ecologists backing the Penans say that tropical rain forests are being depleted at an alarming rate, with an estimated 49 million acres logged, burned or otherwise destroyed annually.

Nowhere are they being chopped down with more speed than in Sarawak, the world's No. 1 exporter of tropical hardwood. Last year, exports of logs and sawed timber brought $1.67 billion in revenues to Malaysia, exceeding earnings from other leading commodities, such as rubber and palm oil. Sarawak produces 40% of the country's timber.

Worldwide Crisis

"What's happening here reflects the crisis worldwide," said Harrison Ngau, head of the small local branch of Friends of the Earth, which is helping tribesmen appeal to the state and national governments.

"We are fighting for the forest's survival and the historical rights of the tribe," said Ngau, a descendant of the neighboring Kayan tribe who lives and works in his home outside the forest but frequently makes the two-day trip to the blockades by boat.

"These people are very gentle and peaceful," Ngau said of the 8,000 Penans roaming the northeast corner of Sarawak. "Only sheer desperation has resulted in the blockades."

At first, tribesmen manning the blockades permitted the removal of logs chopped down before the protest began. Now, all trucks are stopped and only food for the timber camp workers is allowed through.

Employment and Schooling

The locally owned logging companies acknowledge that they have been hurt, but they contend that the Penans are also harming themselves and other tribes since some have benefited through employment and schooling.

Chong Vui Tong, secretary of the Timber Merchants Assn., also stressed that logging operators are conscious of the importance of preserving the forests and are complying with the law.

The Penans regard such sentiments as absurd.

"We lived well and peacefully in the forest until the timber camps came," Juwin said. "For generations our forefathers have brought us up to live in the jungle, to hunt and fish. We used bark for clothing, rattan cane for mats and baskets and latex for light. Now our lives have changed."

Trip to Capital

Representatives of the Penans traveled to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur recently to press their case with federal officials. Clad in their forest garb of loincloths, bangles and bead necklaces, the tribesmen complained that the logging companies were bulldozing their hunting grounds and burial sites, silting the rivers and leaving once-fertile crop-growing lands barren without offering any compensation.

What they heard in return were expressions of sympathy but reminders that their problem falls under the jurisdiction of Sarawak state officials. The Malaysian constitution gives state governments control over land issues.

"They said they would report this to the state government," a discouraged Juwin said. "But we have already been doing that."

Chief among the Penans problems is convincing officials that they are the rightful owners of the land.

"We have no papers to show, since for generations everybody in our community recognizes one another's property," Juwin said.

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