“Rainforest protector Bruno Manser is missing!” The headlines raced around the globe in 2000. The Swiss rainforest champion, researcher and human rights activist disappeared at the age of 46 from Borneo, where he had been living with his friends, the indigenous Penan.
Basel journalist and author Ruedi Suter, who covered Manser’s activities for years before writing his biography, Rainforest Hero, tells the story of Manser for swissinfo.ch.
Manser himself had become a member of the ancient Penan tribe. His commitment to the endangered native people garnered attention worldwide, and his reputation for honesty led Manser to be considered one of the most reputable environmental protectors of the 20th century. He was a citizen of the world who practised what he preached and looked more closely when others looked away.
“The Malaysian government’s and logging companies’ considerable interest in silencing Bruno Manser has been documented,” Basel’s civil court declared in 2003 at the end of its missing person investigation.
Manser, who grew up in Basel, loved life. But not at the price of ignorance, destruction, and exploitation. And not at the price of the industrial society in which he grew up, which too often lives from credit and thrives on the exploitation of indigenous peoples and nature. Manser’s asceticism provided a counterpoint to the opulent society he came from; his life was a radical return to simplicity.
Bruno Manser rejected the modern lifestyle wherever possible – countering with intelligence, creativity, stubbornness and humour. He rejected the idea of studying and became a shepherd, spending 11 years in the mountains, once saying: “I wanted to learn about everything we use in our day-to-day life.”
New life in an old world
So that he could apply what he had learnt, Manser began searching for a group of people with a primeval lifestyle, who relied on hunters and gatherers. No such people existed in Europe, so in 1984 he travelled to Borneo, in the Malaysian state Sarawak. He audaciously made his way through the primeval forest and discovered the Penan, a group of 300 families who lived as nomads there.
The Penan took in the peculiar stranger. He threw away everything he had come with: clothing, first-aid kit, toothpaste, shoes. Perched on his nose, only his eyeglasses remained. Manser forced himself to go barefoot, suffering at first from open sores. He regularly had to remove thorns with a knife. He learnt to withstand pain, because living with the Penan in the jungle meant living with pain. Walking barefoot became the norm. It was an act of liberation: the modern man was no longer dependent on shoes. He had triumphed over himself!
Manser soon gained the respect of the Penan for his willingness to adapt to their world – going barefoot and naked, suffering from hunger and humidity, fighting insects and leeches. Skin ulcers and malaria also became a part of his life. Eventually, he was able to move through the jungle like the Penan, hacking his way through underbrush with a machete, taking breaks in a squatting position, swimming across raging rivers, and fashioning a bed in the treetops for the night.
The simple life of the forest nomads appealed to him. It was as if he had been reunited with his long-lost family from a previous life. He had no interest in returning to the confinement, exhaust and noise of Switzerland, or to the masses of people who choked biodiversity and lived so removed from nature. People who searched for the meaning of life in technology, moneymaking, and the entertainment industry, but became increasingly sad and lost. Instead, Manser wanted to remain in the company of the simple, warm-hearted Penan. To share their sorrows and happiness, and to draw strength from the life-giving jungle.
In the view of the Penan, Manser was one of them – their ‘Laki Penan’. He, too, fished with a net, and hunted bears, apes, wild boars, deer and birds with a blow pipe and poison arrows, or with a spear and flint. He gathered wild berries and made flour from heart of palm. He learned their language, recorded his observations, and produced countless documents about people, animals, and plants.
Swiss shepherd Bruno Manser was working in Graubünden when he decided to move to Sarawak in 1984. He won the trust of the Penan, adopted their simple lifestyle, and ended up staying for six years before returning to Switzerland – from where he launched a tireless battle against the logging industry and its destruction of the jungle. (Images: Bruno Manser Fund)
Although he wasn’t homesick for Switzerland, memories of his family and friends provoked a latent nostalgia in Manser – heartache that caused him to send back letters and audio recordings, but would never compel him to voluntarily leave his new rainforest family. He had arrived in the paradise he had imagined, and nothing could ever drive him away.
Perhaps Manser was already aware of the destruction of this immense forest and its clear springs, its wildlife and flora. Already there were areas that had been ravaged by the timber companies with the blessing of a government that ignored land claims and the increasing struggles of the native people who were dependent on the forest for their livelihood.
For the politicians in Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching, the rainforest was free for the taking. The valuable hardwood was sold to industrial countries to provide them with ceiling beams, furniture, luxury yachts, window frames and broomsticks.
Manser’s expulsion from paradise began the first time he heard the whine of a chainsaw.
Simple life spokesman
The Penan asked him for help, and Manser organised blockades against the bulldozers. Suddenly he was catapulted into the role of strategist for the Penan’s non-violent resistance against the civilisation he had turned his back on – against corporations and a powerful state that used concessions and soldiers to destroy the habitat of the forest dwellers.
Manser was fair game: he was hunted, shot at, and declared public enemy number one. Film crews came to turn a spotlight on the courageous rainforest protector. For the global press the “white savage” was made the spokesman for the Penan. His appearance was modest, his voice quiet, his speech earnest. And all of a sudden, the world listened. Manser, the architect of the resistance, became the symbol of rebellion against the destruction of the world’s rainforests.
Spreading the word
Alarmed by the fact that the Penan’s habitat was being sacrificed to produce cheap wood for the international market, Manser returned to Switzerland in 1990 to transmit their plea: “Don’t build your houses out of our forest.”
In Basel, with the help of the human rights activist Roger Graf, Manser created the Bruno Manser Fund, which has since developed into a powerful rainforest protection organisation. The main goal: to convince consumers in industrial countries to forego wood from the rainforests.
Manser clearly identified the symbiosis between the hunter-gatherer societies and their habitats: “If the forest dies, the people die with it.” Gentle in style but unyielding in substance, he testified before international bodies such as the European Union, the United Nations, and the International Tropical Timber Organization, explaining the desperate situation of the Penan.
In Switzerland, Manser lived very modestly, worked around the clock, and travelled a lot. Repeatedly, he fought his way back to Borneo and the Penan. He became more radical, sensing that time was running out for the Penan.
Manser went on a hunger strike in Bern to bring attention to his cause, attempting to force mandatory declaration of the origins of wood and wood products – to no avail.
“The sated don’t want to understand the hungry,” he complained. The forest in Sarawak shrank further. Animals were driven out or poached. The once healthy Penan tribe was headed for destitution. By 1996, 70% of the primeval rainforests had been destroyed. Rainforest protectors tried to increase awareness of the problem in Europe and Sarawak through all sorts of daredevil campaigns. Nothing helped. In 2000, Bruno Manser returned to Borneo – and disappeared forever.
Was he murdered and disposed of without a trace? That was the most likely explanation. But it couldn’t be proven, any more than an accident or suicide. His disappearance remains a mystery.
Today, his family and friends no longer wait for Bruno Manser to return. They sense that he is near them, in their hearts and in their thoughts. Now and again they believe they hear his strong voice: “It is only deeds that count. Yours as well.”