Activists challenge 'corrupt' government in the battle for Sarawak's rainforests

| 10th August 2011
Sarawak forests
Native Penan people in Sarawak's last wilderness. Photo: Alex Helan
Land seizures, rampant logging and oil palm expansion have decimated Sarawak's forests. But now an invigorated reform movement is fighting back - accusing the government and its chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud of duplicity. Alex Joseph reports

In July 1946, Charles Vyner Brooke abdicated his position as the White Rajah of Sarawak, bringing a century of dynastic rule to an end. Yet sixty years later, despite its independence as part of Malaysia, Sarawakians are battling to unseat a new, thoroughly post-colonial type of Rajah: the Chief Minister-for-life Abdul Taib Mahmud.

On a modest public salary of £35,000 per annum, Taib cuts a larger than life figure. His shock of white hair is often accompanied by dapper double-breasted blazers, sunglasses and a prominent diamond ring. He is chauffeured around in a cream Rolls-Royce and resides in a palatial mansion in the capital Kuching which, among other trophies, reportedly boasts a $2 million piano of the late Las Vegas showman Liberarce. Whilst tracing his roots back to the Brunei Sultanate, his informal paternal nickname, Pak Uban ('White-haired uncle') has been adapted by his critics to 'Last White Rajah'.

Situated on the island of Borneo, 1000km from Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak's political relationship with central government had been contentious since Malaysia's formation in 1963. The desire of Sarawak's nascent political establishment to assert its autonomy was continually trumped by the central government, who wished to maintain tight control over Sarawak's substantial oil reserves and quell any latent separatism in this, largely non-Muslim region. After seven years of battling, there eventually emerged a new political elite of Muslim natives whom Kuala Lumpur trusted, and to whom it granted a wide degree of latitude. This elite's domestic power rested on a simple formula: as gate-keeper of Sarawak's land and another of its natural bounties, tropical timber.

Taib was the second leader of this political dynasty, taking over the role of Chief Minister from his uncle in 1981. In the subsequent power struggle, he escalated the formula of control established by his uncle, becoming the political patron of prominent Chinese timber barons (known as towkays or 'masters') and guaranteeing them vast logging concessions in exchange for their unwavering political and financial backing. To ensure quietism from his peers in the State Assembly, he also rewarded loyal politicians with shares in the beneficiary companies, typically valued between $2-4 million.

As his clients cashed in on their concessions, a tropical timber boom ensued and Malaysia outpaced Indonesia as the world's biggest exporter of tropical timber. In 1990, the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) concluded that unless logging was stabilised at a lower level, the state's forests would be exhausted within a decade . In fact, after just 8 years in power, Taib is believed to have licensed 8.8 million hectares, almost the entirety of Sarawak's forest for logging.

Indigenous land

The irk for Taib, activists believe, was that much of the land he took the liberty of dispensing as political currency was inhabited by indigenous Dayak communities who had lived and cultivated their land for generations, mostly pre-dating the creation of the modern Sarawakian state. Thus, when bulldozers and pickup trucks arrived brandishing permits for the land, clashes ensued which often turned violent. During the height of the confrontations in the 1980s and 90s, the army and police were deployed to back up the companies; the clashes were linked to several deaths and hundreds of arrests under Malaysia's draconian internal security laws, according to activists.

This rapid escalation of land seizures was justified in terms of economic development; ensuring Sarawak was part of Vision 2020 (the goal set by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia becoming a 'fully developed' nation by 2020). Native land was designated as 'idle' or 'unproductive', an impediment to commercialisation, and villagers who protested were patronised and belittled as backwards.

Yet contrary to this ethos of common good, it is plain to see whom the overwhelming beneficiaries have been. Most logging permits have been awarded at grossly undervalued rates to private companies with political connections, generating meagre amounts of government income. In the last three years, public revenues from logging permits has averaged just £1.5 million per annum. Conversely, export values in the same period of consistently topped £1.4 billion per annum, with the vast majority of these exports being unprocessed logs rather than finished wood products. This suggests a truly 'extractive' model that intensifies upstream harvesting and minimises downstream investment in infrastructure, jobs and skills. With such ludicrously low levels of private investment and extremely high profits from export, it is unsurprising that Sarawak's timber tycoons have become some of the richest men in Malaysia.


