October 12, 2010
By ANDREW C. REVKIN, The New York Times
It’s hardly news that the rich virgin rain forests on both the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of Borneo are being steadily sheared away, enriching a few while ravaging unique ecosystems. In fact, it’s such a persistent issue that headlines are rare.
But a 30-mile-long logjam created on Malaysia’s longest river after a heavy rainstorm last week has brought new focus to the issue, and new questions about whether the government official who runs just about everything on Sarawak, the Malaysian portion of the island, is abetting — and profiting from — an unfolding environmental disaster.
Contrast what you see in the video above, shot late last week along the Rajang River, with the gushy greenwash published by the state government on its forestry Web site:
Welcome to SARAWAK FORESTRY, and the unique vision we are planning to achieve — global recognition as the leader in tropical forest conservation and products. We are entrusted to safeguard and sustainably manage the amazing biodiversity in Sarawak’s forests — covering tens of thousands of species of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms…. Our children, our grandchildren and future generations will recognize our successful stewardship of the natural environment and its conservation.
Personally, I’m not reassured. I’m seeking a reaction from the State Department, which has made tropical forest conservation a priority under both the Obama and Bush administrations, but of course is also juggling other issues — including working with Malaysia to deter terrorism by Islamic extremists. The Sarawak government may be seeking global recognition for its sustainable forestry practices, but it would deserve global condemnation if the roots of the logjam lie in destructive, and state sponsored, logging practices.
Mike Shanahan has helpfully pulled together links to local coverage of the situation in a post at his Under the Banyan blog. Here’s a short excerpt and link to the rest:
Environment and Public Health Minister Wong Soon Koh declared the log-jam to be a “natural calamity of gigantic proportion” and blamed landslides in highland logging areas. He said: “The wooden debris which was swept away could have been accumulated there for the past 40 or more years.”
But he added that if there was evidence that human activities were to blame, “stern action will be taken against the perpetrators”. Land Development Minister James Masing blamed unscrupulous timber companies and said that whoever caused the problem should be punished.
But many local bloggers accuse these politicians of hypocrisy. They are frustrated with the decades of government policies that have enriched a powerful elite with logging dollars but have left Sarawak with just ten percent of its forest intact.
One blogger called Tbsbidayuh summed up the mood when he wrote: “Thank you to the monsoon rain for revealing state government ignorance on taking care of environment.” Read the rest.
I also encourage you to read some impressive investigative reporting in the Sarawak Report on real estate dealings of Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Sarawak official who for decades has been in charge of handing out logging permits. The newspaper, in describing Mahmud’s involvement in substantial family real estate holdings in Canada, asks a simple question:
The Preston Square development lies at the centre of the major Canadian property empire run by the developer Sakto, which was founded in the early 1980s by Taib’s college-aged son Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, his daughter Jamilah and his brother Onn Mahmud. It continues to be managed as a ‘family business’ by his now son-in-law, a Canadian, Sean Murray.
Taxpayers in Sarawak are entitled to ask how the Chief Minister’s modest 20,000 Malaysian Ringgit a month official salary [$77,000 a year] has managed to help generate a property empire worth so much. It is also well known that the Taib family own further considerable assets in Malaysia and elsewhere.
It’d be great to know the answer, and also to be sure that countries concerned about conserving tropical forests press for an honest investigation into the conditions that resulted in the great river logjam.
If you want to track the situation on the Rajang River and in Sarawak’s forests, check the Sarawak Headhunter and Hornbill Unleashed blogs.