Flight to the Forest

Richard Lloyd Parry

  • The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure by Carl Hoffman
    William Morrow, 347 pp, £14.74, March, ISBN 978 0 06 243905 5

Like rock stars and a certain kind of actor, heroes of moral struggle face difficulties as they age. Principled self-sacrifice is tough to sustain over a lifetime, and those who spend years on a pedestal frequently end up toppling into the mud. Assassination tends to preserve reputations (Martin Luther King, Chico Mendes). Elected office can put the seal on a career or soil it for ever: for every Nelson Mandela, there is an Aung San Suu Kyi. Greta Thunberg at 16 is one thing, but it is hard to picture her going at it with the same intensity at 45. People get tired and lonely, or lazy and corrupt. Awareness of complexity and nuance blurs to grey the beautiful blacks and whites of moral certainty. And what if the struggle becomes hopeless and the battle is lost? No case better illustrates the problem than that of Bruno Manser.

For a few years before and after 1990, he was one of the most famous activists in the world, who almost single-handedly drew international attention to one of the 20th century’s great environmental crimes: the destruction of the ancient primary rainforests of Sarawak in Borneo by logging companies owned by cronies of the Malaysian government. At the time, it was the most fashionable of environmental causes. There were international petitions and boycotts; Prince Charles and Al Gore were outspoken in their support. The campaign pivoted around the figure of Manser, the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ or ‘Swiss Tarzan’, whose life possessed a Conradian glamour rarely glimpsed in an age of jet travel and media saturation.

Manser, intriguingly described as a ‘Swiss cowherd’, spent years in Sarawak living among the Penan, one of the last populations of genuine nomads in the world. For six years, he wore a loincloth, hunted with a blowpipe, lived off snake and monkey meat, and directed the Penan in their struggle against the logging companies that were stripping the rainforests where the nomads roamed. Armed police hunted him through the jungle; the Malaysian government, it was said, had put a bounty on his head. He was captured, and escaped. Eventually he was smuggled back to Switzerland, after which the campaign lost momentum. The Malaysian government and its logging companies were immovable; the jungle dwindled ever further and more and more of the nomadic Penan were forced into settlements. Finally, in the first months of the 21st century, Manser sneaked back into Sarawak. While trekking alone through the jungle, he vanished without a trace.

Many Malaysians assumed that he had deliberately gone to ground and was biding his time in preparation for a new stunt. The Penan believed he had been murdered by the Malaysians or their thugs. His friends and supporters suspected a tragic accident, and mobilised a helicopter in repeated searches of the dense and remote forest highlands. Almost two decades later, not a trace of Bruno Manser has been found.

*

He really was a Swiss cowherd. Manser was born in Basel in 1954, to a devoted mother and a ‘tyrannical’ father who worked in a chemical factory. As a schoolboy, he wrote essays inspired by hippie texts such as the Tao of Lao Tzu and Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. At the age of 19 he spent three months in prison for refusing national service. ‘He rejects any defence of … the products of civilisation, industrial goods, imported items and financial resources that create today’s chaos,’ the court martial recorded. ‘For him, material things are not worth defending.’

He enrolled in medical school but – in another well-established move for a Swiss hippie – dropped out to become an Alpine herdsman. He rose at four every morning, milking cows, making cheese, learning to weld, lay bricks, keep bees and stitch his own lederhosen. After four years he tired of cows and moved on to sheep. In the mountains he began the diaries, accompanied by beautiful and meticulous illustrations, that he kept throughout his life, and which make him an ideal subject for a biography. ‘I have come to terms with solitude in my own way,’ he wrote. ‘There is a profound sadness in this.’ He also records his ambivalence about sex. ‘Should I do without the man-woman thing and above all be a person?’ he asks. ‘Reserve the strength required for sexual love between two individuals for brotherly love for many people? I have no deep need to be permanently one of a couple. Must I force myself to become a human being through joy and love of sexuality?’

