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ICE Case Number 191

The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest, by Karine Roche

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Tree extraction and road building are destroying the Sarawak forest canopy. Logging contractors are blamed for this destruction and are accused, by tribal people, of not protecting the wildlife, water, wood resources and soil of the Borneo rainforest. Part of the Borneo rainforest is occupied by the Penan for whom the forest plays a central role in their lives. The landscape they have inhabited for generations has become a place of despair. The few remaining Penan are resisting encroachment by loggers and state-sponsored development projects that are disrupting their peaceful existence. The prevailing rate of forest destruction not only has serious consequences on the ecology of the region but it is also annihilating the local indigenous culture. The future looks bleak for the Penan who are, at present, fighting a losing battle. The plight of the natives is an all-emcompassing issue that involves the environment, the economy, justice and the constitutional right of the Sarawak population.

2. Description

"In the time of our fathers the tropical rain forests stood immense, inviolable, a mantle of green stretching across entire continents. That era is no more. Today in many parts of the tropics the clouds are made of smoke, the scent is of grease and lube oil, and the sounds one hears are of machinery, the buzz of chain saws, and the cacophony of enormous reptilian earth movers hissing and moaning with exertion. It is a violent overture, like the opening notes of an opera about war, a war between humans and the land, a wrenching terminal struggle to make the latter conform to the whims and designs of the former."
Excerpt from the book "Nomads of the Dawn" (Wade Davis).
  "I say to my country, and to other developing countries, that in our race to modernize, we must respect the ancient cultures and traditions of our peoples. The wealth of indigenous communities lies not in money or in commodities, but in community, tradition, and a sense of belonging to a special place. The world is rushing toward a single culture. We should pause, and reflect on the beauty of diversity."
Speech of Anderson Mutung Urud at the United Nations.


On September 24, 1841, the Sultan of Brunei awarded the British adventurer, James Brooke, the feudal title of Rajah over Sarawak for quelling a local rebellion. James Brooke laid the foundations of a family dynasty that ruled the area until 1946 when it ceded control of Sarawak to Britain. Sarawak was briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II. In 1963, Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia.
Sarawak, the largest of Malaysia's thirteen states, encompasses 38% of the entire Malaysian territory. This state enjoys a landscape of tropical rainforests, soaring mountains, rivers and caves. Sarawak is also known for its unique pinnacles that are carved by wind and water and look like blades of glass. The land of Sarawak conjures images of exoticism, wildness and beauty to its visitors.
Sarawak has a total population of 1.2 million people. Within Sarawak, there are twenty six ethnic groups. Among them are the indigenous aboriginal people known as the Penan, the last surviving nomadic hunter-gatherers. The Penan occupy the remote interior of Sarawak. Approximately 7,000 Penan survive today, of whom around 300 are nomadic. The Penan usually travel in groups of fifteen to forty people.


Those who have come in close contact with the Penan describe them as simple, gentle, shy and warm-hearted people. There is no hierarchy in the Penan community. Each member takes responsibility for their own actions. Moreover, they have no concept of private ownership. The whole community shares resources. The Penan value sharing because of the uncertainty of their way of life and they are recognized for their generosity.

a) The significance of the forest:
The Penan live in harmony with nature. The forest is economically and culturally a significant place. The forest is sacred to this tribe because it provides their food, shelter, medicine, tools and poison for hunting. It is also a place that fulfills their spiritual needs. It is not surprising that they treat the forest with care and utmost respect.

Their intimacy with nature has allowed the Penan to be exceptionally skilled at explaining and predicting the forest's complex phenomena. For instance, the Penan anticipate blossoming cycles and predict animal behavior. Passage of time is measured by the diverse activities taking place in the forest. The sounds of the forests guide them and prepare them for action.

b) Forest management:
A workshop on Penan development held in 1992 concluded: "To them, it is very important that the forest resources be managed and maintained in perpetuity to support not only present, but also future generations. In fact, they practice a sustained yield concept of forest resource management and have a sense of stewardship towards the forest. This makes them very protective of the surrounding forest. The Penan culture has its orientation in the forest environment. Their history and ecological knowledge are encoded in the river system, peculiar landscape, types of vegetation, etc." Evidently, the history of the Penan is deeply embedded in the landscape. They depend on it for their livelihood.

