From Manchester to Miri: a return to the Motherland...
Updated: Sep 4
15 tonnes! The thought worried at the edges of my mind as we stepped onto our BA flight from Manchester to Singapore – even more than 15 tonnes of C02, in fact, if our onward journey to Borneo was taken into account...
I am Dr Teo Hoon Seong , an NHS anaesthetist and an environmental activist - I live and work in Manchester, though I started my life in Malaysia. I am one of a small group of CUT Campaign volunteers spread across the UK, working in solidarity with grass-roots rainforest protectors (notably the indomitable SAVE Rivers Network in Sarawak, Borneo) to Clean Up the Tropical Timber Trade.
CUT Campaign placard (Photo Credit: Hoon Seong)
CUT’s mission is simple: we want to end the import of dirty tropical timber to the UK, once and for all. By ‘dirty’ timber we mean wood that has been taken without appropriate and adequate environmental and social safeguarding, despite 'so-called sustainable' certification, destroying precious rainforest ecosystems and indigenous land rights, and impacting on our greater planetary well-being. Being able to make clear links between the tropical forest products we buy in the UK and their background story is key to challenging this damaging trade.
So, on this year’s visit home to Malaysia, to see my Mother and my Motherland, I decided to add in a busman’s holiday to Miri, in Sarawak - I wanted to meet up with the SAVE Rivers team in person, rather than via Zoom, and to get a grip of the situation ‘on the ground’ - though it was difficult to shake off the guilt over my aviation emissions, however. Having duly deposited my adult children in Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (bribed into leaving the cosmopolitan city state of Singapore by the promise of rainforests and beaches), I made my way to Miri.
Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu National Park. (Photo Credit: Hoon Seong)
The states of Sabah and Sarawak form East Malaysia, separated from Penisular Malysia by the South China Sea. Malaysia is one of three nations that make up the island of Borneo, along with Brunei and Indonesia. The countries converge in the central highlands, in an area known as The Heart of Borneo: a transborder, conservation initiative established by WWF, to manage over 22 million hectares of primary rainforest, home to many Indigenous groups including the Penan, Kayan and Dayak Peoples as well as countless endemic and endangered species of plants and animals.
Borneo’s endangered Orangutans are keystone species that play a critical role in rainforest seed dispersal.
Travel infrastructure in Borneo is fragmented, and on the world’s third largest island, where road development is synonymous with devastating rainforest exploitation, that can be a blessing - it also meant that I had to fly from Sabah, over Brunei to get to Miri. It was on this journey, looking out of the plane’s tiny window that the full extent of the destruction to Sarawak’s environment became shockingly apparent to me: pristine jungle suddenly giving way to an endless, regimented horizon of Palm Oil plantations, only broken by the orange scars of cleared land and highways. Sarawak has lost 90% of its primary rainforest to loggers and subsequent agro/industrial development.
Oil palm plantations and land clearance scars in Borneo.
This jolt of realisation was thankfully softened upon landing in Miri by a joyous reunion with Celine Lim, the ebullient Managing Director of SAVE Rivers.
Hoon and Celine Lim, Managing Director at SAVE Rivers offices in Sarawak
Our first stop was makan - Malay for ‘to go eat’. To eat together is a wonderful and important way of honouring friends and family across Malaysia and our brunch was in a dim sum restaurant – although dim sum, and yum cha (drinking tea) are Chinese customs. Sarawak, like Malaysia generally, is a melting pot of races, religion and cultures, a process that has occurred over centuries - while this can lead to tension arising out of invested power blocks aiming to exploit resentments arising out of social inequalities, Sarawak’s peoples also borrow liberally from each other, and give generously, to the enrichment of all.
Later we visited the Miri Handicraft Centre where stalls are run by individual Indigenous producers, who benefit directly from their creations - traditionally made from plants gathered from the rainforest, such as Nipah palm, rattan, tree barks and bamboo. However, these materials are becoming harder to source as forest land is logged and developed, and increasingly baskets are woven from plastic.
SAVE Rivers is based on the second floor of an tower block in Miri, Sarawak’s second city, an unassuming location, but one where the striking flag of the Upper Baram Forest Area took pride of place...
