Laki Penan

Fern Awakening by Philip Edmondson

Fern Awakening by Philip Edmondson

“All men dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds awake up in the day to find that it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” (T.E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom)

“Everything you do will be meaningless, but you must do it.” (Mohandas K. Gandhi)

“A human being ‘disappeared’ is an effective and disorienting terror, no matter the means to this end”. (Keith Harmon Snow)

During a recent visit to Switzerland my arrival was accompanied by a familiar measure of jet lag, which left me awake at 2 A M; unable to sleep, but still too unfocused to be able to read. Hence, I flipped on my hotel’s large-screen TV and found a Swiss documentary about Bruno Manser, (1954- 2005 ?) a remarkable individual who eventually became the near legendary Laki Penan. (Laki Penan; Bruno Manser, Chistoph Kuhn, 2004). This remarkable environmental and human rights activist, mystic, artist, ethnographer and speaker of truth to power, was born and raised in Basel. He spoke at least five languages, which is not so unusual since Switzerland has four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh and many residents speak English along with various other regional dialects. His family reports that even as a child, Bruno preferred sleeping outside on their apartment balcony, even in winter. While he did attend medical school, he didn’t take a degree and opted instead for an outdoor life as a shepherd in the alpine region of Appenzell. During his 12 years in those culturally conservative mountains, he learned traditional ways to herd cows, make cheese, work with wood, weave wool, tan leather and stitch together his own clothes.

At that time, Swiss law required every male citizen to enlist for military service. Manser refused to participate in what he considered to be a mandate to learn how to shoot human beings. As a result, he spent three months incarcerated in a prison in Lucerne where he experienced something of an epiphany:

“One day, I suddenly perceived…how my body acted as a biosphere…to be so small and yet so incredibly rich and important…I flew out of the prison, over to my parents in Basel, to my friends in Amsterdam…I flew all over the solar system. Then, I turned around and flew back. There I sat, back in my body. Since then I carry this certainty in me: every one of us is nothing and simultaneously the most important creature in its space and place….indispensable from first to last breath”.

Manser had a passion for learning, not only of the old ways of the Alpine Swiss, but of aboriginal people who live close to their natural resources and have no need of money.

On a visit to a university library he came upon information about the Penan tribes of nomadic hunter-gatherers still dwelling in the rainforests of Borneo, who choose to live only in temporary, bio-degradable shelters and had no need on money. After several false starts, he managed to catch up with the Penan and they eventually took him in as their brother.

Borneo is located in the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean, the third largest island on our planet, after Greenland and New Guinea; as well as the largest island in Asia. Borneo is surrounded by the islands of Sumatra to the west, Java to the south, Sulawesi to the east, and the archipelago of the Philippines to the northeast. Borneo is also home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world. (Borneo: BBC TV: Planet Earth).

These stands of primeval forest territory, some as old as 140 million years, have been vastly reduced due to logging by tropical lumber and plywood industries which have converted much of these lands into palm oil plantations, and revenue crops such as rice, cotton and pepper. Formerly governed by the British Empire, Borneo is currently divided between three countries: Brunei and Malaysia to the north and Indonesia to the south.

In 1984, at age 30, Bruno Manser found the elusive Penan in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, also known as Bumi Kenyalang, (Land of the Hornbills). At first, the Swiss idealist only wanted to live together with the peaceful Penan and learn about the ancient and communal ways of surviving in their fascinating rainforest habitat. During his six years among them, he produced a richly illustrated notebook which has proven to be extremely valuable in the fields of ethnography and contemporary history. (Diaries From the Rainforest, Christoph Merian Verlag, Basel, 2004). He also produced the film SAGO which refers to a species of jungle palm central to both Penan diet and their communal way of life. Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear that Penan culture, which depended on the rainforest, and its plants and animals, was severely threatened by the ruthless and relentless logging incursions into their territory. As his forest friends were continually harassed and confronted by the incessant noises from destructive machinery, increasing stretches of erosion, mudslides and the lethal contamination of their rivers, fishing grounds, and drinking water; Manser felt that he had to take action. Under his leadership and given the urgency of their plight, various factions of the Penan were able to unite and form non-violent blockades to impede the passage of heavy machinery and logging equipment.

