Before this interview begins with Mutang I would like, as webmaster, to make a few comments on the indigenous people. At the time of this writing, February 14, 1999, it is appropriate to recognize that the great spiritual leader of the Hopi people, Thomas Banyacya, has left this Earth during the past week. On December 10, 1992 Banyacya gave a message to the United Nations General Assembly. He said, "Its up to all of us, as children of mother Earth, to clean up this mess before its too late". In June of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro Marcos Terena, of the Terea Tribe in Brasil, was allotted 5 minutes to represent the viewpoints of five thousand indigenous nations. Terena said,
"You cannot just squander millions and millions of dollars on environmental conferences if you do not want to listen to what the Earth has to say".
Today, in America, there is only 13 percent of the original forest left. All of American indigenous people have been removed from their land with the exception of a few small reservations. Why is the world killing indigenous people?
When I told another person that I was going to Sarawak to listen to what the indigenous people have to say I was given this remark.
"What could you possibly learn from those people? How will you talk to them? Are you crazy? Those people are just tribal people".
That attitude is all over the planet. It must stop, and I have placed Mutang's own words on this web site for others to learn of what the people of Sarawak are having to live with. His message is important, and like the Dhali Lama, he too is in exile.
Why me?" asked Mutang Urud as we walked along the waterfront in Rio de Janeiro. He seemed to be asking himself as well as me. "Why have I been thrust into the middle of all this? Why me?"
Virtually overnight, Mutang had gone from being a landscaper who loved the simple pleasures of planting trees and shrubs to being an exiled leader of the Kelabit Penan and twenty-three other indigenous peoples of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in the country of Malaysia. During the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1992, Mutang and I passed many evenings sharing meals, taking walks, and just staying up late and talking.
Mutang, who was a Kelabit t1ribesman, had just spent a month imprisoned in solitary confinement for organizing resistance to the logging of his people's forest lands. The rate of deforestation in Malaysia is the highest in the world. Existing contracts call for the cutting of 73 percent of the remaining forest. The Malaysian government maintains that its logging practices are "sustainable," but disinterested forest managers fear that even if Sarawak's pace of logging is cut in half in 1993, Sarawak's rain forest will still disappear by the end of the century.
When Mutang was first arrested, the government didn't give a reason, but the people knew it was because he was seen as a leader of the Sarawak Indigenous People's Alliance and supported the human barricades to block the logging trucks.
"Now I'm a wanted man in my own country," Said Mutang. "There's a warrant out for my arrest. if I go back, I will be put in jail. When I was in detention, the police told me, 'You must never do this again. We know all about you. You cannot hide from us. We won't give you a second chance."'
Mutang's predicament was at once simple and complex, both very personal and inextricably linked to the fate of the native people of Sarawak. If he returned to Sarawak, his lawyer said, he could expect to be in prison for nine years. Given the unsanitary conditions and prospect of torture, he might never come out. Still, he yearned to return to his homeland. Then again, it was possible that he would be far more useful to his people if he stayed out of prison.
"I was arrested for objecting to the logging that has already made thousands of us homeless and polluted 70 percent of Sarawak's rivers. How will our children and grandchildren survive?"
"I'm willing to go to prison if it encourages our people to rise up against the logging," he told me. "But will my being jailed stir them into action? Our people are naturally reserved, and now they are terrified of the soldiers and police. If I'm locked away, they might become even more discouraged. In exile, I could get information back to them and tell the world about our problems. But then again, maybe it would reinforce my people's courage if I sacrificed my freedom. It's very hard to know what to do."
"In Sarawak, you'll either be in jail or in hiding," I said, beginning to feel protective of Mutang's safety. "Either way could be dangerous."
"And the thing is," he answered, "I could avoid all these problems and have a very comfortable life back home-if I went along with the government's destruction of the forest. Timber companies have offered me lots of money to stop my organizing work. And the authorities have said to me, 'Join Lis. You'll have a good life, everything you want. Help us develop the country and pull these people out of the Stone Age. Why make things difficult for yourself?"
