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Legacy of rainforest "Robin Hood" lives on

Bruno Manser is officially dead but not forgotten Keystone Archive

Environmentalist Bruno Manser has been declared officially dead by a Swiss court, five years after he disappeared in the Malaysian jungle.

This content was published on March 11, 2005 - 09:47

But Manser’s efforts to save the rainforest have not been forgotten and continue to influence attitudes towards tropical wood.

"It’s five years since Bruno vanished without a trace, so it’s not just a legal step, but also a symbolic one," said Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fund, set up by the environmentalist to spearhead his campaign.

"Friends and family have had to say farewell to him in stages."

Manser became a household name in Switzerland in the 1990s, when he staged a spectacular 60-day hunger strike outside parliament in Bern to highlight the plight of Malaysia’s Penan tribesmen.

The Penan, who still live a nomadic lifestyle in the forests of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, are threatened by illegal logging practices that encroach on - and destroy - their habitat.

Manser became interested in the Penan in the 1980s and often clashed with the Malaysian authorities and timber companies as he defended tribal land rights.

Hero

"Bruno Manser is still a hero to the Penan because he made their struggle known to the world," Straumann told swissinfo. "He also made a stand when fighting deforestation and related human rights violations was not very popular."

The environmentalist spent six years living with the tribesmen. He was banned from Sarawak after launching his campaign against rainforest logging.

He disappeared in May 2000, when he is believed to have entered Sarawak secretly. Investigations by the Malaysian police and Swiss activists failed to find any trace of Manser.

Many of his friends believe he was killed because of his campaign, which embarrassed the Malaysian government and earned him plenty of enemies along the way.

But despite vanishing, Straumann says that Manser has had a powerful influence on attitudes towards tropical wood. "He is the person who made it headline news in Switzerland," he added.

Robin Hood

Manser’s influence didn’t stop with the public. "He was instrumental in convincing both the administration and the Swiss population of the importance of the tropical wood issue," said Hans-Peter Egler of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).

Straumann said that people admired the environmentalist for standing up for others.

"I think that in every human being there is a small Bruno Manser. He was a kind of Robin Hood struggling for the oppressed."

Egler added that the activist’s experience and personality also played a role.

"The Swiss support more rational use of tropical wood resources because of Bruno Manser," he told swissinfo. "He was credible because he lived what he said. His own experience gave him that credibility."

Tropical timber imports peaked in Switzerland in the 1970s, but they have dropped substantially since then. But a recent WWF report claimed that up eight per cent of all imported wood is of illegal origin.

Around 23,000 cubic metres of rainforest timber are imported each year, according to the Swiss environment agency, but it is almost impossible to estimate the value of this wood. It constitutes roughly 0.3 per cent of all the timber used in Switzerland.

Heritage

Straumann says this small volume is at least in part because consumers don’t want to buy wood from unknown sources and don’t want to see the rainforests destroyed. But he adds that this may not be enough.

"When we look at Sarawak, we can see that many of the primary forests Bruno was trying to protect have disappeared," he told swissinfo. "There are still some small pockets of forest, but the Penan living there are struggling to keep the loggers away."

China and Japan are now considered the prime destinations for tropical timber, even though prices are better in Europe.

Manser’s legacy might even have a chance to live on in Sarawak if a project under discussion is finalised. According to Straumann, the environmentalist had suggested setting up a biosphere reserve over a very large area.

"The Sarawak government is talking about giving the Penan some areas, but so far this is purely rhetorical," he added. "On the ground, the opposite is happening."

The idea of a national park has also been given short shrift by the tribesmen, who fear they would become poachers on their own territory. They prefer to defend their land rights.

A project extending a conservation reserve is still on the cards. According to Seco, a first steering committee meeting should take place in May in Malaysia.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

Bruno Manser lived in Borneo from 1984 to 1990, studying and recording the language, culture and way of life of the Penan.
He left Sarawak in 1990 and began lecturing about the Penan.
In 1993 he held a hunger strike outside parliament in Bern to protest against imports of tropical wood from Borneo.
In 2000 he headed back to Sarawak despite a Malaysian government ban.
He has been considered missing since May 25, 2000.

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In brief

The Pulong Tau protected area in western Sarawak - the region where the Penan live – could be extended from 50,000 hectares to 125,000.

Bruno Manser had called for this area to benefit from higher protection, and plans are to exclude all logging from this region.

The local government is discussing the project with members of the International Tropical Timber Organization - including Switzerland – which are contributing financially.

There are fears though that if the project becomes a national park, the Penan will have to leave.

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