By Paul Malone
2008-07-28 | The trees reach up to greet you as you fly into the Long Lellang settlement in the upper reaches of the Baram River in central Borneo, just a few degrees north of the equator.
Giant 60 metres dipterocarps, perhaps 300 years old, tower above the broad canopy which stands 40 metres above the ground.
In the foothills beyond the airstrip, locals say a black clouded leopard stalks its prey, one of many rare creatures still roaming the jungle.
The only way into, or out of this settlement is by air, long-boat, or on foot through the mountains.
A few cars lie trapped in the village, a legacy of a now abandoned logging road that once cut into the region.
But if the major logging company Samling gets its way, and can overcome opposition from the nomadic Penan, a new road will soon open up the area to development.
Samling’s chief operating officer James Ho says his company was seeking to persuade the Penan of the benefits of development.
“We’re very patient. We try to convince them that it is for their own good, for the development of the area,” says the executive, who is keen to tell me that he is a Christian and was educated by the Christian Brothers.
The company has provided millions of dollars worth of aid to the Penan in building material, timber, zinc roofing water pipes, educational assistance and diesel fuel. Coffee plantation projects are being trialled as a possible source of cash income for native people.
A brilliant mini-hydro electric plant, built with the company’s assistance and the labour of the locals at the village of Long Main, provides free electricity enabling lighting, washing machines, refrigeration and even satellite television.
Benefits of development
It is no accident that at this most prosperous Penan settlement, the villagers are the most sympathetic to Samling although none would express a view favouring logging.
Rather they accepted the inevitable, saying that the government wanted it.
Christmas comes twice a year to the Penan, Ho says, referring to payments the company makes to them. But there are allegations of attempts to buy off individual headmen.
Could the Samling payments be seen as corrupt?
“I think this has been twisted. Helping people does not mean corruption. Corruption is something else. This is assisting them, helping them to have better lives. How can this be called corruption?”
Ho says the Penan are bullying Samling and defends the company’s policy of selective logging on a 25 coupe system where the first coupe is logged in the first year, with the company moving on until its 25 year lease is exhausted.
Before starting work, the company must submit plans for approval to the government and then it must abide by minimum diameter log rules for various trees. No fruit trees are cut, Ho says.
Views differ on the impact of selective logging. Professor Jeffrey A Sayer, a senior aAssociate of the World Wildlife Fund says the general reaction of the conservation community was outright opposition but the reality was much more complex.
Sometimes just a few trees per hectare are removed and the forests retain much of their original biodiversity. But the Director of the Environmental Management and Development Programme at the Australian National University Luca Tacconi said in selective logging, the companies tend to harvest a small number of species and over time, this changes the composition of the forest itself.
He also observed that a 25 year cycle is very short and after 25 years, there will be a much lower harvestable volume available.
A Penan volunteer with the Wildlife Conservation Service, John Lajo said that after areas have been selectively logged, they have less wildlife.
And the authoritative Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo said selective logging not only removed the largest trees but killed or damaged many smaller trees in the process.
The logging roads open the forest and provide easy access to all and sundry, inviting shooters from around the region to hunt the wildlife.
Ho said when Samling cut down a large tree and opened the canopy, 13,000 seedlings will re-generate per hectare in the first year.
Are laws being broken?
In the early 1970s, about 70 percent of Sarawak’s total area of 12.3 million hectares was relatively undisturbed forest.
The Sarawak government’s plans for oil palm, eucalypt, acacia plantations and selective logging will see only one million hectares or eight per cent left untouched.
Strangely the government does not require any environmental impact statement for logging of undisturbed areas.
The logging companies’ claim that they are engaged in sustainable harvesting raises the obvious question: if so, why do they keep needing to enter new pristine areas?
Samling points to its 25 year coupe system, but as it has been in the business for 30 years, why is it still moving into new jungle regions?
The company responded that its concession areas are assigned by the authorities. “As a responsible forestry company, we abide by rules of selective harvesting to ensure the long-term sustainability of the forest so that we can return to previously logged areas after a prescribed cutting cycle,” said Ho.
But the demand to enter new areas suggested that the companies were not engaged in sustainable harvesting. Instead, they were “mining” the forest, taking a resource that will never return.
While much world attention has been given to the plight of the Orang Utan, the Penan’s battle, once championed by Al Gore and Prince Charles, has slipped into the background.
The Sarawak government has taken an uncompromising stance in its response to the Penan’s High Court action, even demanding that these most ancient original natives prove they are from Sarawak and Malaysian citizens.
Part Two: Identification problems
PAUL MALONE, 60, has been a journalist for over 30 years in Australia. The above article which first appeared in the Canberra Times is based on his trip to research logging in the upper reaches of the Baram River in Borneo which he first visited in 1974.
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