The notion of stewardship is encapsulated in molong, a concept that defines how the community organizes access to resources. The practice of molong informs the manner in which the Penan use the forest environment. The whole idea is to preserve forest resources for future harvest. Preservation also implies meeting the needs of future generations. For example, when the Penan molong a fruit tree, they place an identifying sign on it like a cut to announce to other communities that the tree needs to be preserved. This system is a means of monitoring resources and guaranteeing their long-term availability. "Penan harvesting is based on the principle of sustained yield. When harvesting sago, they cut only one or two of several trunks, leaving the palm to resprout. They never cut down the entire plant at the root clump as this would kill it. Similarly, mature rattan is selectively harvested, allowing the young rattan plants to mature for future collection. Fruits are plucked from the tree or allowed to fall for collection rather than cutting down the whole tree. In their overall harvesting strategy, the Penan hunter-gatherers migrate from one area that has been harvested to another where resource replenishment has taken place."(Workshop on Penan Development, 1992).

c) Communication:
The Penan maintain a dialogue with others by means of sign-sticks, branches, and leaves to convey messages. This type of communication tells other tribes of their travel route, indicates whether food is available, identifies burial sites and alerts of any dangers like disease, etc.

d) Activities:
Men hunt (wild boar and deer), and women raise the children, and prepare food. The Penan meet their subsistence needs by hunting wild game and gathering sago and fruits. They also fish extensively. Central to these hunting and gathering activities is the idea of distributing the fruits of their labor into equal shares among all members of the community.

Although the Penan live a primitive existence, they are the best craftsmen. They make their hunting weapon, the blowpipe, which is a six to eight feet ironwood shaft with an iron blade on one end. Additionally, they make musical instruments. Women make woven items such as mats and baskets.

e) Home:
The traditional dwelling of the Penan is the sulap. Their shelter is small and simple and serves primarily to protect them against the rain. It is made with tree branches. The Penan only live in these shelters temporarily. They are constantly moving around the forests. Their mobility allows them to avoid exhausting all the resources of one particular area.

f) Dress:
The Penan wear a chawat, a loincloth that enables them to keep cool and to move silently and swiftly through the forest. They travel light and keep few belongings because they carry everything on their backs and are highly mobile.

g) Trade:
The Penan are not entirely self-sufficient and isolated. Trade with other communities is actually a major component of the Penan economy. These contacts permit them to acquire information from the outside world and exchange essential goods. They trade essential commodities with other non-nomadic people. The Penan trade handicrafts and meat in exchange for items such as iron, cooking utensils, salt and tobacco.


The Penan believe that their fate is inescapably linked to the fate of the environment. Ironically, this belief may be close to a disheartening reality. For more than a decade, the Penan have been defending their pristine land and culture against the intrusion of logging companies. After repeated unheeded appeals to the government, the Penan have opted for direct confrontation. They have frequently blockaded logging roads in an effort to resist destruction to their land, and to draw the government's attention to their concerns. In March 1987, the Penan began their direct action campaign to slow the pace of logging operations. The longest blockade ever recorded occurred in 1993 and lasted seven months.
On November 25, 1987, the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly amended the State Forest Ordinance and included a provision that made blockading a criminal offense. State officials were given the right to dismantle the blockades. In addition, anyone who attempted to disrupt the flow of timber could face two years of imprisonment and a fine of M$6,000. Since the imposition of this legislation, many tribal people have been arrested and imprisoned. There have been numerous accounts that many have been mistreated while in detention. Not only has blockading come at a high price, it has also diverted the Penan from their regular activities. Indeed, such distraction has created more pains than gains. The Penan have suffered from food shortages among other dire consequences that have affected their subsistence as well as their survival. However, the Penan insist they can no longer be passive and that they must take the matter in their own hands to save their only life source.


