Blowpipes thwart Borneo’s biofuel kings
Blowpipes thwart Borneo’s biofuel kings
by Times Online -- Sunday Times, August 30, 2009
HUNDREDS of Borneo tribes men armed with blowpipes are blockading roads in protest against companies they accuse of destroying their rainforests to grow oil palms for “green” biofuel, cooking oil, soap and margarine.
The confrontation is taking place in the endangered forests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where members of the Penan tribe have existed for centuries as nomadic hunter-gatherers living on fish, wild animals and plants.
“This is a last resort,” said See Chee How, a lawyer fighting land rights cases for indigenous people. “There have been allegations of rape by loggers, the rivers are being polluted and the Penan fear for their food supplies.”
Palm oil provides a third of all cooking oils and is used in household brands such as Palmolive soap and Flora margarine.
Soaring demand for its use in “green” biofuel has pushed up the price by 45% this year, prompting companies to clear more rainforest and plant yet more palms. The latest expansion seems to have set off the blockades.
Timber operations by four companies were halted while police and local politicians attempted to negotiate with the tribesmen late last week.
Lihan Jok, a state assembly member, accused unidentified “outsiders” of fomenting trouble and pledged to have “sincere” and “heart-to-heart” discussions. “I have spoken to the timber companies affected by the blockades. Their managements said they have always treated the Penan well,” he told a local newspaper.
The tribesmen responded by demanding that officials come to see the “dire situation” in their villages. Twelve villages had united to send their men, clad in traditional hats pierced with hornbill feathers and carrying blowpipes, onto the jungle roads to block the timber lorries.
“These logging companies don’t clear the whole forest – they take the valuable trees and wreak a lot of destruction along the way,” said Miriam Ross, a British researcher for Survival International who has lived alongside the Penan.
“When the plantations are established it’s just rows and rows of palm oil, it’s not a forest,” she explained. “There’s not even any space for them, so they [the tribesmen[ can see it is a real threat.”
Stephen Corry, director of Survival, said the Malaysian government must recognise the land rights of local people and stop the companies operating without the tribe’s consent.
The blockades raised the stakes in a conflict that has unfolded for three decades on Borneo, an island treasure house of rare wildlife and plants that is also a rich source of timber and minerals. It pits indigenous tribes, broadly known as Dayaks, against governments and companies seeking to exploit resources.
Sarawak’s state government, which has been ruled by the same grandee, Abdul Taib Mah-mud, for 28 years, has presided over what environmental campaigners say is the systematic destruction of the rainforests.
Taib responds that Sarawak’s plans to double its income by 2020 by building dams and power stations will bring progress and prosperity to all its 2.3m people, about half of whom are Dayaks.
However, threats and violence have beset the Dayak resistance against companies granted licences by Taib’s government to exploit the rainforest. Two years ago the skull of Kelesau Naan, a troublesome village leader, washed up on a muddy riverbank. His disappearance remains unexplained. So does that of Bruno Manser, a Swiss campaigner, who vanished into the rainforest in May 2000.
“I believe the police and the government will have to handle these new protests carefully,” said an activist in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. “This time they know the world is watching.”
Malaysia’s main opposition party is promising reform if it prevails in Sarawak’s next parliamentary election, due to be held by 2011. Its allegation of “crony capitalism” have focused on Taib, 73, who is finance minister and minister of planning and resources as well as chief minister.
Members of Taib’s famil control or hold shares in several of the companies that have reaped generous rewards from licences, concessions or contracts issued by the state. The Taib family has consistently denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest.
“The reality is that such projects generate large profits for a small number of people, the elites and the corporations,” said a coalition of Dayak groups.
Pressure from campaigners recently led Unilever, which makes Dove soap and Flora margarine, to commit itself to buy all its palm oil by 2015 from “sustainable” sources. Colgate-Palmolive said it had a similar commitment but sourced only a tiny proportion of its oil from Malaysia.