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Everything of value is destroyed in the jungle of Borneo

The Borneo Case
Regissør: Erik Pauser Dylan Williams

The demise of the rainforest on Borneo has led to great progress and increased wealth – for the few. What do you do about it?


Beautiful pictures from the Borneo jungle flicker across the canvas. Trees, rivers, birds, animals and people – all live in symbiosis with each other. Then the perspective is shifted: the trees are cut down, palm oil plantations take over, while large dams submerge the forest and thus human habitats.

Here's how to present the documentary The Borneo Case the dramatic break between the conservation of the natural environment and the relentless progress of the growth mechanism. The film's final text emphasizes that the example could just as well have been the Amazon, Congo, Cameroon or Papua New Guinea. In all these areas, rainforests are being destroyed at a frightening pace. The jungle on Borneo has been around for 130 millions of years, but almost 90 percent of it has disappeared in a few decades. That mankind can do such a thing should be incomprehensible, but is instead baked into rows of seemingly rational grounds.

Man in focus

Topics like this can be illuminated from different points of view. For example, we could take a bird's eye view and go straight to the structures, the major players, the numbers and so on. Instead, the film gradually rolls out the story through individuals' thoughts and activities. Initially, we meet Bruno Manser, who lived in Malaysia's rainforest in the years 1984 – 90. He then became an international activist in the fight against the forest harvest, until he disappeared in the jungle in May 2000. With this, the tone is set. It is people's experiences that form the bottom line of the film, and the opportunities that lie in everything from activism to more diplomatic strategies.

In fact, targeted, systematic and long-term activism can make a difference, contributing to a better world.

One of the main characters is a man named Mutang Urud. Mutang grew up in the jungle and was an important supporter of Manser in the 1990 century. After being subjected to both imprisonment and torture, he fled to Canada and still has his involvement there. From Mutang, the lines are drawn to Malaysian Peter John Joban and Borneo-born British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown. These two run the London bases-
tea radio station Radio Free Sarawak, which was established with one, ambitious goal: to give the people of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo their own voice in public. Finally, we are introduced to Lukens Straumann, the leader of the Bruno Manser Foundation, who works for the same purpose; to save what is left of the rainforest.

Common enemy

For all these people, the mechanisms of destruction are their common enemy. In the film, this is largely rooted in one person, namely Abdul Taib Mah-
mud. He became a politician in Malaysia in the 1960 century, and had early political responsibility for forestry, industry and commercial activities. From 1981 he became prime minister of the state of Sarawak, with a modernization program based on turning natural resources into growth and progress. Not unlike what we have done in Norway, only that on Borneo it has cost considerably more in the form of destruction of irreplaceable nature.

In the terminology of the growth mechanism, Mahmud's long reign can be described as a success: Sarawak has become the world's largest exporter of tropical timber, and gross domestic product (GDP) has increased tremendously in a short time. At the same time, it is clear that this short-term economic upswing is based on the deterioration of humanity's long-term living conditions. This is how it is within the discourse of growth: people's well-being, here and now, can shape the political choices – at the expense of the ethical considerations of our grandchildren, of nature itself and of the people living in the nature we destroy.

Corrupt process

Eventually, the film's most important thread becomes how Abdul Taib and his family have had a great personal gain on the modernization process. The cutting of the forest and the construction of palm oil plantations and dams have thus not only created growth for Sarawak, but also private wealth for corrupt people. This is not new. We know that large sums of money flow through an international network of tax havens, holding companies and wealth managers. According to the movie, Interpol says that money laundering from logging amounts to about 30 billion dollars annually. Through digging journalism from Clare Rewcastle Brown and follow-the-money investigations from the Bruno Manser Foundation, the links between global financial institutions and the Sarawak government are highlighted. At the same time, it is revealed that Abdul Taib's family is large in property management and can be linked to the entire 400 company spread across 25 countries.

The revelations opened up to a growing wave of criticism. It all resulted in Abdul Taib resigning, after the reign of 33. The film's protagonists rejoice, not least when the new minister guarantees that there will be no more timber concessions or palm oil plantations. This is a striking example of how goal-oriented, systematic and long-term activism can actually achieve something, make a difference, contribute to a better world.

The Borneo Case depicts the relentless momentum of the growth mechanism.

Global links

Still, I think certain questions are not adequately elucidated in the film. It seems very plausible that the destruction of the rainforest can be linked to individuals, who have exercised power in a space where both social "progress" and self-enrichment were possible. This could not have happened so quickly and systematically without links to the global financial world and to multinational companies with the intention to exploit natural resources.

What we see only small contours, however, is how the state and the population also become contributors to the logic of modernization and growth. Abdul Taib's departure meant nothing more than being relocated to a post of ceremonial head of state, allowing the entire family to continue their lives in luxury. A person who has effectively promoted the growth mechanism and contributed to the rapid increase in a given state's GDP is probably for many more of a great leader than one who has committed global crime.

In the film, there is a small sequence from a demonstration where the speaker demands that "the money be paid back to Sarawak". An understandable and legitimate statement in isolation; At the same time, it is nature's blood money that one needs to be paid out to the people. If this were to happen, then a bit of the lesson would be that the destruction of nature has in fact brought increased wealth and improved living standards, including for the local population. If so, what will this lead to?

Irresistible force

In a social perspective, most of us probably think that the exploited people must of course get their share of the wealth. From an ecological perspective, we should also recognize that this illustrates what was a fundamental point in my book From everlasting growth to green politics, namely the following: The modern growth mechanism exists in an interaction between private capital, state policy and the welfare of the population. It is this trinity that gives the logic of growth such an irresistible force. Unfortunately, in order to carry out a real, critical problematization of this mechanism, fighting corrupt, criminal people is not enough.

Filmmakers Pauser and Williams provide us with this documentary a key to this problem. Through Mutang Urud's involvement, a link is established between the destruction of the rainforest and an indigenous people living their lives in the jungle, beyond the logic of the monetary economy. Maybe we modern people should realize that what we have a real need to reflect on is what we add value to in our lives? Such a kind of widespread reflection may well provoke more. This is how we – humanity – can possibly develop the will needed to establish concrete, political measures to prevent the sacrifice of nature and the environment on the altar of eternal growth.


Svein Hammer
Svein Hammer
Hammer is a dr.polit. in sociology and regular reviewer in Ny Tid.

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