The Penan's protests against the continuing environmental and human rights abuses have attracted worldwide attention. Organizations like Survival and World Wildlife Fund have identified commercial logging as the primary cause of the extinction of wildlife in Sarawak. Logging activities have brought adverse environmental degradation, river pollution, and the endangerment of animal and plant species.
Individuals like Bruno Manser have also exposed the plight of the Penan. Manser is a Swiss environmental and human rights activist who had overstayed his temporary visit pass in Sarawak in 1984. He lived with the Penans for almost a decade and pursued their cause on their behalf. He was arrested by the Sarawak authorities for being the instigator behind the blockades.
On July 1988, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling its Member States to suspend imports of timber from Sarawak. This European legislative body concluded that it caused environmental damage and threatened the lives of the native communities.
In May 1990, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) recommended Sarawak the reduction in the rate of logging.
From October 8 to November 24, 1990, three representatives of the native people of Sarawak pubicly expressed their concerns to national and international organizations, parliamentarians, government ministers and the media around the world.
On October 26, 1990, then Senator Al Gore introduced a resolution to the United States Senate calling for an end of environmental exploitation and the upholding of the natives' traditional land rights.


There are 10.28 million hectares of forest land in Sarawak. Environmentalists estimate that seventy percent of Sarawak's original forests have disappeared, at a rate nearly twice that of the Amazon Rainforest. Forest clearing is taking place because of its profitability. Indeed, the timber trade is a lucrative business. It has been estimated that 50% of the total global export of tropical logs has come from Malaysia. It is also the largest source of export revenue for the state government of Sarawak ($1.5 billion). Japan is the largest importer of logs from the state of Sarawak (See Table 3).
In 1983, Malaysia alone exported 18.8 million cubic meters as compared to 23.2 million cubic meters by all of Asia and 32.4 million cubic meters worldwide. Malaysia exported around RM14.2 billion of timber products in 1998. The recipient countries use tropical wood for chopsticks and furniture. Most of it ends up in the richer industrialized countries. The revenue derived from timber exports is only beneficial for the short term. The forests should not become a resource to exploit for short-term gain. At the present rate, Malaysia could become a net wood importer.
When the primary forests were almost entirely depleted in Peninsular Malaysia, the timber industry turned to Sarawak. In 1985, Sarawak accounted for 39% of Malaysia's total log production. Today, it accounts for a much larger share (See Table 1). Between 1963 and 1985, 30% of Sarawak's total forest area was logged representing 2.8 million hectares. Two-thirds of the remaining rainforest was licensed for commercial timber use. In 1971, Sarawak was exporting 4.2 million cubic meters of wood annually. In 1985, this figure reached 10.6 million cubic meters. In 1990, 18.8 million cubic meters of wood were exported.
Control of the logging industry is concentrated in the hands of a few who maintain close ties with political leaders. The benefits of logging are not evenly distributed. There have been numerous scandals in the last few years over accusations of nepotism. Timber concessions are often granted to close relatives and friends of political figures. Furthermore, logging companies that have obtained permits to log the area often don't consult or pay compensation to the original inhabitants of the forest. Blinded by profit motivation, these companies tend to ignore the human and environmental impact of their actions.


Matters of defense, security, taxation and control of petroleum reserves come under the authority of the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. The state government of Sarawak retains control of its forest resources, land tenure and use. Forest resource management comes under the Forest Ordinance of 1953. This law divides the Sarawak land into Permanent Forests and Stateland Forests. Permanent Forests are those that have been selected to be protected to serve the forests needs of the State while Stateland Forests are available for specific purposes. Permanent forests comprise three types of forests: Forest Reserves, Protected Forests and Communal Forests. Entry into Forest Reserves is strictly forbidden (except for licensees). Natives are not allowed to farm, gather, hunt or fish. On the Protected Forests, customary tenure is not permitted but the natives are allowed to collect, hunt and fish provided they are officially granted this authorization. Communal Forests are only set aside for the enjoyment of settled communities to satisfy their domestic needs. Absolute control is vested in the Forestry Department. The Forestry Minister has the power to revoke Communal Forests upon mere notification in the Gazette. As a result, it has significantly curtailed the rights of the natives to exercize their customary land rights. Evelyne Hong argues in her book "Natives of Sarawak" that land and forestry laws are designed to restrict the rights of the natives to control their land (i.e. limiting their movement and activities) and to serve the interests of the timber industry.
The Penan rever the land and they claim to have the inalienable right of owning it. This principle is enshrined in adat law. Adat law maintains that the community as a group exercises the rights to the land. Each member obtains the share of common benefits to be derived from the land. The Penan have no real legal basis for claiming their land. The state government has given legal protection only to those who cultivate the land. Since these forest dwellers are dispersed and have no permanent settlements, the state government has denied them these rights. The Penan should be allowed to exercise their right to their ancestral land and their right to self-determination.