After ten years in the Alps he grew restless. ‘In my search to understand the deep essence of our humanity,’ he wrote in the opening sentence of his book Voices from the Rainforest (1996), ‘there grew in me the desire to learn from a people who still live close to their source.’ But it seems clear that there were personal, as well as idealistic, reasons for escape – from the push-pull of his father and mother, from the pressure on a man of thirty to find a girl and settle down, and from the hippie’s discomfort in a narrow and conservative society. ‘Nowhere else can state control be as easily escaped as in a jungle,’ Ruedi Suter, a Swiss journalist who was a friend of Manser’s, observed in his biography of 2015, Rainforest Hero: The Life and Death of Bruno Manser. He might also have pointed to the fear of nuclear annihilation that stalked all Western Europeans in those years. Manser left Switzerland in 1984, two months after Able Archer, the Nato exercise that brought the world closer to war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Manser’s flight to the forest had a good deal of fantasy about it, but there was nothing bogus or half-hearted about his efforts to immerse himself in the life of the Penan. They were the human equivalent of an endangered species: the last hunter-gatherers in Asia. Manser moved between different Penan bands, extended families of a few dozen people who lived on platforms of branches and leaves which they abandoned every few months when the boar and wild sago were exhausted. As well as hunting, he learned the Penan language, and compiled a handmade record of the environment and its people. He painted watercolours of cobras and macaques, bats and hornbills, and minute cross-sections of forest plants. He drew the faces of the Penan he met, and recorded their testimonies in neat capitals. The Penan, he wrote, ‘recognise the cycles of the moon, but counting months and years has no meaning for them. Birthdays and age are unknown concepts. Life for them unfolds mainly in the present; only in the present can their daily needs be fulfilled.’

By the time he found them, all but a few hundred of the former nomads were living in permanent settlements, in longhouses connected by track and road to the cities of the coast. In Voices from the Rainforest, he quotes an old nomadic Penan. ‘Our land provides us with food for free, and so, without a sen in our pockets, we have enough,’ he said.

Nobody tells us to sign anything or asks for the number on our identity card … What is it about the people in the town in their shops? Why do they have to install fans and air-conditioners in their apartments? They live in the heat because they have destroyed their forest. Here, under the big trees, is cool shadow. We don’t want to change places with them.

For a nomad, home is not a mark on a map, but an environment; and the environment of the Penan was being destroyed.

The island of Borneo is divided between the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Commercial logging began on a small scale after the Second World War. In 1965, two years after the Malaysian state of Sarawak gained its independence from Britain, 2.3 million cubic metres of timber were felled there. By 1981, the volume had almost quadrupled, and the destruction accelerated ever more under the leadership of Abdul Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s chief minister from 1981 until 2014, who dispensed logging licences to his friends and relatives. For their foreign customers, the low cost of labour and extraction made it cheaper to ship logs from distant Borneo than to cut them down at home. In 1991, the timber harvest reached 19.4 million cubic metres.

The logging companies always insisted that they took only the largest trunks. But a four-foot-thick, hundred-foot-tall tree could not be neatly extracted like a tooth. The procedure was closer to a punch in the mouth: for every log that was dragged out of the jungle as many as ten smaller ones were destroyed by its fall, or by the huge vehicles that extracted it. Among them were the ipoh tree from which the Penan extracted poison for their blowpipe arrows, and the creeping rattan, which they used to make baskets. Logging despoiled the fruit trees and sago palms, food for both the Penan and the animals they hunted, which fled in any case from the noise of the chainsaws. Those animals that remained were pursued by the hundreds of logging workers, who slaughtered them with shotguns rather than blowpipes. Deprived of its binding cover of plants and trees, the soil was washed into the rivers, which became clouded and inhospitable to fish.

There had been a rainforest in Sarawak for a hundred million years; in the space of just forty years, 90 per cent of it was logged to make plywood for construction in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. For generations, the jungle provided the Penan with everything they needed; with the arrival of the loggers, they suddenly found themselves struggling to survive. It was this that drove so many of them into longhouses and settlements – not a desire for development, but the fear of starvation. ‘The forest is our skin,’ said Manser’s closest friend among the Penan, a charismatic chief called Along Sega. ‘We cannot live without it.’

