A Swiss environmental group has persuaded an international hotel chain to help safeguard the rights of one of Malaysia's indigenous peoples, the Penan.
The Basel-based Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), said it had received assurances from the Accor hotel group that it has asked its Malaysian partner, the logging group Interhill, "to commit themselves, in writing, to the progressive establishment of social responsibility measures".
Interhill, which is building a prestigious hotel in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, has repeatedly come under fire for its destructive logging practices in the rainforests that form the basis of the Penan people's livelihood.
In September 2008 the BMF, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), also accused Interhill lumberjacks of being involved in "several cases of the sexual abuse of Penan women and girls".
The BMF wants Accor to ensure that the same standards are enforced in the Malaysian rainforest as in Switzerland's mountain forests, where the local communities have a say in how the area is used and receive payment for the timber.
On the line
A lot is at stake in the Kuching hotel project, designed to cater both for businessmen – mainly in oil, timber and agriculture – and for (eco)tourists, coming to see unspoiled rainforest.
The town of Kuching wants to put itself on the map with a luxury hotel operating under an international brand. And Interhill is keen to have its hotel managed by Accor's professionals.
"It wouldn't do Accor's reputation any good if the public were to connect its project in Borneo with the destruction of environment and the violation of human rights, " BMF's director, Lukas Straumann, told swissinfo.
"And it would be a humiliation for the Sarawak government if Accor were to pull out of the project."
BMF is exploiting the possible damage to the reputations of Accor and Interhill to put pressure on the companies.
"In its campaign our organisation has collected about a thousand signatures online, another 3,200 on paper, and 3,800 more via like-minded NGOs, demanding that social standards be met," said Straumann.
The BMF is named after Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser, who fought to bring the problems of the Penan people to international attention. He disappeared in Sarawak in 2000 and is now presumed dead. Many of his supporters believe he paid for his commitment to the Penan with his life.
The Penan see their lifestyle as being threatened by the activities of logging companies in the rain forest. Not only are the trees being destroyed, but the Penan say it is also contaminating their drinking water sources.
Their position is made more difficult by Malaysia's ethnic complexity and delicate balance of power. The native Muslim Malay population make up half the population and are the politically dominant force. Malaysians of Chinese descent – about a quarter of the total – are economically influential.
Interhill, run by Chinese Malaysians, has been given its concessions by the Malay-dominated central government. This has put them on a collision course with small aboriginal peoples like the Penan, who number only about 10,000, and who have the reputation for not taking more from the forest than they actually need themselves.
Straumann suggests that Switzerland's experience could be helpful in cases like that of the Penan.
"Whether we take the classic example of paying mountain communities for the water used for power generation, of the exploitation of communally owned forests and meadows, from a Swiss perspective the demands of indigenous communities to control their natural sources are perfectly reasonable."
He drew a parallel between the rainforest and Switzerland's mountain forests, which play an essential role in protecting the valleys from avalanches.
"Just suppose a 'central government' in Bern were to allow someone to cut down one of the protective forests belonging to a mountain community in canton Valais, without giving the villagers a say."
Meanwhile, the BMF is keeping up its pressure on Accor.
While the hotel group says it is pursuing similar aims "especially in relation to local development and to the battle against the sexual exploitation of children," Interhill has yet to respond.
swissinfo, based on an article in German by Alexander Künzle
Bruno Manser Fund (BMF)
The Basel-based NGO campaigns for threatened tropical rainforests and the rights of their inhabitants.
It focuses its activities on the Penan people of Sarawak in particular.
It conducts projects in Malaysia and projects and campaigns in Europe.
The fund takes its name from Bruno Manser, a long-term campaigner for the Penan, with whom he lived between 1984 and 1990.
He encouraged them to resist loggers by means of peaceful road blockades.
On his return to Switzerland, he set up the BMF to publicise the Penan cause.
Manser disappeared on a return visit to Sarawak in 2000, and was officially declared dead in 2005.
The Paris-based hotel group operates in nearly 100 countries.
It has more than 4,000 hotels worldwide in four different categories, and employs 150,000 people.
Its brands include what it calls the budget Formule 1, the economy Ibis, upscale Novotel and upper-upscale Sofitel.
It currently has four hotels in Malaysia.
The hotel in Kuching is supposed to be a Novotel.