Gita and I first visited Sarawak together in response to invitations to us to come there as official guests of the Sarawak Government, to participate in the 20th anniversary celebrations of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, of which Sarawak is the largest state.
Our month long visit became a most memorable and moving experience for us both.
Gita's name - a name also used as a pet name for Ranee Margaret - paved the way for her to be included quickly into the Brooke family of Sarawak. A special trip was arranged for her to visit Kampong Gita.
During the first part of our visit we were hosted at the Holiday Inn but later we moved to the Astana (palace), where we stayed for the rest of our time in Kuching. The Astana had been the home of the Rajas throughout Brooke rule. From here we had a wonderful view of the Regatta on the Kuching River and the most beautiful illuminations.
The Government had generously given us a car with chauffeur and an official (quickly becoming a trusted friend), who kept our busy itinerary in order, filling each day to the brim while still allowing time for individual meetings with friends and co-workers from the past in between all the official dinners, celebrations and excursions to other districts of Sarawak.
Although Gita kept a detailed diary, with daily entries written usually past midnight, it will always be impossible to describe in words the deeply spiritual and everlasting relationship between the name of Brooke and the peoples of Sarawak, which will endure forever.
Our second visit to Sarawak was altogether different and not approved by the Government.
Gita wrote a report that remains an important contribution, highlighting the conditions in Sarawak pertaining at that time. It dealt with the difficulties of achieving sustainable management of the forest and of integrating the Penans into "the mainstream of civilization". The report also dealt with the court cases being brought against the Penans for obstructing the logging and the wish for our visit to coincide with the dates of the hearing of these cases - a wish not granted.
What follows is the full text of Gita's report, which was widely spread through being published as articles in various periodicals at the time:
Impressions from our visit to Sarawak
June 29 - July 16, 1991
A strong and vibrant vertical rainbow, visible for a few seconds outside the window of the plane on the backdrop of a black cloud sent us off from New Zealand on our way to Sarawak.
We were hoping to personally bring the appeal by the penans for two biospheres in the northern part of Sarawak (4th and 5th Divisions) to the attention of the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Datu Patinggi Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, and to voice our personal concern about the 1987 amendment to the Forestry Ordinance, which makes it a criminal offence to obstruct logging even if it is to protect one's own habitat,. We also wanted to use this opportunity to listen open-mindedly to the views of people within Sarawak. The timing of our visit was chosen to coincide with and demonstrate our sympathy with the 23 penans (arrested in 1989 under the above mentioned amendment) whose court cases were to be heard 1st July.
It was with some anxiety that we got off the plane in Kuching. However, several smiling governmental officials, and the press, welcomed us to Sarawak and ushered us into the VIP lounge. Expressing their apologies for not being properly prepared for our visit (the government did not altogether approve of our timing) they went on to ask, more or less point blank, what we were doing here. Under flashlights from busy photographers, Anthony stated our three main reasons for coming. Relating to the upcoming court cases he expressed sadness that laws and regulations here as well as in the world at large did not always seem to equate with justice and basic human rights.
Mr. Leo Chai, the director of the Forestry Department, responded that it was hard for the Government of Sarawak to keep patient with the criticisms from the western world who had themselves very little forest left and who were in reality the greatest polluters of the environment and exploiters of the earth's natural resources. He felt that, instead of such one sided criticism, people - if truly concerned - should come and see the situation for themselves. He maintained that the government is proud of its forest policy, perhaps the best in the world with respect to rainforest, and has nothing to hide. He hoped that we would accept briefings by the Forestry Department staff and listen to the government's development programme for the penans. He also wanted to offer us an opportunity to visit several penan settlements and fly over areas of rainforest where logging was in process. We wholeheartedly accepted these proposals. We were then introduced to a protocol officer who would take care of all arrangements, and the chauffeur of an air conditioned Mercedes which would be at our disposal during our stay. I must say that the modest and very friendly hotel we had chosen did not quite do it justice!
Meeting Leo Chai
This was the beginning of a very busy and hectic week,. Interspersed with short moments of rest in which we would read the massive amount of material (including the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) Report) given us by the Forestry Department, we visited old friends from the anti-cession times and met new ones in the hotel lounge. We were interviewed frequently by the press and given the promised briefings on government policies regarding forest and tribal peoples. We were also taken to various new development areas, such as the Cultural Village at Damai, conveniently close to the new holiday resort at Damai Beach for wealthy international tourists and a nature research centre, where wild orchids were being gathered and catalogued. Some of these orchids were found among the logs in timber concessions, we were told. An area was also set aside as natural shelter for illegally caught rare animals. Here they were restored to health before released in one of the national parks. We were also shown model houses of various sizes and prices, made from local timber, fully equipped with all modern conveniences.