Forest loss

The effects of this system on Sarawak's environment and rural society have been transformative. Though Taib recently reiterated his claim that primary forest cover is at 70 per cent, satellite images or a flight over Sarawak's hinterland show this to be a massive over-estimate. Independent estimates put its primary forest cover at under 10 per cent, in line with the prescient warnings the ITTO gave Taib in 1990. Yet the depletion of forests did not put an end to land seizures, which were then aimed at conversion into vast oil palm plantations, owned and operated by the very same companies (now international conglomerates) who made their fortunes in the timber boom. With international demand continuing to rise, the government plans to convert a whopping 2 million hectares into oil palm estates by 2020, with much of it on 'idle' native land .

Taib's effective formula of political patronage has been extended to almost every aspect of Sarawak's economy, with his gilded family and allies being publicly listed shareholders on almost all lucrative land development and public works contracts, from hydroelectric dams to hospitals, road networks to luxury tourist resorts. Such concentration of money and power has led to staggering inequality, with indicators suggesting a rich-poor divide worse than Nigeria.

Such dire poverty is evident in Sarawak's rural areas, where alienation of native land for logging and oil palm has stripped communities of their natural assets, their traditional self-sufficiency and independence. Some villages have been paid compensation but mostly on grossly unfavourable terms for land leases that would generate millions for the concessionaires. With little opportunities for cash income, most rural youngsters have migrated to the cities or outside Sarawak in search of work. Those villagers who have remained are dependent on poorly paid labour positions in companies operating on their former land, along with petty government handouts.

This economic disenfranchisement has left rural areas vulnerable to political manipulation and vote buying, which has, ironically, propped up the status-quo and allowed the land seizures to continue. 'The problem is that politicians are elected by buying votes and their constituencies see them as a giver of money and not as a politician,' explains reformist lawyer and politician See Chee How, 'yet the representative needs to be close to the Chief Minister [Taib] in order to get logging or plantation schemes so that he can raise money to buy votes in the next election.'

Buying votes

Until recently, Taib's system of patronage ensured almost total control, land alienation continued apace and Sarawak's politics remained extraordinarily dull. In a land with isolated villages and little infrastructure, news traveled slowly, votes were bought, government promises never materialised and disaffected constituents lacked the means to challenge decisions.

It took the initiative of indigenous activists to educate themselves in state law and, alongside reformist barristers in the cities, file test cases on behalf of dispossessed villages against the state government and beneficiary companies. Much to the ire of the government, the judge ruled in favour of the villagers. These precedents prompted an avalanche of cases from affected communities, demanding compensation and official recognition of their native land rights, of which there are now over 180 pending in the high court. These legal battles, together with local NGO's work in educating villagers of their legal rights, broadened awareness among indigenous communities about the deeper political malaise they were embroiled in.

With the government swiftly moving to block communities' access to such legal recourse, there emerged a growing consensus amongst Sarawakian activists that their real hope rested in political change under the umbrella reformasi movement that was rapidly gaining strength in West Malaysia. This awareness was boosted by a flourishing new media network.

Two of Sarawak's most influential outlets have been Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report, founded by Peter John Jaban, a former employee from the Sarawak Land and Surveys Department, and British investigative journalist Claire Rewcastle Brown. Based in London, far away from Malaysia's stifling sedition and media laws, these outfits began investigating Taib's empire and broadcasting its reports into Sarawak, exposing not only the magnitude of Taib's vested interests but also where his illicit funds were ending up: not in Sarawak's developing economy, but in a convoluted offshore portfolio estimated to top $1 billion stretching from London to Monaco, Ottowa to Sydney.

The tension deepened even further when a prominent whistleblower, a former Taib aide named Ross Boyert was found dead in an L.A. motel room with bag taped over his head in a rare form of suspected suicide . Members of the opposition have rightly pointed out that, since Malaysia has one the world's highest rates of illicit capital outflows, totalling $291 billion between 2000-2008, Taib is an blinding obvious place to begin the clean-up of Malaysia's  politics and economy.