Since the time of the British, successive governments have attempted to draw the Penan out of the forest. In order to facilitate their development, the government has implemented policies that are project-oriented rather than people-oriented. Unfortunately, only material development has been considered. Authorities have not calculated the cost of the loss of cultural identity. They have also ignored the historical fact that the Penan have deliberately chosen not to compromise their traditions.
Exploitation of the Sarawak forests has taken place in the name of progress and economic development. The Penan, however, feel that development hasn't taken enough into account their needs. The government has encouraged them to settle down which is compromising their traditional way of life. Its goal has been to absorb the Penan into Malaysian society and force them to assimilate.
The Penan are not happy living a settled life. Life in the forest offers them an abundance of food and an easier way to take care of themselves and each other. Living in the forest also means preserving the communal living the Penan are used to. The dwellings that have been built by the government, known as the longhouses, do not suit them. The Penan who have been resettled live in crowded facilities with improper sanitation. Settling down has also pushed some Penan to practice agriculture and engage in the cash economy. Participation in the cash economy has led to hunger and impoverishment. Indeed, the annual lead of farming has not been sufficient to provide them food for a long period of time. Furthermore, the Penan are afraid that living in longhouses will accelerate the process of losing their customs, especially the prized custom of sharing. The longhouses separate and differentiate people. The forest allows the Penan to divide food equally among themselves and "forces" them to establish good relations with each other. The rigors of forest living makes each dependent on the other for survival. The Penan community has thrived on an intricate system of rights and obligations that functions well in the forest.
It is generally agreed that development brings about the improvement of the human condition but in the case of the Penan, development is taking place in a manner that neglects their interests and imposes an alien way of living that robs them of their identity. There is little wonder, then, why modernization is breaking their spirit.
In all matters affecting the interests of the Penan, they should be consulted. The Sarawak state government needs to encourage the Penan to become the agents in their own development. The Penan should have the right to decide and make their own decisions on matters affecting their future. Also, the pace of change must be at a rate they can absorb.


The International Labor Organization states in Convention 169 that tribal peoples have the right to collective ownership of their land. Therefore, it is time for us to take responsibility to protect the Penan's fragile ecosystem and its biological diversity, and to respect their traditional land rights. The Penan should be allowed to decide on the future course of their lives. According to the members of the Endangered Peoples Project who conducted field trips in Sarawak, it is the entire international community's duty to improve the plight of the Penan and "to reassess the relationship between modern industrial society and the ancient heritage of the earth". The forests of the Penan have become, in the words of Davis Wade, "a place of promise and tragedy."
Although the government has set aside several tracts of rainforest for the Penan's exclusive use to enable them to carry on their activities and practice their traditional way of life, deforestation will inevitably lead to the disappearance of their culture. If proper action is not taken soon, cultural genocide of the Penan will result. They are fast becoming an endangered people. There is a pressing need to respond to their demands and to halt the operations of the logging companies who are profiting from disturbing the Penan's ecosystem: destroying their unique fauna and flora. The Penan depend on the forest for their survival, hence, there is a valid argument that logging activities must be suspended or practiced with care (or use alternate sustainable methods). Destroying the forest cuts the life support system of the Penan.
Besides, the forest must be compared to a system. It is made of interconnected parts. If one part of the system is touched, it affects all the other parts. The destruction of tropical rainforests produces worldwide effects that include climatic changes and the depletion of the wealth of genetic material vital to pharmaceutical industries. The forests are home to plants with medicinal properties that our world needs and must preserve. In protecting the Penan, we are preserving their cultural heritage and the future of the tropical forests.

3. Duration

1988 to now

4. Location

Continent: Asia
Region: East Asia
Country: Malaysia

5. Actors

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem


7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict


Logging companies that are operating in the Malaysian state of Sarawak are destroying its forests and life is becoming immeasurably more difficult for the Penan. The eradication of the forests is forcing the most wrenching cultural changes on the Penan. It is destroying their means of subsistence and their way of life. The destruction to the environment along with the repercussions on the Penan culture call for some radical changes in the way wood is extracted in Sarawak.

