MALAY Forest Fight Malaysia Defends Its Right to Harvest Trees as Native Peoples and Environmental Experts Protest Destruction of Virgin Rain Forests

Article excerpt

LAWAI LAING says the muddying of river waters swirling past his village turned him militant. Until 1985, the Kenyah chieftain accepted $100 a month from loggers cutting timber on Long Geng ancestral lands deep in the forests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on vast Borneo island.

But Mr. Lawai says he had a change of heart when timber companies overcut, and erosion of one bank of the lucent, fast-flowing Balui River gave the waters a peculiar two-tone color.

Convinced that the loggers were cheating Long Geng and hurting crucial fishing and palm-oil harvests, the chief broke off the deal. Two years ago, the native people began erecting their first barricades on timber-company roads and facing the possibility of arrest.

"We are not against logging," says the tattooed 89-year-old, his ears pierced and elongated from the heavy metal rings customarily worn by his Kenyah people. "But we say, `If you want to do logging, don't come onto our land.' "

At home and abroad, Malaysia grapples with deepening controversy over cutting tropical forests.

The major exporter in a region that supplies 90 percent of the world's tropical-timber supply, this fast-growing Southeast Asian economy has been targeted by Western environmentalists for allegedly devastating its thick forest canopy.

Destroying tropical woodland contributes significantly to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the environment, accelerates the trend toward global warming, and even endangers human survival, environmental experts say.

Although cutting dropped slightly during the past year, it is estimated that at current rates, the virgin forests of Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo, could be gone in a decade. In the other state, Sabah, the situation is even more dire. Virgin forests there will be logged out by 1995, according to a July 1991 article in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

With timber ranking as its third-largest export, Malaysia counterattacks and defends its right to harvest its timber resources.

Feisty Malay Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known for his broadsides against Western criticism of environmental degradation, human-rights abuses, and limits on personal freedoms, says that if the West values forests, it should pay to conserve them.

"To ask the poor to help the rich is against all human principles of charity and fairness," the Malaysian leader said in a recent speech.

At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro last month, Malaysia fought a legally binding international convention on managing forests.

Any accord on forests, says Lim Keng Yaik, primary-industries minister, would impinge on Malaysia's "sovereign and inalienable right to utilize, manage, and develop forests" and should be matched by a Western timetable for reducing carbon emissions.

Branding the antitimbering movement, centered mainly in Europe, "a widespread smear campaign," Mr. Lim says, "These pressure groups have even poisoned the minds of the people in the developed countries to the extent that school children have not been spared by their campaign."

Yet, as Malaysian officials parry international alarm over deforestation, tensions over logging grow in Sarawak and its sister state on Borneo, Sabah.

The standoff over timber, the political and economic cornerstone of Sarawak, is rooted in the state's power equation and an undercurrent of ethnic tensions, observers say. In the towns, the Muslim Malays dominate the government and bureaucracy, while the Chinese run businesses and the economy.

Upriver, Kenyahs and other forest people known as the Orang Ulu live mainly in communal longhouses and subsist on farming, hunting, and raising a few cash crops such as coffee. One group, known as the Penans, are mostly nomads. The native peoples, many of whom are illiterate, account for almost half of Sarawak's 1. …