Dying tribe takes on timber giants over lost habitat

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2165890,00.html#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=World

The Times May 05, 2006

Dying tribe takes on timber giants over lost habitat
By Richard Lloyd Parry and Devika Bhat

‘Your suppliers are killing us,’ Asian forest dwellers tell a British lumber group.

ONE of the worlds poorest and most isolated tribes is pleading with a British company to stop using timber from their home in the rapidly disappearing Borneo jungle.

Chiefs of the Penan, Asias last nomadic people, have written to the head of the lumber company Jewson Ltd, appealing to him to stop buying wood from the Samling Group, a Malaysian company accused of stealing the Penans lands and destroying their forest.

By purchasing Samling timber, you and your company are making yourselves part of the crimes committed against us, says the letter, arranged by a Swiss NGO, to Peter Hindle, Jewsons managing director. The Samling group is extracting timber from our forests against our declared will and without our consent.

Despite our repeated protests, Samling does not respect our boundaries, continues to encroach on our traditional land and disregards our native customary rights.

The headmen of 17 communities on the Baram river in the Malaysian state of Sarawak have signed the letter with their thumb prints, since most of them are illiterate.

The Penan are the human equivalent of an endangered species: the last hunter-gatherers in Asia. For thousands of years they have lived in the deep interior of Borneo, the worlds third largest island, surviving by hunting wild animals and harvesting jungle plants. From the ipoh tree they extract poison for their blowpipe arrows. Only a few hundred continue to live a fully nomadic life beneath temporary shelters too simple even to be called huts. Most of the 9,000 Penan have settled down in simple villages to a life of hunting combined with rice farming.

Many have been forced to abandon their nomadic traditions because of the destruction of their habitat by logging companies. Trees are pulped into plywood and sold on to construction companies for use in hoardings and building sites.

There has been a rainforest in Sarawak for ten million years, but in the past 45 years more than 90 per cent of the virgin jungle has been logged.

Without our forest, we, the Penan, cannot survive, the chiefs wrote. We depend on the clean water from our rivers, the wild boar we hunt in the forest and the fruits and the jungle produce we collect.

The area from which Jewsons plywood originates includes the last patch of primary rain forest in Malaysia. Logging destroys the forest plants, food for men and the animals they hunt, while the animals flee from the noise of the chainsaws. Those that remain are hunted by the logging workers.

Deprived of plants and trees, the soil washes down into the rivers that become polluted. When we set up road blocks to stop the company from entering into our land, Samling attempts to bribe some individuals to split our communities and buy their way into the concession, the letter says. In 1990, the Prince of Wales called the Penan victims of collective genocide.

There is nothing illegal about Jewsons purchase of the Borneo plywood. It is sold with the approval of the Malaysian Timber Certification Council, which has approved Samlings logging operations in the middle and Upper Baram river. But the Penan leaders complain that the council has ignored an unresolved law suit asserting their land rights.

Jewsons said last night that the regions wood accounted for a very small portion of its sales. In a statement, the company said that it promoted best practice in timber procurement and was keen for the case involving the Penan to be heard and the situation resolved.