These efforts were not appreciated by the Malaysian government or any of the logging industries, who responded to this threat to their profits by placing a huge bounty on Manser’s head. They were understandably infuriated by this pesky, impish, fugitive provocateur with his John Lennon glasses, operating with the panache of a modern day Robin Hood. Even worse, this wily, wiry “number one enemy of the state” was usually able to evade capture; and during his two arrests, easily able to escape back into jungle cover. During this precarious time, in the interest of protection, the rain forest tribe gave him the name Laki Penan (Penan- Man). This name was given for his protection, so that if any of his powerful enemies, or their spies, overheard them talking about him they wouldn’t recognize the name. (Paul Spencer Sochaczewski: The Penan: True Sons and Daughters of Mother Earth, 2001).

Nevertheless, daily life became increasingly difficult during the last years of Manser’s original stay with the Penan, as logging interests continued their massive, well-funded assault on Borneo’s primeval rain forest that he so treasured; as well as the very survival of his dwindling Penan tribal family.

In addition to these increasing environmental and communal stresses, he was relentlessly hunted as an enemy fugitive. These were challenging times and soon after Manser’s lower left leg was bitten by a viper, he lost sensation in that foot, and was in agonizing pain for months, during which he nearly lost the will to live. It was to be another six months before he could manage to walk alone again and without crutches. This set-back presented an especially frustrating limitation for such a fiercely independent Swiss adventurer; who loved to climb and venture out alone, deep into the jungle, for days at a time. Eventually, with the constant care of a native healer and her medicinal plants, Laki Penan’s necrotic leg wound finally healed. In 1990, after a shave, western haircut and farewell feast with his tribe, he was able to return to Basel in response to news of health problems troubling family members there. (Bruno Manser: Kampf um den Regenwald, film by Christoph Kuhn).

Soon after returning to Switzerland , Manser turned his often theatrical efforts toward any and all means to gain media, and at least some measure of international attention toward the plight of the vanishing primeval rainforests in Borneo and the indigenous jungle dwellers whose way of life was also fast disappearing. He also struggled to found a Bruno Manser Foundation in Basel in order to both promote and continue on with this awareness and preservation work; which continues to this day. Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and others, as well as recent efforts by actor Harrison Ford in the HBO series, “ Years of Living Dangerously”, have taken up the cause of forest preservation in Malaysia and the prevention of further environmental destruction, leading to both local and global catastrophes. The richly bio-diverse forests of Borneo are home to endangered orangutans, gibbons and other species of primates, rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, sun bears, 350 varieties of birds, 150 kinds of reptiles, amphibians and numerous species of insects and bats, in addition to many known and as yet unidentified medicinal plants. (G. Persoon, and M. Osseweijer, Reflections on the Heart of Borneo, 2008).

Manser and other advocates of rainforest preservation have met with fierce opposition, not only from legal and illegal logging interests, some allegedly employing slave labor; but also corporate entities heavily invested in profitable yields from Palm Oil plantations, rapidly replacing formerly dense jungle habitats. Palm oil is a popular ingredient in nearly 75% of food products and is also found in cosmetics, personal care products, bio-fuel, cleaning supplies and candles.

In the wake of British colonial occupation, the Malaysian government adopted a British approach to land law, which does not recognize tribal land ownership and can extinguish tribal land at any time. The following correspondence offers a window into the vastly different world views surrounding these issues. In 1987, Darrell, a British school boy, wrote to the Prime Minister of Malaysia:

I am 10 years old and when I am older I hope to study animals in the tropical rain forests. But if you let the lumber companies carry on there will not be any left. And millions of animals will die. Do you think that this is right just so one rich man gets another million pounds or more? I think it is disgraceful.

