Borneo Log: The Struggle for Sarawak's Forests

William W. Bevis
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995
264 pp., $19.95 hc

Rik Scarce

Some pages into Borneo Log William Bevis finds himself camping beneath a great meranti tree whose canopy spreads over the forest 200 feet up. Not long thereafter he helps cut down that tree.

Such is the legend of the fall that is central to this fine book. Bevis does not try to coax us back to a mythological "state of nature," however. He does create a convincing picture of amoral, normless industrial capitalism's rapacious plunder of the Borneo rainforest and the tribes that have lived there sustainably for centuries.

The destruction of the world's rainforests, a cause célèbre in recent years, demonstrates that we in the West are unable to identify issues and constructively deal with them before they become causes, before they have become social problems in need of social movements to save them--or at least to not sit dumbly as they are swallowed up. Although Bevis is hardly at the cutting edge of this issue, he has pieced together an important and thought-provoking chronicle that tours cultures and places united by one thing: the Southwestern Pacific rainforests of the Sarawak region of Borneo, the world's third largest island.

All good book titles harbor multiple meanings, and Borneo Log is no exception. At a superficial level the log is University of Montana English professor Bevis' travel journal and reflections, chronicling sabbatical sojourns from Japan to Thailand to Borneo. The more profound meaning of "log" is found in his story of "his" tree, the one he camped under and later helped cut. Trees are alive and are life-giving, not only to humans--rainforests have been said to be the "lungs of the planet" because they create substantial quantities of oxygen--but to a myriad of animals and other plants. These rainforest trees are something special though. "But we are deceived by the word 'tree,'" Bevis writes, "a clean noun from the world of hard edges and ice. This is a gathering, a neighborhood, a mob of vegetation; in fact, I can hardly see the tree" (69). His tree is home to numerous species of moss, vines, orchidsa world unto itself where tree and unfree cannot be distinguished precisely.

That is the tree. The log that Bevis' tree became is the "key log" (a term Aldo Leopold used, though in a different sense) in the author's log. Some cannot see forests for trees. Others--namely Malaysia's crooked government, rapacious logging companies, and Japan's hypocritical culture--cannot see trees, forests, human health, or cultural survival for the logs. Logs are dead trees and therefore commodities in the Western way.

And above all else, it's money that matters in capitalist industrial economies. Bevis bluntly demonstrates the moral bankruptcy and the economic profiteering behind the destruction of Sarawak's rainforests. As few as one tree per acre is cut and shipped to Japanese mills to be made into plywood and cheap furniture. That one tree falling, and the destruction created to get it out of the forest, utterly alters the forest's ecology. In turn, that undermines the basis for the subsistence economy of Borneo's tribal peoples and leaves them three choices: die slowly, leap into the Industrial Age, or fight back against the industrial leviathan.

The Japanese, who crow about their resourcefulness regarding all things environmental, in fact are irresponsible when it comes to non-Japanese lands. Long ago they polished-off the tropical hardwood forests closer to home, Borneo is their last stop before jumping across the Pacific to South America, where Andean and Amazonian forests--and yet more gatherer-hunter and agrarian cultures--await. And what do the natives, whose societies are so intimately interconnected with the forest, receive? A few of the powerful get puny bribes. The rest, as the saying goes, get the shaft. Or the log; a few will work briefly at destroying their forest home. Meanwhile company profits range upwards of $3.6 million per month, gross.

Economics are misleading, however. Our lives, and increasingly those of everyone else in the world, are dominated by industrial economics, no question. Yet economics is embedded in our social cultural, and ecological worlds. Societies deem it "economically rational" to put a price on a tree that has to be shipped 3,000 miles to be milled into plywood, leaving behind ravaged ecosystems and ruined cultures. Those actions are religiously, normatively, and politically sanctioned by powerful societies, the weak be damned.

It is in his juxtaposition of such social and cultural forces that Bevis has the most impact. I have written a bit about the struggles of the Sarawaki peoples, but I have yet to read a book that transports me to the rainforest and brings its human and nonhuman inhabitants alive as does Borneo Log. "Borneo is next door," writes Bevis, it is "home" (7), and, for one who spent only about six months there, he writes as if the place were his home town.

But this isn't "Our Town." The drama of this place is found in turmoil, as it has been for centuries. And rest assured, the end of the play puts a smile on no one's face but the producers, the producers of the conflict, the already-rich. The native Kayan, Kenyah, and Penan peoples are no match for ambitious Chinese immigrants, who have successfully argued that "there are no native land rights," in the words of James Wong, the Sarawak environment minister. Wong is also infamous for his pronouncements that he would prefer a golf course to a forest any day.

