World Rainforest Movement

Malaysia: The logging trail leading to tree monocultures in Sarawak

In 1989, WRM and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth) produced the publication “The Battle for Sarawak’s Forests”, which documented not only the destruction of forests and forest peoples’ livelihoods in Sarawak, but also the local resistance process, which included major road blockades established as from 1987 by local communities for stopping the entry of logging trucks into their territories.

The aim of that publication was to serve as a tool for the worldwide campaign that had been launched two years before by a large number of Northern and Southern organizations against the social and environmental destruction resulting from industrial logging in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The campaign made the issue well known at the international level and put the Malaysian logging industry and government in a difficult position. For instance, in July 1988, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on member states to suspend imports of timber from Sarawak and in October-November a number of delegations visited Malaysian embassies in different countries to urge that logging activities not disturb the Sarawak natives’ livelihood.

Internally, local police repression and judicial persecution followed, coupled with a smear campaign that termed as traitors all Malaysians that participated in the protection of Sarawak’s peoples and forests.

In Sarawak, the main losers from forest destruction are the Penan, a nomadic people entirely dependent –physically, socially and culturally- on the disappeared tropical forests. However hard their current situation may be, it must at least serve to learn lessons for the future and in this respect the Sarawak struggle illustrates several important points:

– First and foremost, it shows that local peoples and their supporters were right in opposing industrial logging. From a Human Rights’ perspective, logging violated the basic rights of local peoples –territorial, physical, social, cultural- and even their right to life. Environmentally, logging resulted in the destruction of a forest ecosystem that hosted an enormously rich biodiversity in terms of animals and plants. Economically, logging enriched a few while pushing the majority into poverty.

– Secondly, and equally important, it is today clear that the logging industry, the Sarawak state government and the Malaysian federal government lied to the people of Sarawak. Industry and government promised development and jobs. None of this happened. The forest all but disappeared while people became poorer. The only visible “development” were the roads built for the purpose of extracting wood. In response to the international campaign, industry and government promised to carry out “sustainable logging”, which in fact resulted in the same type of destructive logging as before, now under a different name.

A recent video produced by Hilary Chiew and Chi too (“Penusah Tapa: the forgotten struggle”), documents “the untold Penan story” through the testimonies of local people, many of whom participated in the long struggle to protect the forest.

Those testimonies not only provide evidence on the disastrous social and environmental consequences of industrial logging, but also on the current process of substitution of logged over forests with monocultures of oil palms (aimed at producing palm oil) and acacias (for the production of pulp for paper). This means the final death of the forest. As one man interviewed in the video says: “We think that the loggers are bad. But if they only take the logs, the forests will still regenerate. But when oil palm and tree plantations come, that will cause the trees to be gone forever …”

The video is available at