When Mutang refused to be bought off, the Malaysian government began following his -every move. Before leaving Sarawak, he had to live undercover for two weeks, moving from house to house. To get through customs to go to Rio, he used a disguise. And before Mutang spoke at the Earth Summit, Malaysian authorities asked to meet with him. Instead of offering to drop the charges or change their policies, they warned him not to speak against the government.
Mutang didn't waver. He spoke out. But in a similar situation, many of Sarawak's indigenous peoples might have backed down; their cultures are by nature nonconfrontational and many native individuals consider the government's machinery too powerful to resist. Ironically, some of these cultures' most beautiful traits have contributed to their undoing. The Dyaks' tradition of welcoming visitors into their communities, for example, has helped expose them to those who came to exploit them. And their great reverence for elders has sometimes led them to respect government officials who don't have their interests at heart.
"Sometimes we are too trusting of the modern world," said Mutang. "We believe other people are as sincere as we are. We are learning the hard way that there are people who want to exploit us. The politicians are making use of our good will to convince some of our people jobs cutting trees so the), can build good houses. But if the forest is logged, what will be left for my children and my grandchildren?"
"In our race to modernize, our leaders must not blindly follow the path of Western economic development," cautioned Mutang. "Many people in the West have been uprooted from their traditions, their cultural roots. And this is my fear for my people. If we are pulled up from our roots, what happens? If you uproot a tree or a flower, it will die. I think a lot of people in the West have been uprooted and have become spiritual drifters. And I've seen spiritual drifters among indigenous peoples in Australia, Brazil,and North America. I see this trend among my people. And this makes me very sad."
To our Western eyes, Mutang is something of a paradox, combining traits we are not used to seeing together. He is one of the warmest and gentlest men I have ever met-thoughtful, respectful, even tender in his relations with others. But he also draws from a very deep well of courage. The turning point in his life came in 1984, when a large timber contractor began cutting on the traditional lands of the Penan and Dyak peoples. "Since then," he says, "life has never been the same for any of us."
With the pressure of logging and government threats mounting, Mutang felt the need to withdraw for a while to reflect on the crisis and the role he could play. He walked alone through the jungle for two days, climbing steep cliffs and crossing crocodile- infested rivers to reach a remote beach. There, at the edge of the forest, he used branches and vines to build a small hut. It was the monsoon season, and galeforce winds often blew apart his makeshift shelter.
"During the nights, the waves hit the cliffs and rocks so hard that they frightened me," said Mutang. "It was raining hard. There was thunder. Lightning threw eerie silhouettes onto the forest canopy. I was at the crossroads of my life. I'd wake early in the morning and lie there thinking about how there are things more important than earning money and being comfortable. I prayed for guidance. I wanted to grapple with the fear within myself-a fear of darkness and the unknown, fear of the government and the loggers, fear of the future and all the uncertainties of life."
When Mutang returned from his time alone, he firmly resolved to commit his life to saving his people's homeland, which is in the heart of what many scientists consider the earth's most ancient forest. This extraordinary web of trees, vines, shrubs, and flowers represents the ebb and flow of some one hundred sixty million years of evolution. In terms of trees alone, Sarawak has the richest forest in the world. In an area slightly smaller than New York State, several thousand species of trees live along with twenty thousand kinds of flowering plants, several hundred varieties of butterflies, and nearly two hundred species of mammals. To enter this forest realm is like walking back into the dawn of time, for sequestered here in the soft light beneath the trees are people who still live with an intimate connection to the subtle stirrings of the forest.
"Down there in our longhouses in the trees my people live in the most wonderful homeland anyone could have," Mutang told me. "The forest provides shelter, food, and medicine and holds the history of our people-our myths, our legends, and stories. If we walked the forest trails together, I would be able to show you at every turn what had happened here, who had been hunting over there, everything. That grove of trees might be where I was almost bitten by a wild pig. I could take you to a tree marked by my uncle, who is now dead. The lives of our people are written in the landscape. And we know every tree and turn of the creeks. In cities I get lost easily, but out there in the forest I always know where I am. We have names for thousands of streams and creeks, even the smallest trickles."