The Prime minister replied on August 15, 1987:

Dear Darrell,

It is disgraceful that you should be used by adults for the purpose of trying to shame us because of our extraction of timber from our forests.

For the information of the adults who use you I would like to say that it is not a question of one rich man making a million pounds…

The timber industry helps hundreds of thousands of poor people in Malaysia. Are they supposed to remain poor because you want to study tropical animals?

When the British ruled Malaysia they burnt millions of acres of Malaysian forest so that they could plant rubber. Millions of animals died because of the burning. Malaysians got nothing from the felling of this timber. In addition, when the rubber was sold practically all of the profit was taken to England. What your father’s fathers did was indeed disgraceful.

If you don’t want us to cut down our forests, tell you father to tell the rich countries like Britain to pay more for the timber they buy from us. If you are really interested in tropical animals, we have huge national parks where nobody is allowed to fell trees or kill animals.

I hope you will tell adults who made use of you to learn all the facts. They should not be so arrogant as to think that they know how to run a country. They should expel all the people living in the British countryside and allow forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears and so on, so you can study them before studying tropical animals.

I believe strongly that children should learn all about animals and love them. But adults should not teach children to be rude to their elders. (, November 4, 2008)

During the time that Bruno Manser spent in Switzerland, after returning from his six years in Borneo, friends and family observed that the quirky activist was never really at peace. He longed to return to the rain forest and managed to do so, illegally and at great risk, at least once a year. His last journey in May, 2002, to Sarawak, at age 47 also brought deep despair as he found that many Penan had given in to government pressures, vacated their jungles for money and moved outside to new community settlements and schools. Many of their Penan young now consider their roots less important than the exciting new opportunities for assimilation. And yet, Manser also realized that just as he had a strong attraction to cultures strange and foreign, so the younger Penan were drawn to modern cultures outside of their way of life. Sadly, Laki Penan had come to accept that his idealist idea of men still willing to live as they did during the origins of mankind was non-existent.

He was last seen at the remotely isolated village of Bario in the Kelabit Highlands. He wrote a letter to his Swiss girlfriend Charlotte which gave no indication of any suicidal intent, and yet we cannot know his state of mind as he returned to the vanishing jungle and its diminishing inhabitants. Although deeply tired and feeling that he had lost his battle, Laki Penan had reportedly arranged to meet again with rain forest friends, before he set off again for a first and foremost search of his favorite sacred place; the sheer. limestone pinnacle of Batu Lawi. The last two people to see him alive, at the foot of this pinnacle were young Penan guides who reported that he had asked to proceed alone from there. After weeks had passed and he did not return to an arranged jungle meeting place, search parties went into the jungle and found that he and his belongings had vanished without a trace. Bruno Manser was declared to be finally and officially dead by a court in Basel in 2005.

Rumors continue to abound around suspicions that this notorious rain forest fugitive was murdered by government operatives, who were reportedly in the area at the time, or that he had failed in his attempt to scale the pinnacle and fallen to his death. Some still cling to the hope that he may still be alive somewhere within his beloved jungle retreat sheltered by loyal Penan elders. Rain forest jungles are dangerous places, on many levels now, and we may never know the ultimate fate of Laki Penan, who may very well have vanished into the thin air surrounding Batu Lawi.

At first glance, one might conclude that Bruno Manser achieved no measurable success in Sarawak.When he first arrived there in 1984, about 45% of the region’s timber was untouched, and by the time he disappeared the figure was more like 5% and probably even much less by now. ( Nevertheless, at great cost, his various, deeply personal and public campaigns succeeded in drawing attention to the catastrophic social and ecological consequences of the short sighted destructive clearances of rainforest habitats which are seriously threatening the overall health of our biosphere. Similar conflicts between social and ecological concerns and corporate profits, continue on in British Colombia, parts of Australia, as well as Central and South America. As of now, lavishly funded, trans-national corporate interests, true to their legacy of exploitative, colonial policies, continue to prevail as of now, despite all the well- meaning protest efforts.

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