Wong's father was murdered by the Japanese during the World War II occupation of Borneo. Now Wong cuts dirty deals with Japanese investors who, once they wipe out the forests and destroy the lives, plan to give Wong just what he dreams of, golf courses and tourist income. In the meantime, Mitsubishi makes millions skidding trees out of other people's forests using tractors it manufactures, placing them on its ships, milling them in its mills, and using the plywood to shore up concrete poured for its buildings.

But foreigners--including "their own" Malaysian government--are not the only ones against whom the tribal people find themselves fighting. Pogo-like, the enemy is within as well. A couple of hundred dollars a month for life goes a long way when you're a tribal headman living four days up the Baram River from the nearest beer cooler. Mitsubishi and its local minions know as much, and they successfully bought-off virtually every tribal leader, one after the other, beginning in the late 1980s. The fact that natives have no land rights, yet the timber companies still see the need to grease the skids with ringgit and junkets to Sarawak's finest ryokan--Japanese for hotel--says much for the corporations' understanding that money isn't really all that matters. Perhaps if the people are bought off, whether by bribes to chiefs or by "gifts" of chain saws to the gatherer-hunter Penan, they will stay out of the way and allow the companies to maximize their profits.

Not everyone is willing to "buy in" to the corporatist state's schemes, however. The Penan have been the most spectacular of all in this regard. Sometimes the confrontations arc humorous. Bevis relates the story of a logging company road surveyor who was deep into the jungle, the home of the mysterious Penan, when he suddenly found himself face-to-face with the blowgun-carrying people themselves. They asked what he was doing there, and he swore he had nothing to do with road building, all survey sticks aside. The Penan encouraged him to leave the area lest he be mistaken for a pig and darted to death.

But most encounters are more sobering. The Penan--quiet, secretive, physically beautiful and living beautifully for millennia with a forest that is perhaps 150 million years old--came to understand that if they were to preserve their land, and therefore their way of life, then they have to attract the world's attention to their plight.

For centuries the Penan have traded with the more agrarian Kayan and Kenyah, who live communally in longhouses up to 150 yards in length. But some longhouses, successfully bought off by the logging companies, see the Penans' struggles as unwanted. Bevis writes that these longhouses pine for development Western style, while the Penan have attracted global attention by opposing precisely that. The Penan's opposition came through blockades of logging roads, arrest, and jail time for people who have known a freedom that you and I cannot imagine. The first Penan blockade, of a road ostensibly constructed for medical personnel but that was actually secretly financed by the Japanese for use in the timber trade, occurred in 1985. Stripped by Malaysia of any claim of ownership of their ancestral lands, the Penans' only recourse was to lay their bodies in the line of destruction. Loggers reacted by raping Penan women and calling in the cops. Meanwhile, the Penan watch their world wither away.

If the Penan did not own their land, who did? Who but James Wong, the golfing environment minister. He reacted to the blockading by asserting "'logging is my bread and butter,' which brought howls of derision from the Penan: what did the millionaire minister think the forest was to them?" (143).

As Bevis left the rainforest there was hope that the Penan and their longhouse cousins would prevail. Those far upriver showed stiff resolve, demanding "impossible" recompense for the inevitable destruction, or else. But, in his concluding "Update," Bevis tells us that the natives blinked. They backed down or were broken. Today the forests fall at 50 acres per hour, a tree cutter's version of the Montana speed limit: ain't none. This despite the preposterous claim by government that the sanctioned rate of over-cutting the forest has slowed from three times the sustainable rate to merely twice. Eden is no more.

Because this is such an intense, engaging book, readers are likely to want more from it than Bevis, because of disciplinary training or temperament or his own fine sense of what "works," delivers. Throughout most of the first half of the book I found myself longing for an ethnographer to flow forth from Bevis' pen. To some extent his detailed, vivid descriptions in the final few chapters sate that thirst. But, while he shows an accountant's aptitude for the economic intricacies of the timber trade, Bevis misses opportunities to make grander statements. There are no connections with dependency theory, no efforts to provide insights for social movement scholars. The occasional parallels between Borneo natives and Native Americans, and between Asian forests and American forests, cry out for more penetrating analysis. And the book's occasionally confusing organization lends credence to the "creative" part of the Western States Book Award in Creative Nonfiction that Bevis garnered for Borneo Log.

But these criticisms seem niggling in light of what is here. More than anything, this is the story of what we in the West have so resoundingly failed to do: slow the machine of growth, greed, and desolation long enough to think about what we are doing to the planet and its peoples, to consider the complete range of consequences, to contemplate all of the costs and benefits of our actions--economic, yes, but also ecological, cultural, historical, social. This is a chapter in the story of the rapaciousness of capitalist industrial society, of a world-system of plunder and Formlessness that sees places like Borneo as geographically convenient, economically desperate, and politically powerless. And it is the story of a gentle people in a faraway land who ask only to control their destiny. Alas, that is too much to ask.

Contents | Home