However, when the Malaysian authorities look at the forests of Sarawak, they see not a diversity of species and the pathways of a people, but an enormous storehouse of wealth. This perspective is hardly surprising, for the forest has never been their home. And historically Sarawak is not their country but a territory that fell into their laps with the collapse of colonialism. When Malaysia claimed Sarawak, it took possession of the earth's last substantial stands of the magnificent dipterocarp hardwood trees that grow to a hundred and fifty feet in height and many yards in circumference. By the mid 1980s, this region, which is less than one-tenth the size of the Amazonian rain forest, was exporting more than half of all the whole-log tropical timber in the world.
"Logging has been my bread and butter since I was a pioneer in the industry in 1949," says Sarawak's Minister of Environment and Tourism, Datuk Amar James Wong. "I can be held responsible for damage caused by logging but my conscience is clear." The apparent paradox in Wong's untroubled conscience may reflect his desire for progress, development, and modernity. "If every longhouse wants a communal forest," he notes, "we might as well stop logging. They [the Penan] should give way to the needs of the country."
But to Sarawak's indigenous peoples, the logging is a systematic destruction of their country. First the forest is cut, then plantations are developed that prevent the native people from pursuing their traditional hunting and gathering. To complete the undercutting of the local communities, nearly all the logging profits are siphoned off and invested in the United States and Europe. Sarawak's Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, has given many of the lucrative logging contracts to his political allies and family members. Mahmud's personal wealth is estimated at $4 billion U.S., and stands in stark contrast to the native villages, which lack basic sanitation services, adequate food and medical care, and clean water supplies.
One of the most tragic human as well as environmental consequences of the logging has been the contamination of 70 percent of Sarawak's rivers and streams. Not only have trucks and bulldozers muddied the waters with sediment, but poisons in the bark of fallen trees have found their way into the waterways and killed the fish. As fish, birds, and small mammals disappear from logged areas, the Penan and other Dyak people lose their traditional sources of food and can no longer live by roving through the forest. Many of them are now crowded into squalid camps, where they are succumbing to parasitic infections, dvsentery, tuberculosis, and rheumatic fever. In man), settlements, virtually every child has been afflicted with impetigo, scabies, and other skin diseases. Up to 50 percent of the children suffer some degree of malnutrition.
"it is not true that we don't want progress," says a Penan woman. "We want schools and clinics. But give us our customan, rights to the land first. Stop logging, and then we can decide on development at our own pace."
"This house the government gave us is good," says a relocated Penan, "but it is useless if we have no food. We want to fish and hunt. Tourists see the new house and think we are happy. We are not. First we want our forest. We want to be Penan."
Malaysian officials contend that there are only a few hundred nomadic Penan left in the forest, too few, they say, to warrant special attention. But in addition to the Penan, there are hundreds of thousands of other indigenous people who still depend upon the forest. The government believes that these people should be joining the modern world. "We'd like to take them out of the jungle. Give them a decent modern living," said Mrs. Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry in N lay 1992. When queried about opposition to logging in Sarawak, she said, "It has nothing to do with logging, actually. It's got to do with the existence of what was originally six thousand members of the Penan tribe who were for a long time living in the tropical forests of Sarawak.... Now at this point there are about three hundred odd of these Penan still resisting to come out of the jungle.... I mean we're talking about 1992. We're talking about the twenty-first century. We cannot afford to have some of our population still hunting monkeys."
Mrs. Aziz responded strongly to a British television program that showed a Penan woman reacting with alarm to the disappearance of wildlife in the forest. It was getting harder and harder, said the woman, for her children to find monkeys or other meat. "Big deal!" said Mrs. Aziz. "The Europeans in England are saying that this woman is being deprived of a decent livelihood. I mean, she talks about children going to shoot monkeys. We're talking about children using computers.... People still shooting monkeys. Big deal! Some people actually believe this is the way these people should live. No schools. No nothing. Let them go walking around in a loin cloth.... We have this [fascination for~ exotic tribal life. Therefore don't touch this and don't touch their cultural heritage, their burial grounds, and so on. And therefore stop logging. That is sick."