The World Trade Organization (WTO), a multilateral organization that provides the framework for the conduct of international trade, has no specific agreement dealing with the environment. The objectives of sustainable development and environmental protection are stated in the preamble to the Agreement Establishing the WTO. The Preamble to the WTO Agreement includes direct references to the objective of sustainable development and to the need to protect and preserve the environment. The WTO has set up a committee to look at the relationship between trade and the environment. This agenda has been fueled by the increasing demand for environmentally-friendly goods.

The WTO should further expand its mandate and integrate environmental concerns, with the realization that trade, environment and culture are all interrelated. Maybe the WTO should encourage countries to erect barriers against exports of other countries on environmental grounds. These protectionist measures to protect the environment should be permissible, even if they hinder trade, provided they are justified and not excessive. In the case involving the Penan, a wood export ban would be a trade restrictive means to attain the goal of conserving a nation's forest. The measures taken should be transparent and not protectionist in impact and be consistent with WTO principles of non-discrimination.

The expansion of logging interests in tropical rainforest countries has been facilitated by the liberalization of markets. Liberalization policies tend to be implemented regardless of the environmental and social impacts associated with the operation of an industry sector such as logging. Some governments (such as Malaysia) withhold information on contracts, location of concessions and the impact of operations. They often have weak forestry and environmental laws and little enforcement capacity. As a result, extraction rates and the subsequent exports of logs are frequently inadequately monitored and usually unsustainable.

Many times, trade can be based on exploitation of natural resources and human beings and any international trade agreement that does not take into consideration these effects only perpetuates this exploitation. Therefore, it is important for the WTO to consider these issues when formulating trade policies. However, unfortunately, the gap between environmental and labor standards in developing and developed countries is preventing any kind of convergence between the two groups towards an agreement on this. Future WTO negotiations would necessarily need to resolve this significant tension to ensure that international trade truly benefits all.

There are more appropriate ways than the WTO for the Penan issue to be brought to the attention of the international community. Some suggestions follow: The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) is a better enforcement mechanism than the WTO in ensuring the preservation of the environment. The ITTO's objective is to ensure that only timber from sustainable forests is cut and traded on the world market. . Malaysia is a member of the ITTO and the ITTO has the capacity to monitor its actions; Various declarations by the United Nations attest to the idea that individuals have a right to satisfaction of their basic human needs (subsistence, security, and dignity). The legitimacy of a state is heavily dependent upon their securing these inalienable human rights. In addition, the right to self-determination of peoples presupposes free and autonomous peoples empowered to make their own decisions; The government of Malaysia should encourage the private actions of firms and consumers (eco-labeling, consumer boycotts, etc.) to protect the environment. The government should raise awareness within the timber industry of its impact on forests and forest peoples; Structural adjustment loans from organizations like the World Bank could be provided to reward developing countries that raise environmental standards.

10. Level of Conflict


The forests of Sarawak have been regarded in terms of their commercial value as an abundant supplier of raw materials for export. Sarawak is one of the largest exporters of tropical wood in the world. Most of the timber exported is destined for Asian markets (See Table 3). The timber industry is very important in providing income (See Table 1), foreign exchange, state revenue (See Table 4) and employment (See Table 5).

TOTAL 2,076,444 2,350,159,000 2,132,248 2,381,728,160 8,144,252 5,082,012,352

Source: Malaysia Timber Council (based on January-March 1998 data)

Table 1 indicates that the state of Sarawak produces the largest volume of Malaysia's timber products. It constitutes almost two-thirds of Malaysia's timber wood exports by volume and almost half of Malaysia's timber exports by value.


Volume (m3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (m3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (m3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (m3) FOB Value (RM)
LOGS 383,991 150,611,881 1,474,618 566,388,273 -7.3 23.2 -5.4 1.4
SAWN TIMBER 62,904 46,393,222 257,312 192,316,815 -28.3 -33.9 -30.6 -31.8
PLYWOOD 172,798 207,985,137 696,103 799,560,942 2.9 57.0 5.4 24.9
MOULDING n/a 3,781,807 n/a 14,083,208 n/a 44.8 n/a 42.6
DOWELS n/a 2,479,054 n/a 9,132,197 n/a -29.4 n/a -12.7
WOODCHIPS n/a 513,000 n/a 7,233,538 n/a -37.5 n/a 58.7
VENEER 44,780 37,786,739 165,741 137,948,004 30.5 57.4 10.7 14.3
FIBREBOARD 13,230 10,529,207 37,925 30,230,910 n/a n/a n/a n/a
PARTICLEBOARD 7,052 2,906,333 20,949 8,301,710 n/a n/a n/a n/a
GRAND TOTAL 684,755 462,986,380 2,652,648 1,765,195,597 -2.7 30.1 -3.2 8.5

Source: Malaysia Timber Council

Table 2 indicates that the largest components of Sarawak's timber exports are logs (approximately 55% of the total volume of timber products), followed by plywood (25% of the total) and sawn timber (10% of the total).


