A fine example of investigative journalism

By MeeWun Lee, 23 March 2015

Over 90% of Sarawak's (East Malaysia on the island of Borneo) forest cover has been lost in one generation. It has one of the areas of highest biodiversity. The value of the forest stolen is estimated to be over US$50 billion and yet the indigenous peoples whose forest it is, are poorer than ever. The chief beneficiary of this devastating rainforest denudation is the ex-Chief Minister of Sarawak (now Governor). Abdul Taib Mahmud and his cronies – the mega specialist rainforest timber companies such as Samling, Shin Yang, WTK, Ta Ann (with susidised timber interests of $45 million in Tasmania and paying no taxes), and Rimbunan Hijau (translated as Green Wild Forest), aided by the ex-PM of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir. As if this is not enough, these companies have been exploiting rainforests, both legally and illegally in New Guinea, Guyana, Cambodia, Brazil, Solomon Islands, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, etc. and even extending to Russia.
This book is a fine example of superbly thorough investigative journalism on how Taib cleverly hid his business interests so that this spectacularly rapacious theft of timber and land from indigenous communities could not be traced to him. The connection was finally made when the author was contacted by an insider-whistle-blower, Ross Boyert in 2010, who was driven to suicide by unrelenting harassment from Taib business. As Taib’s UK law firm, Mishcon de Reya said ‘This book will cause colossal and irreversible harm to our client's reputation’. As yet, no defamation case has been instigated.

Taib abused his public office to enrich himself, his four children, his siblings and his cronies. He said at a public event in 2010 that he had ‘more money than I can ever spend during my lifetime’. The Taib family has stakes in over 400 companies in 25 countries. He is estimated to be worth US$15 billion. Not bad for the oldest child of 10 siblings of an impoverished Melanau/Malay carpenter employed by Shell.

His fortunes have moved through the world’s banks mostly by hidden means, in Zurich, London, Sydney, San Francisco, Ottawa etc. He has businesses in banks, property and the stock market. If you use any of these institutions, this book is relevant to you. This is let alone your interest in indigenous rights and loss of their culture, theft on a stellar scale and concerns about loss of habitat and climate change.

The author is the director of Bruno Manser Fund. Bruno Manser was a Swiss who lived with the rainforest Penans for a number of years. He helped publicise the theft of their timber and lands by protesting and using blockades against the might of the timber interests. Bruno Manser went missing under very suspicious circumstances in a jungle trek in Sarawak and was never found again. He is presumed dead. Today the Penans and other indigenous peoples continue fighting land right cases in the courts and are calling for the preservation of a tiny piece of rainforest reserve – the ‘Penan Peace Park’. See http://www.selungo.com

When I first read the book, I had the blasphemous thought that the British who relinquished their Malay colony should have remained. At least they did not exploit the rainforest to the state it is today and if they did they would probably never have gotten away with it. This is how democracies work. The Kenyah, Kayan and Penan peoples had opposed joining Malaysia right from the start. How far-sighted.

First their lands were stolen, their primary forest cut from under them, their food resources became scarce and water supplies muddied. When they were forced to live a sedentary life cultivating their land, the bulldozers moved in without notice and permission to flatten the land to plant oil palm. Finland is one of the biggest buyers of this ‘sustainable’ bio resource.

Samling’s subsidiary, Barama was able to get the Forest Stewardship Council with WWF Guiana’s’ backing to certify their timber as ‘sustainable’. Furthermore in pursuit of more profit making, the aptly named SCORE ‘Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy’ project has been afoot to dam Sarawak’s rivers for hydroelectricity. The infamous Bakun Dam is one such example, hectares of land were flooded displacing whole communities. Currently the site of Baram Dam is being blockaded and has been for the last 2 years.

Norway is one country that has divested itself from Malaysian rainforest interests. At the same time, Taib’s architect for building dams and coal-fired power stations is the Norwegian Torstein Dale Sjøtveit. For Aussies you may be interested to know that Taib completed his law degree at Adelaide Uni. He has donated funds such that he was awarded an honorary doctorate and ‘Taib Mahmud Court’ at the Uni is named after him.

Without realizing it you probably use rainforest timber such as merit (architrave, doweling), jelutong (picture frames, drawing board) merbau (furniture, skirting board) – these come from the rainforests of Malaysia. For the full list refer to

Malaysia along with countries such as Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and North Korea has not ratified the International covenant on civil and political rights. The media is controlled and owned by the government, dissent is met with imprisonment, racial discordance is whipped up at the slightest pretence, the opposition is harassed and slapped with sodomy and sedition charges, police intimidation is rife, corruption and money laundering is normalized, brain drain and money drain flow out of the country freely, public funded multi-billion projects collapse without being subjected to scrutiny, the independence of the judiciary is compromised, the list goes on. This book speaks for indigenous rights. All of us should be interested.

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