In the beginning of our second week we flew to Miri. From there we visited Limbang and then spent almost a whole day in a 4-person helicopter (including the wonderful pilot who seemed to know every tree and hill in the area). We were grateful that the awful weather from the day before had cleared and, although still hazy, we got a good view of the forest below, situated mainly in the 4th division.
Except for the national parks, we saw large areas of timber concessions which were being or had already been logged. The impact of so-called selective logging (6-10 trees on average extracted per hectare) was all too clear to see, although the forest as such was still standing. The bright orange web of scars seemed quite disproportionate to such a relatively small number of felled trees.
When later commenting on this, we were told that this was indeed the sad and regrettable fact, due largely to untrained and inexperienced manning of the large tractors and skidders used for logging, the often heavy rainfalls washing away the soil and widening the scars, but perhaps most of all because of the desperate shortage in skilled foresters to supervise and control the logging process (as well as preventing illegal logging).
Although there is a well developed and carefully planned policy for forest management, there is apparently at present too little manpower to see to it that it is properly implemented. To illustrate this point, they told us that while Germany has one forester for every one thousand hectares, Sarawak has only one for every 100.000 hectares. We understood that this problem was not so much due to the lack of funds as the slow and grinding process of negotiations with the Federal Government in whose hands it is to allocate the necessary pensionable positions. Common sense would seem to suggest that this dilemma could be remedied simply by reducing the logging quota to match the capability of the present number of staff available, but this solution might not be attractive to the politicians or the holders of timber concessions!
In 1990, the official estimate for logged timber was 18.6 million m3 (of which apparently 12.5 million m3 was from timber concessions, the rest from clear fellings for agricultural purposes and for palm oil plantations). This figure, we were assured, would gradually come down to meet the sustainable yearly logging quota of 9.2 million m3 recommended by the ITTO Report.
The Report emphatically and repeatedly warns that : "the policies for sustained yield timber management could be in place but their implementation might fall down so badly that logging operations, instead of being the harvesting and regenerating phase of management, virtually eliminate the capacity of the residual forest to sustain the planned yield. Sustained yield would thus be the policy, as the government claims, but not the practice, as the critics claim".
It also states that: failure to achieve sustainable management in the hill forest puts at risk almost every object of the stated policy for sustainable use of the state forests". Of Sarawak's total rainforest area of 8.46 million hectare, 80 per cent is hill forest.
In order to help reduce the damage of logging and train forest employees a plan is underway (to which ITTO is contributing $10 million) to set up a "model concession", which is to reflect the ideal management of tropical rainforest.
Hovering over the tree tops and seeing the impact of harvest through selective felling one could not help wondering what the same scene would look like after a second or third harvesting, even if these strictly followed the recommended time interval between loggings. The Chief Minister's assurances that the sustainable logging rate of 9.2 million m3 could go on forever, because of the quick regenerating capability of tropical rainforest, did little to alleviate one's concern. However, it is reasonable to hope that the consequences of continuous timber felling will be monitored closely and that the forestry management policy will be revised accordingly.
We touched upon the question of local people and their reaction to the logging business going on in their "backyard". Did they not feel that they too should benefit? It did seem that there had been some misgivings, but that those local community leaders who had expressed disagreement with government policies had been asked to step down (1987) and new more cooperative ones were appointed. A certain sum of money was handed to each community leader, to be used for setting up small local workshops and industries, but that money often did not "trickle down". This had understandably caused some resentment among local people, but small industries are now emerging.
There is another very serious problem caused by logging, and enhanced by the inexperienced handling of the heavy machinery, and that is the pollution of the waterways. We understood that plans are underway (apparently with cooperation from Japan) to identify catchments areas and find ways of reducing the pollution and help provide clean water for local people.
We also visited three penan settlements that day: Long Kevok, Batu Bungan and Long Iman, all longhouses in which the government hopes to persuade the penan people to settle. Service stations will be made available for these places, through which education and health care will be provided. Volunteers will teach basic hygiene, farming and carpentry, and help them develop their own traditional craft skills.
