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  • Writer's pictureGaby Solly

Malaysian Forest Defenders call on UK to end imports of 'dirty' rainforest timber

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

(Photo credit: Kelly Hill)

Indigenous leaders from Sarawak, Malaysia are visiting the UK this week to demand an end to timber greenwashing. The UK is the third largest importer of Malaysian timber certified as ‘sustainable’ – but this includes wood harvested from rainforest on Indigenous lands, against the will of local communities.

Sarawak is a biodiversity hotspot, yet destructive logging has even occurred in the proposed core protection zone and sites that are sacred to local indigenous communitie in the Upper Baram Forest Area (UBFA), where some of Sarawak’s last primary rainforest is found, home to endemic and endangered species [1]. This area is designated for a conservation project endorsed by the Malaysian Government and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) [2].

The Indigenous delegation from Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, is here to launch a new UK campaign “Clean up the Tropical Timber Trade” (CUT). The UK is a key market destination for Malaysian timber [3]. Activists are asking the UK government to suspend the import of so-called ‘sustainable timber’ under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS).

Celine Lim, Indigenous Kayan leader and head of the Malaysian grassroots organisation SAVE Rivers, and Komeok Joe, a Penan elder and head of Indigenous organisation KERUAN are meeting with UK and European government representatives to raise their communities’ concerns over deforestation, corporations’ failure to respect indigenous land rights, and the UK’s role in driving these impacts.

On Monday 23rd January, Celine Lim and Komeok Joe led a ritual-ceremony for Sarawak’s forests in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, beneath Cecilia Vicuña’s vast and ghostly “Brain Forest” installation [4] which mourns the destruction of forests and Indigenous Peoples worldwide. They bestowed a traditional Sarawak ‘ash-blessing’ on participants, followed by a funeral procession through Westminster to Buckingham Palace.

Celine Lim, Managing Director of SAVE Rivers, said:

“The UK’s consumption of Malaysian timber puts pressure on our forests and threatens the Indigenous communities’ way of life. The logs are taken from our forests without the knowledge, even less the consent of the affected communities. We have repeatedly raised the communities’ concerns with logging and the dangers of greenwashing under the MTCS label with the respective authorities in Malaysia, to no avail.”

Clare Oxborrow, Friends of the Earth’s forests and supply chains campaigner, said:

“As a significant importer of Malaysian timber, the UK has a responsibility to ensure that our demand for wood, and commodities like palm oil do not destroy precious forests and cause harm to people overseas. For too long, communities in Sarawak and elsewhere have been ignored while decisions are made to clear their traditional lands and forests. Voluntary certification schemes that UK consumers rely on to guarantee sustainability aren’t working. The UK Government needs to hold companies to account for environmental harm and human rights issues in their supply chains, and to give affected communities the ability to seek redress for damage caused to their lands and lives.”

Komeok Joe, CEO of KERUAN organisation states:

“The local Penan communities strongly oppose any logging in the Upper Baram Forest Area. The core protection zone, an area, called Siman mountain, has high cultural and spiritual significance. We ask the British government to open their ear to our plight and help us. Anyone must first come and see the reality on the ground before approving any timber for certification or import.”

Gaby Solly, CUT Campaign Coordinator and the artist who devised the ritual ceremony said:

“Vicuna’s ‘Brain Forest Quipu’ installation at the Tate is an invitation to engage with ecological destruction, human-rights abuses and the power of communal action, at a deep and visceral level. Celine and Komeok’s ritual-ceremony and speeches were a powerful solidarity response to the testimonies of fellow Indigenous land defenders, highlighted within this artwork”


[1] Mongabay October 2022 Survey captures Bornean ecosystems and Indigenous lives around them.

[2] ITTO supports community forest conservation initiative in the Baram, Sarawak.

[3] With 22,381 m3 of MTCS timber imports, the UK was the number three destination for MTCS certified timber (endorsed by PEFC International) after the Netherlands and Japan in 2020 MTCC Annual Report 2020.

[4] The Brain Forest Quipu by Chilean artist-poet, Cecilia Vicuña, runs at the Tate Modern, London until April 2023.

Supporting organisations:

· SAVE Rivers supports and empowers rural communities in Sarawak to protect their land, rivers, and watersheds through capacity building, networking, research, education, and advocacy.

· KERUAN -Voices of the Penans advocates for and represents the aspirations of the Penan community in Sarawak.

· Friends of the Earth is an international community dedicated to the protection of the natural world and the wellbeing of everyone in it. We bring together more than two million people in 75 countries, combining people power all over the world to transform local actions into global impact.

· CUT is a developing partnership campaign to Clean Up the Tropical Timber Trade in the UK. We want to amplify the voices of Indigenous rainforest Peoples, so that they are heard, responded to and respected by UK consumers, businesses and our Government.

· The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF) is committed to protecting the threatened tropical rainforests and the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, especially in Sarawak, Malaysia.

· The Borneo Project, based in California USA, brings international attention and support to community-led efforts to defend forests, sustainable livelihoods, and human rights.

(Photo credit: Kelly Hill)

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