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
"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
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
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. …