DESTINATIONS Volume (M3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (M3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (M3) FOB Value (RM) Volume (M3) FOB Value (RM)
CHINA 32,459 9,346,362 99,181 33,468,756 +125.1 +98.3 +123.3 +144.5
HONG KONG 28,188 5,967,944 57,541 12,628,276 -11.4 -19.4 -41.9 -42.2
INDIA 64,453 30,673,622 163,938 85,117,452 +141.9 +205.6 +36.9 +76.5
JAPAN 109,150 38,212,602 479,383 193,373,075 -31.2 -33.4 -22.3 -17.1
PAKISTAN - - 8,622 4,854,003 - - +100.0 +100.0
SINGAPORE 499 348,665 998 535,105 +100.0 +100.0 +100.4 +321.0
SOUTH KOREA 18,247 5,936,144 38,698 14,994,482 -40.3 -48.9 -58.6 -56.4
TAIWAN 117,915 32,323,368 265,880 81,193,860 +58.1 +50.3 +16.2 +18.0
THAILAND 15,158 4,882,019 30,635 10,170,332 -41.7 -48.6 -51.4 -52.6
GRAND TOTAL 386,069 127,690,726 1,144,876 436,335,341 +3.8 +2.7 -10.7 -2.3

Source: Malaysia Timber Council

Table 3 indicates that the largest importers of logs from Sarawak are Japan and Taiwan. These destinations together import more than half of Sarawak's log exports.


1980 1990 1995 1996 1997 1998
SECTORS VALUE (RM'000) (%) VALUE (RM'000) (%) VALUE (RM'000) (%) VALUE (RM'000) (%) VALUE (RM'000) (%) VALUE (RM'000) (%)
AGRICULTURE, LIVESTOCK AND FISHERY 510 14.6 634 9.7 701 7.3 764 7.1 840 7.4 954 8.1
FORESTRY 459 13.2 985 15.0 839 8.7 838 7.8 877 7.8 798 6.8
MINING AND QUARRYING 1,064 30.5 2,059 31.4 2,775 28.8 3,110 28.9 2,944 26.1 2,767 23.6
MANUFACTURING 268 7.7 856 13.1 1,846 19.2 2,267 21.0 2,510 22.2 2,711 23.1


Annual Statistical Bulletins, Sarawak:1980-1993
Yearbook of Statistics, Sarawak 1997
Yearbook of Statistics, Sarawak 1998
State Planning Unit, Sarawak

Table 4 indicates that forestry is an important part of the Sarawak economy, although its relative significance has diminished over the years. In 1980, the forestry sector contributed 13% of Sarawak's GDP. But this number declined to less than 8% by 1997 reflecting largely a huge jump in the share of manufacturing.


1982 (%) 1995 (%) 1997 (%)
Malaysia Sarawak Malaysia Sarawak Malaysia Sarawak
Agriculture, Fishery & Forestry 31.2 53.8 18.0 37.3 17.3 33.3
Mining & Quarrying 1 0.8 0.5 0.5 0.4 0.5
Manufacturing 15.5 7.6 25.9 11.1 23.4 14.8
Construction 7.2 5 8.3 8.8 9.3 9.3
Electricity, Gas and Water 0.7 0.6 0.9 0.7 0.6 0.7
Transport & Communication 4.2 2.6 4.9 3.5 4.9 4.5
Wholesale, Retail, Trade, Hotel & Restaurant 16.4 10.3 16.8 15.7 18.4 15.1
Financing, Insurance, Real Estate and Business Services 3.9 1.2 4.9 22.4 5.2 3.7
Community, Social, and Personal Services 19.9 18.1 19.8 22.4 20.5 18.2
Total Employment 4,817,000 454,937 7,383,400 789,200 8,784,000 831,500


1. Labour force participation rate for the Sarawak State in 1997 was 71.4% compared with the national figure of 65.6%.
2. Professional, technical and related workers accounted for only 9.1% of the total employment in Sarawak in 1997.