Visiting a longhouse settlement provided by the government for the pennans
Hunter returns from the jungle empty handed
In spite of such attempts by the government to help integrate the penans into "the mainstream of civilization" these simple people, whose intelligence and adaptability has
helped them survive in the thick of the Borneo jungle for thousands of years, seemed uneasy and lost in these new surroundings. Being used to the ever-changing and dynamically alive relationship with their natural habitat, it seemed hard and unnatural for them to draw comfort from the security of four solid walls and the promises of education and health care. Still, worried and apprehensive about the future for themselves and their beloved forest, they nevertheless radiated a generosity of heart and spirit of such warmth and strength that it can leave no visitor untouched.
In the depth of millions of acres of forest, which is sliced out in large timber concessions and owned by people who would probably be mainly concerned with its commercial value, one re-discovers a forgotten treasure: the infinite and invaluable resource of an open and giving heart. To see the riches of such a treasure flow unconditionally and unhindered from these troubled people, our sisters and brothers of the forest, gives one hope and indicates perhaps the way out of our selfish and corrupt civilization into a freer, more open and giving global society.
One prays that although the penans too, like the rest of us, must face changes, they will never feel the need to close their hearts.
It is heartbreakingly difficult to honestly see an easy solution to the traumatic and challenging process of integration of the penans into the Sarawak community and, in our view, it is not helpful to add one's own preconceived ideas or confused emotions to the already delicate and painful situation. I have come to believe that this process of change is much more complex than some western environmentalists would have us believe and needs more sensitivity and patience than perhaps environmentalists as well as governmental officials are inclined to offer.
Meeting the penans whose fate had drawn us to Limbang - an
On our inquiries into the question of "biospheres" we were informed that one area of 50.000 acres (logged once 10 years ago) is already set aside for semi-nomadic penans and another area, also 50.000 acres, is under consideration as a biosphere for nomadic penans. This piece of forest has not been logged and a moratorium on logging is in place while discussions are going on. Both areas are close to or bordering national parks.
While we were in Sarawak a group of international environmentalists had entered the country and demonstrated their anti-logging stance by chaining themselves to logs and cranes at Kuala Baram (near Miri). The local press (all said to be owned or controlled by the government) was extremely critical of their actions and found it both rude and arrogant to enter a country with the clear intent of breaking the law of the land. They (and many others we met) felt that such behaviour would not induce the government to change their policies, and the foreign support for the penans to put up and maintain blockades would not help their cause, only make things even more difficult for them.
Journalists from many Malaysian papers wanted to know if we really thought that this type of dramatic action served a purpose. We were obliged to say that since the law of the land had deliberately been broken, the Sarawak Government had no option but to act in the way it did, as indeed any other government would have done in similar circumstances.
We also commented that an increasing number of people today, especially young ones perhaps, have a global approach to environmental concerns, and that such people would tend to give priority to voice these concerns and let respect for sovereignty come second.
Wherever we went, this issue was being discussed, leading further into the matter of relationships between human beings and the environment. We could not resist pointing out that whatever we individually thought of the environmentalists' actions, they had nevertheless succeeded in highlighting the issue and bringing it into a public debate.
Maybe, in the process of changing, we all need each other? Most people we met could agree with this sentiment and although continuing to slam the behaviour of the anti-logging demonstrators, most of the Malaysian news media were publishing letters to the editor, articles and editorials which looked deeper into environmental issues and the need for both state and individuals to become more ecologically aware and responsible.
Throughout our visit Anthony and I used every opportunity to listen to people we met trying to understand as fully as possible the very complex relationship between the State of Sarawak and the Federal Government, as well as that of the local government and the people of Sarawak.
Perhaps the upcoming election was highlighting the sensitivity of these different relationships and also making us realize that the opposition to the present government had no press, radio or TV through which it could unhindered communicate its vision, plans or agenda. If a government of any country feels that it possesses the keys to prosperity and right development of the nation, it might feel justified in making it difficult for those who are seen as siding with the opposition. Such a law as the Internal Security Act may also hover over the heads of those who, in such a government's view, obstruct the road to prosperity and hinder the wellbeing of the state and its people.
This trip to our beloved Sarawak has made me wonder whether the time has not come for us all, whether environmentalists, politicians, entrepreneurs or just plain human beings, to stop seeing everything in black and white, justifying our "polarized" actions. Whatever our differences, the lives of us all depend on the health, balance and welfare of the global environment we share, and for which we are equally responsible.