Money laundering

Following pressure from Swiss NGOs, the Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey forwarded the Taib's suspected deposits in the Swiss back UBS to the national money-laundering authority, a move which can only increase pressure on their counterparts in countries such as UK, Canada, and the USA to follow suit.

Taib himself has strongly denied allegations that he holds a secret Swiss bank account containing money obtained through corrupt timber deals.

All this agitation climaxed in the state elections on 18th April 2011, where despite widespread reports of gerrymandering, vote buying and electoral fraud by the ruling coalition, the opposition gained 15 seats in the state assembly, denying the ruling coalition control over the major cities. From the public response, it is clear that many see these elections as the high tide mark for Taib's rule. Sarawakians are now relishing the challenge of political reform ahead of them, illustrated by the 40,000 people who took to the streets in the small capital Kuching in support of reform, one of the biggest rallies in Malaysian history.

With an effective opposition in the legislature, an emboldened civil society, international  money laundering investigations and court cases piling up against members of Taib's network, the existing system could well begin to unravel. The most inevitable factor weighing in against them is Taib's own mortality. At 75, he is a political veteran who has spent thirty years cultivating his supremacy over Sarawak's politics and economy, controlling 50 per cent of the Sarawak's state budget through his additional roles as Minister of Finance and Minister of Planning and Resource Management. This has led to a system that is inefficient and top-heavy, not only in the public sphere but also in the private. Of the conglomerates who dominate Sarawak's economy, which number less than ten, all have long-standing personal connections to the Chief Minister's inner circle and rely on his political predominance for lucrative leases and contracts. In a society where political engagement and access to independent news is on the rise, the ruling government finds itself in an impossible situation: increasingly difficult to defend the duplicity of status quo, yet unable to undertake significant reform for fear of losing power.

New politics

Malaysia's federal elections are expected to be called in 2012, and Malaysians are already heaping pressure on the ruling coalition to undertake electoral reform prior to the polls, to ensure that the results are, unlike previous occasions, free and fair. In July 2011, tens of thousands of protestors, including many Sarawakians, flooded Kuala Lumpur demanding these basic reforms, resulting in a brutal crackdown by the police. The opposition are confident that the the public want to begin a new political chapter for the first time since independence, and that electoral malpractice is the final obstacle to overcome. 

In Sarawak, opposition parties have clearly articulated the basic structural changes necessary for a more efficient and just economy. Their policies have a strong emphasis on cleaning up land tenure and development practices.  For example, in forestry, they have pledged to step up reforestation, reduce the size of logging concessions and encourage downstream timber processing whilst adopting tougher regulations on extraction that would make Sarawak's timber more valued on the international market; all moves that would strengthen the sustainability of the sector in the long run. Whilst rather than focusing on vast oil palm estates on alienated land, they advocate granting indigenous communities titles and encouraging cultivation in small holdings and more favourable joint ventures. In addition, ensuring open tender processes for land development or public works contracts would raise more public revenue, allowing for greater investment in services, human capital and infrastructure, diversifying the economy away from its reliance on the primary sector.

Given that most of local opposition leaders have fought tooth and nail against Taib's rule and have officially represented indigenous communities in their legal battles, there is considerable reason to believe they possess the political will to follow through with these sweeping reforms. Such moves would represent a huge step forward for the empowerment of Sarawak's indigenous population, and for the conservation of its rainforests.

Yet Taib remains in power, and despite his tenuous grip, will undoubtably continue to use his leverage over Sarawak's natural resource to this end. In the meantime, the giant logging and oil palm companies spawned under Taib's rule have already moved to pastures new: Papua New Guinea, Guyana and West Africa. As such, international civil society must learn from the case of Taib in understanding the crucial links between weak governance and destructive social and environmental policy, with the aim of exposing and disrupting such odious ties, wherever they appear.

Alex Joseph is a cover-name for a journalist operating in SE Asia

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