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"Power through Non-Violence": Rainforest Conservationist Lukas Straumann
"Switzerland has a Greater Influence than One Thinks"
Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fonds, talking about his first trip to the endangered Penan in Sarawak/Malaysia
Von Peter Knechtli
For more than half a year Lukas Straumann has been the director of the Bruno Manser Fonds in Basel. He recently returned from a trip to the Malaysian state of Sarawak where his organisation supports the rights of the Penan people who are threatened by the large scale logging of their rainforest.
OnlineReports: You have recently returned from your first trip to the rainforest people, the Penan, in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak. What was your most profound impression?
Lukas Straumann: The most impressive thing for me was the extent to which the Penan are linked to the rainforest and how much they are committed to preserving it. They lead a very simple life, yet they are self-confident with a strong sense of pride in their culture.
OnlineReports: To what extent are the Penan still aware of Bruno Manser, who disappeared more than four years ago, and who had devoted himself to actively opposing the destruction of the rainforest?
Straumann: Bruno is still very well remembered and held in high esteem by the Penan because he took their culture seriously, studied it and risked his life in defending their cause. His disappearance is still very painful for the Penan.
OnlineReports: How did the Penan welcome you as the successor to Bruno Manser’s political legacy?
Straumann: The welcome was very friendly. It was a welcome that was associated with a certain hope for the Penan – the hope that they would continue to enjoy support despite Bruno’s disappearance. I had a chance to attend a meeting of 17 headmen. At the beginning of the meeting, we planted two sago palms in the rainforest in memory of Bruno Manser.
OnlineReports: How should we imagine the Penan of today? Do they live in the remaining rainforest or also in the adjoining cities?
Straumann: Of about 10,000 Penan, the majority have settled in villages in the forest. Two to three hundred are still nomadic. Some of the younger Penan have moved to coastal cities.
OnlineReports: How well organised are the Penan? Do they have access to electronic means of communication?
Straumann: They are very well organised and are closely knit. With regard to communication, much is being transmitted by means of personal messages. Yet, they are open to technical innovation. There are some TV’s running on generators.
"Loggers Penetrate Last Penan Areas."
OnlineReports: How alarming is the situation of the Penan?
Straumann: The Penan have been struggling for the rainforest and their land rights for many years. They are in a sort of permanent state of siege, with timber companies targeting the remaining Penan areas after having logged an estimated 90% of the original rainforest. The situation is of greatest concern. If the loggers had a free hand, they would clear the remaining forest in a very short time. However, there’s hope due to the Penan’s use of legal means that have been partly successful. Various Penan communities have filed a lawsuit against the government and the logging companies for violation of their traditional rights.
OnlineReports: What was your impression of the destruction of the rainforest by the logging companies?
Straumann: On the way from Sarawak’s coast to the Penan region, we passed through a large timber concession granted to Samling, and met oncoming traffic of 56 huge trucks fully laden with gigantic tree trunks from the rainforest. Vast areas have been logged and severe damage through erosion is visible along the logging roads. Destruction is not immediately apparent everywhere. But as a rule, one can assume that 70% of bio-diversity disappears with the destruction of the primeval rainforest.
OnlineReports: In 1999, Bruno Manser said to OnlineReports that the success rate of his fight to preserve the forest was ““below zero”. Do you share this view?
Straumann: No, I don’t. In fact the forest has been destroyed in many Penan areas, yet there are some villages where the inhabitants have successfully fought off logging by timber companies. Let us take the example of Long Kerong. In 1997 the Samling company attempted to build a road and penetrate the area. When the Penan put up a blockade and maintained it for several months, the company retreated. In 1998 the village and three adjacent communities filed a lawsuit against the timber company and Sarawak’s government. Since then the company has left the area alone. The lawsuit is still pending.
OnlineReports: Isn’t this just an exception?
Straumann: No. Thanks to their opposition other villages such as Long Lamai have also managed to keep the loggers at bay. However, the situation is particularly critical in sparsely populated nomadic areas where the few Penan are too weak to put up a fight successfully.
OnlineReports: What kind of weapons do the Penan use in their struggle against the much more powerful timber companies?
Straumann: The profound power of the Penan’s opposition stems from the concept of non-violence. Despite the immense pressure from outside, the Penan haved never used their blow pipes against people.
OnlineReports: Are there signs of change on the part of Malaysia’s government with regard to the ruthless exploitation that is so detrimental to the Penan?
Straumann: There are indications that more attention is being paid to topics such as bio-diversity and ecology in Malaysia. However, there is a large discrepancy between the official rhetorics and what happens in the forests. Social questions such as the land rights of indigenous people remain very sensitive. International pressure should be put on Sarawak’s government to take action in favour of the Penan and to preserve the last virgin forests.
"Swiss Investors Should Ensure Compliance
OnlineReports: Who could expose Sarawak to international pressure?
Straumann: The international community of nations, to be precise, by asking critical questions and by boycotting Malaysian timber. Malaysia is also very much aware of critical media reports from abroad. Switzerland in fact has more opportunities to influence the situation than was initially assumed. A recent presentation in Zurich showed that the Malaysian economy is specifically interested in Swiss investors. It is BMF’s aim to make Swiss investment dependant on compliance with social and ecological standards.
OnlineReports: How is it possible to document the destruction in this impenetrable rainforest?
Straumann: The extent of the destruction is being documented by satellite images, reports from the Penan and local research. Maps that were made by the Penan with the help of the Bruno Manser Fonds also reveal the amount of destruction. This project is being supported by "Art for the Tropical Rainforests", the foundation of the Basel art dealer Ernst Beyeler. The maps serve an important function in negotiations with the government as well as land right claims in court.
OnlineReports: Have you been able to draw any fundamental conclusions with relation to the work of BMF? Are any new plans emerging?
Straumann: In view of the fact that many NGOs have withdrawn from Malaysia because it is a newly industrialising country, BMF has taken on a particular responsibility in its efforts to preserve the last remaining virgin rainforest. As the Penan are penalized by the government for their opposition to logging, they are increasingly in need of support in medical and economic terms.
"Bruno Manser Fonds Benefits from Implicit Trust."
OnlineReports: Is BMF fighting a lone battle for the Penan or are there other organisations supporting these people?
Straumann: The Bruno Manser Fonds benefits from the strong trust the Penan have in the organisation. We are connected with other international humanitarian and environmental organisations.
OnlineReports: There are several Penan objects of cultural and historical interest in Basel. Are there any intentions of making them accessible to the public or even returning them to the Penan?
Straumann: We envision a Bruno-Manser-Building in Basel where the culture of the Penan and life in the rainforest could be brought closer to the public through a permanent exhibition.
25. November 2004
Lukas Straumann (35) has been the director of the Bruno Manser Fonds in Basel since June 2004. He was a collaborator of the Bergier-Commission for which he researched the economic relations between pharmaceutical companies in Basel and Nazi Germany. His doctoral dissertation in history ("Beneficial Pests – Applied Entomology, Chemical Industry and Agricultural Politics in Switzerland 1874-1952") will be published in April 2005. He is the father of two children and lives in Berne.