In March 1992, a handwritten note smuggled out from the Penan deep in the Sarawak forest told a different story. "We would like to send messages to all the world who are in support of our struggle to halt the logging," wrote Penan leaders, who for ten months had been with Mutang on the logging road blockade. "The Malaysian authorities say that foreigners have no rights to protect our forests. But we believe in you and hope you will help us."
The Penan message to the world went on to say that when the riot police came with helmets, weapons, and tear gas to break up the blockade,
"there were only a few of us at the blockade. If we continued to stay we would be killed.... The Malaysian authorities say that we have no rights to these lands. But our people have always been living in Sarawak. We have rights. We look to you in the outside world to assist us in our struggle. If you do not assist us, soon we will die in the hands of the Malaysian authorities."
After the Earth Summit in Brazil, Mutang Urud resolved his agonizing decision by choosing to live in exile in Canada. When I called to talk with him, he said,
"I realized that I could help my people more from out here. I can get them the most current information and put them in touch with others who want to help. This will make them aware and strengthen their resolve. And I can also prepare myself for the day when I finally return home to my country."p In exile, Mutang was separated from his family and could not join his people in blockading the logging roads. But he could try to reason with other countries that are extinguishing his people by buying so much timber from Sarawak. Japan is the worst offender. With about 2 percent of the world's population, it has become the World's leading importer of tropical hardwoods. More than 90 percent of Japan's hardwood log imports come from the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Most of these logs are pressed into plywood, used once or twice for concrete forms, and then discarded.
Mutang traveled to Japan to appeal to Prime Minister Miyazawa and other chief ministers. He explained how in areas that are logged, the fish, wild animals, birds, sago palms, and medicinal plants disappear. He described how hundreds of his people's graveyards have been bulldozed away. He said,
"We have done everything in our power to bring these issues to the attention of our government and the logging companies, but these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. That is why I have been forced to come to Japan, which is the number one importer of timber from Sarawak. As long as you continue to buy timber from our lands, you are directly involving yourselves in the destruction of our livelihood, tradition, and culture."
When Mutang makes such public statements, Malaysian officials usually go to great lengths to try to discredit him. Ironically, he could be their greatest ally. If people like Sarawak's Chief Minister Taib Mahmud maintain their present policies, history will judge them harshly. What others have tried to do with guns and gas chambers, these policy makers are inadvertently doing with chain saws and bulldozers. The extermination of a people is extermination, no matter how it is done. Rather than plunging ahead with logging practices that are extinguishing the Penan and other indigenous peoples, the Malaysian officials could take the lead in finding ways to balance resource development with the preservation of native lifestyles.
The next time I saw Mutang he was at the global meeting that inaugurated 1993 as the Year of the Indigenous People at the United Nations in New York. When his moment came, Mutang rose, walked to the podium of the General Assembly, looked out over the great ampitheater of nations, and said, "The Malavasian government says that it is bringing us progress and development. But all we see are dusty logging roads and relocation camps. For us, their so-called progress means only starvation, dependence and helplessness, the destruction of our culture, and the demoralization of our people. The government says it is creating jobs for our people. But these iobs will disappear along with the forest.
"A high government official once told me that in order to have development, someone must make a sacrifice. Why should it be us who must make this sacrifice? We have already given so much. We have already become poor and marginalized. Now there is nothing left for us to sacrifice except our lives.
" For defending our way of life, we have been called greenies, traitors, and terrorists. Our lives are threatened by company goons. Our wornen are raped by loggers who invade our villages. While the Companies get rich from our forests, we are condemned to live in poverty."
Mutang paused for a moment. His voice, cracked with emotion.
"Must people die before you respond? Must there be war and blood running in the streets before the United Nations will come to a people's assistance? Even though we are desperate, our people have avoided violence. We have used only peaceful methods of protest. Why does this organization, which is dedicated to peace, not listen to the pleas of a peaceful people?"