Flag representing the 32 villages and land of the Upper Baram Forest Area (UBFA)
Covering 283,500 hectares, the protected Upper Baram Forest Area is the first of its kind in Borneo, and home to over 4,000 of Sarawak’s Orang Ulu - ‘People of the Interior’ – groups of Penan, Kenyah, Saban and Kelabit Peoples from 32 different villages. Plans for a local community-led land and environment conservation initiative grew out of an internationally acclaimed grass-roots campaign to stop the construction of the controversial hydro-electric Baram Dam, which was victorious in 2016.
Baram villagers celebrating their victory over hydro-electric dam developers
In March this year a ground-breaking agreement – the UBFA Declaration - was made between SAVE Rivers, the Orang Ulu, Forest Department Sarawak, the International Timber Trade Organisation, and international NGO’s - Bruno Manser Fonds and The Borneo Project. This formally recognises Indigenous land rights in the region that would have been devastated by the Baram Dam development to protect the remaining primary forest and support sustainable farming land management.
Upper Baram Communities behind the UBFA Declaration (Photo credit: The Borneo Project)
To say that the UBFA Declaration was a ground-breaking victory for the Indigenous forest defenders of Borneo, particularly those living in Sarawak, is not an over-statement. Having been seen as a ‘vote bank’ by Malaysia’s previously incumbent Barisan Nasional Government, successive Sarawak legislatures were allowed to allocate forest reserves as ‘timber concessions’ to international logging companies, for decades, with little or no federal oversight.
As a result, only 10% of Sarawak’s primary rainforest is left standing, and rainforest communities, in particular nomadic groups like the Penans, have been stripped of their customary lands and the ability to pursue their traditional ways of living. Thanks to the UBFA Declaration, the Orang Ulu of the Upper Baram region have a chance to shape their own futures, and the future of their ancestral lands and forests, once again.
The Penan of Ba Jawi – Baram’s last nomads reject logging and forest certification on their ancestral lands. (Photo credit: The Borneo Project) https://borneoproject.org/last-nomads-of-baram-want-to-live-undisturbed/
Sadly, I never did get a chance to visit the UBFA. but I did manage to share a last evening meal with other forest activists in Miri - we eat with friends a lot in Malaysia, it’s fantastic! Back in Sabah however, I visited Mount Kinabalu National Park, to get a flavour of primary rainforest. Both these things have helped embed a rich sense of what I am helping fight to protect, and, importantly, who I am doing this alongside in Sarawak, now that I am back home in Manchester again.
SAVE Rivers is currently being sued for millions for alleged ‘defamation’ by timber multinational, Samling Group, for publishing articles related to the incursion of Samling’s logging operations in the Long Gerenai area, without prior informed consent of the rainforest communities. This ‘SLAPP’ (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) is finally going to be heard in court in mid September, after being deferred four times previously. Over 160 international civil society groups and 8,000 members of the public have written to Samling’s CEO in support of SAVE Rivers and demanding Samling to drop their lawsuit and #StopTheSLAPP
SAVE Rivers and #StopTheSLAPP supporters outside Miri courthouse earlier this year:
Paradoxically, last year, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) improved Samling’s environmental credentials in its influential environmental, social governance assessment report, the SPOTT Indicator Framework. In response to a joint letter from CUT, Friends of the Earth, Bruno Manser Fonds and The Borneo Project questioning Samling's ranking, ZSL have invited us to meet to discuss our concerns later this month. We are also planning a peaceful, family-friendly gathering near London Zoo, in solidarity with SAVE Rivers ahead of their SLAPP court hearing - more details will be released here and on our social media platforms soon.
You can help by telling friends, family and colleagues that timber certified as ‘sustainable’ is not necessarily safe to purchase. Remember to ask every time you buy where your wood has come from. If the supplier can’t tell you, or if the wood is from a tropical country, don’t buy it! You can support calls for new UK laws to clean up supply chains and hold corporations to account, led by Friends of the Earth and other members of the Corporate Justice coalition, HERE!