Corruption, power and the destruction of Sarawak's forests

Chris Lang, The Ecologist, 24 December 2014

Sarawak's lucrative logging industry has given rise to dynasties of enormous wealth and political power, writes Chris Lang, as revealed in this courageous investigation by Lukas Straumann. And the kingpin is multi-billionaire Abdul Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak for 33 years, whose whose property empire spans the globe.

A small elite has become extremely rich from this destruction. At the top of the pile is Taib Mahmud, who was Sarawak's Chief Minister from 1981 to March 2014 and is now the Governor of Sarawak.

Sarawak, Malaysia, is the ground zero of deforestation. More than 95% of Sarawak's intact forest has gone.

In 2010, Sarawak accounted for 25% of tropical log exports, despite the fact that only 0.5% of the world's tropical forests are in Sarawak.

Samling and Rimbunan Hijau, two of the world's biggest timber conglomerates, started their destructive operations in Sarawak. Logging companies from Sarawak have operations covering a total of 18 million hectares in at least 12 countries.

A small elite has become extremely rich from this destruction. At the top of the pile is Taib Mahmud, who was Sarawak's Chief Minister from 1981 to March 2014 and is now the Governor of Sarawak.

Money Logging

A new book by the director of the Bruno Manser Fund, Lukas Straumann, documents the destruction and the criminal network that has profited from illegal timber sales and corruption.

Straumann singles out Taib as "the kingpin of this Asian timber mafia". He calculates that Taib's family has profited from the destruction to the tune of US$15 billion.

The book doesn't start in Sarawak. Straumann takes us to the USA and Canada, to look at part of the Taib family's real estate empire. Including, believe it or not, an office in Seattle rented by the FBI.

Predictably enough, Taib has reacted by trying to ban the book.

Locked out of the ITTO

Earlier this month, Straumann was in Tokyo to launch the English translation of his book at the International Tropical Timber Organisation's annual meeting.

But Straumann found himself locked out of the ITTO meeting. The Malaysian delegation to the ITTO moved to remove the Bruno Manser Fund's observer status to the ITTO. Sarawak Report writes that,

"According to BMF, the ITTO secretariat informed them on Sunday that the instruction to ban the NGO had come 'from the highest level of government in Kuala Lumpur'."

In the history of the organisation no NGO has ever been withheld observer status in such a way.

Threats of libel action from Taib's lawyers

Taib has also hired London-based law firm Mishcon de Reya to scare publishers into withdrawing the English version of Straumann's book with the threat of libel action.

Mishcon de Reya wrote to the Swiss publishers, Bergli Books, claiming that the book, "will cause colossal and irreversible harm to our client's reputation."

The letter from Mishcon de Reya focusses on an extract of the book, available on the book's website:

"The 6 page extract of the Book alone accuses our client of being a 'despot'; having committed crimes; earning billions of dollars illegallly from the timber trade; hiding that fortune abroad through sham companies; committing 'one of the greatest environmental crimes in history'; being a 'corrupt autocrat'; breaching international laws and regulation; using his profit from logging to feed corruption and finally having 'liquidated a forest to keep himself at the helm of state.'"

Mishcon de Reya write that "It is a fair assumption that the Book in its entirely [sic] will continue in this defamatory vein."

On 3 November 2014, Bergli Books responded:

"Today, Bergli Books announced it will publish as planned Lukas Straumann's Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia.

"Money Logging investigates what former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called 'probably the biggest environmental crime of our times' - the massive destruction of the Borneo rainforest by Malaysian loggers.

"The book is available on Amazon and the book's website,, provides a list of other retailers selling the book."

Bad for business

The website Sarawak Report notes that Mishcon de Raya has "landed their client in it" by pointing out that Taib is extremely wealthy and that the book could have an impact on Taib's business:

"Given the wealth of our client and the extreme seriousness of the allegations the losses will be substantial ... It is difficult to imagine a worse attack to an individual's business and personal reputation as stating as a fact that they are corrupt and a despot."

Taib came from a poor family. He won a scholarship to Australia and entered public service soon after leaving university. He has earned a modest salary ever since. The Constitution prevents holders of Chief Minister and governor of Sarawak from engaging in business.

'Highly corrupt'

A 2006 cable from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur (leaked by Wikileaks) notes that

"Embassy sources outside the government uniformly characterize him as highly corrupt ... Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts - including those for logging - awarded in the state."

On 17 November 2014, Sarawak's Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, invited the bosses of Sarawak's big six logging firms, KTS, Rimbunan Hijau, Samling, Shin Yang, Ta Ann and WTK, to sign "integrity pledges".

In front of an audience of state Cabinet members, civil servants and some of Sarawak's richest men, Adenan described corruption in Sarawak as "very bad, a reflection of what enforcement officers have not been doing".

Don't mess with Adenan?

"Don't mess with me", he told the meeting. He described the plunder of Sarawak's forests as "this robbery which is carried out in broad daylight".

While Adenan's comments are the first time that a Chief Minister has taken on the timber industry, as Sarawak Report points out,

"If Adenan Satem's real agenda is genuine reform, then he needs to tackle not only the timber industry and corrupt officials in the forestry department. He must also tackle political corruption and at the highest levels."

First in line for sacking should be Adenan's "own boss and long term political ally and relative and college friend, Taib Mahmud."

The book: Money Logging by Lukas Straumann.

This review was first published on REDD Monitor.

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