Yearbook of Statistics, Malaysia, 1996
Yearbook of Statistics, Sarawak, 1996 & 1998
Malaysia: State/District Data Bank, 1998

Reflecting the trends in production, table 5 indicates that forestry is a huge source of employment but is losing its relative importance. This is supported by the cumulative data for agriculture/fishery/forestry which employed 54% of the working population in 1982. But this number fell to 33% by 1997. This sector, however, still remains the largest employer in the Sarawak economy, employing one third of the Sarawak labor force.



"In a tropical forest, the cycle of growth and decay proceeds far more rapidly than in a temperate woodland. Fallen leaves begin to rot almost before they hit the ground, and the nutrients they contain are quickly drawn back up into the canopy. As a result the forest floor is virtually devoid of organic soil. This, coupled with the abundant rainfall, make deep root systems unnecessary. In fact, ninety percent of the roots do not penetrate further than twelve centimetres (five inches) into the ground. In the absence of deep root systems, many of the largest forest trees are supported by immense buttresses which flare out from the base of the trunk. In any other part of the world, these lands might be deserts. Only rainfall and temperature, and the rapid manner in which nutrients are recycled, insulate the forest from the poor quality of the soil and permit the luxuriant growth. The rain forest is quite literally a castle of immense biological sophistication built on a foundation of sand. The removal of this forest cover sets in motion a chain reaction of biological disaster. Temperatures increase dramatically, relative humidity falls, and rates of evapotranspiration drop precipitously. With the cushion of vegetation gone, torrential rains wash away the remaining nutrients and cause chemical changes in the soil. Much of the newly exposed ground, especially areas that have been compressed by heavy machinery, may turn into a rock hard pavement of red clay from which not a weed will grow. In other areas sun tolerant plants invade the clearings, growing into a wretched entanglement of half-hearted trees". (Source:

Deforestation is a critical problem not only because it depletes a natural resource of critical importance to the people of the region, but also because of its far-reaching side effects. Deforestation is a major factor contributing to a variety of other environmental problems, including desertification, soil erosion, flooding, mudslides, siltation and sedimentation, habitat destruction and species extinction, and salt and chemical degradation. It is accompanied by economic, health and social hardships brought about by people trying to live and cope with a drastically changed environment. Commercial logging not only depletes the forest resource, but affects its ability to regenerate. Selectively cutting an individual tree invariably damages several trees surrounding it. Logging roads are cut into tropical forests so that tractors and log-haulers can get in and this causes major erosion problems. Changes in the tree canopy caused by cutting alter the forest climate and affect the diversity and growth of other trees, low-growing plants and wildlife.

Wood extraction has caused extensive damage to Sarawak's natural landscape. Destructive logging practices seriously reduce the forests' ability to carry out vital environmental and ecological functions. Evidence of this severe environmental problem and accompanying effects are listed below:
- Chronic soil erosion
- Water pollution
- Flooding
- Destruction of primary forests
- Ecological disruption
- Climactic imbalances

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

13. Level of Strategic Interest


14. Outcome of Dispute:


V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Hong, Evelyne. Natives of Sarawak: Survival in Borneo's Vanishing Forests. Pulau Pinang, Malaysia: Institut Masyarakat, 1987.
Lau, Dennis. Penans: The Vanishing Nomads of Borneo. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia: Inter-State Publishing Company Sdn Bhd, 1987.
Manser, Bruno. Voices from the Rainforest: Testimonies of a Threatened People. Selangor, Malaysia: Bruno Manser Foundation and INSAN, 1996.
Rain, Andy and Nick Rain. Penan: Borneo's Hunters and Gatherers. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: S. Abdul Majeed and Company, 1992.
Wade, Davis. Nomads of the Dawn: The Penan of the Borneo Rain Forest. San Francisco, CA: Pomegranate Art Books, 1995.
Wade, Davis and Thom Henley. Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: S. Abdul Majeed and Company, 1990.
The Battle for Sarawak's Forests. Penang, Malaysia: World Rainforest Movement and Sahabat Alam Malaysia, 1990.
Workshop on Penan Development: Towards an Active Involvement of the Penan Community in Development. Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia: Angkatan Zaman Mansang, 1992.