Leaders of the Dayaks, the collective term for the indigenous tribes of Borneo, had tried reasoning with the loggers; with the help of local NGOs, they sent petitions, and even tried applying for logging licences themselves (they were repeatedly refused). Small, ad hoc blockades eventually developed into a well co-ordinated campaign in which dozens of logging roads were obstructed by manned barricades. The bulldozers stood idle, the logging companies suffered huge losses, and the blockades were reported around the world, to the chagrin of the Malaysian government. Appeals from the Penan were translated by Manser, and disseminated via a network of friends in Switzerland. When the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of Malaysian timber imports, the situation became critical. ‘I can’t be their chief,’ Manser said to an interviewer about his relationship to the Penan. ‘I can only be their secretary.’ But the foreign journalists who began sneaking into the interior to report on the story were much more interested in him than in Along Sega; and it suited the Malaysian government very well to be able to blame the uproar in the forest on the manipulations of a foreigner.

In 1986 he attended a meeting at which a group of Dayak leaders signed a declaration demanding an end to logging. It was his bad luck that the meeting was also attended by an off-duty police inspector, who arrested him and drove him back towards the coast. But the Land Rover ran out of petrol on a high bridge and as the driver refilled the tank, Manser’s handcuffs were removed to allow him to relieve himself into the ravine. He leaped into the river below, and fled back into the forest as shots were fired above his head. Later that year, he was interviewed by a Malaysian journalist whom he came to suspect of betrayal; soon afterwards, he was ambushed by armed police, but again managed to escape into the jungle.

He had always been drawn to risk, to an extent that went beyond thrill-seeking. Suter connects this to his Swissness: ‘The citizen of a country whose collective need for security has something almost pathological about it unhesitatingly exposes himself to the hazards of the rainforest.’ But it began long before he went to Borneo. ‘If death is not close, you can’t enjoy life,’ he said to Georges Rüegg, a fellow cowherd – a callow sentiment, common among those for whom mortal danger is a choice rather than a curse. In the Alps he would disappear suddenly to go free climbing, without equipment or companions. In the forest, he ignored precautions that to the Penan were common sense, walking alone, for example, in an environment where a twisted ankle or a falling branch could be deadly. He made a solo ascent of the limestone pinnacle of Batu Lawi, a 6700-feet peak that is the Penan’s holy mountain, and had to spend a night on a cliff ledge after getting stuck three-quarters of the way up.

He made himself sick by heedlessly ingesting poisonous jungle plants. In peninsular Malaysia, he came close to being trampled to death when he attempted to befriend a herd of wild elephants. He had an obsession with snakes, and would pluck cobras and pythons from the jungle floor, pet them, talk to them and sketch them. In 1989, days away from medical help, he was almost killed by the bite of a pit viper. Lodged in a forest hut, preyed on by flies and lice, he was stricken by pain, fever and delirium. The toxins killed the tissue in his leg; for the first and only time in his journal he admitted to being afraid. An indelible passage describes the surgery that he performed on himself using a bush knife and fish hooks.

As I am trying to squeeze out pus through slight pressure and massage, a piece of flesh suddenly balloons out of the wound – as large as a squirrel’s head … The muscle, three fingers thick, protrudes further every day and suddenly exits the wound, as long as a banana, together with pus. Then it becomes clear: the muscle between calf and shin has detached itself below the knee and is now hanging like a long horn out of the leg. The next day, the muscle feels cold. I pinch it with my fingernails – it is completely numb. Has a part of me really died? Quite possibly, after what I have been through in the past few weeks … So I decide to remove it … I carefully cut into my own flesh. No. – I feel no pain and there is no blood. – I sever the protruding mass of muscle piece by piece, cutting three more times; the parts of me lying on a leaf could be bits of fresh stewing meat, ready for the pan – just like those pieces of healthy, hung meat the butcher offers the housewife. And I am further astonished by the fact that these lumps of flesh do not start to decay.

In 1990, his Swiss friends, fearing his self-destructiveness, sent Rüegg to talk him into coming home. They expected indignation and resistance. But he agreed immediately, as if he had been craving rescue all these years.

Back in Basel, Manser was in intense demand from journalists and activists – an adopted creature of the rainforest returned to the rich West, and able to talk passionately about it, in German, French and English. He had no interest in administration, and tested to breaking point the goodwill of his supporters, with what was either brilliant impulsiveness or selfish unreliability. He was huge in Switzerland, big in Germany and well known in France, but he never cracked the United States – Al Gore met him when he was a senator, but as vice president was always too busy. He was an inspiring speaker with a simple and achievable message: avoid all tropical wood and palm oil products, choose local products over imports, and accept the higher prices. But he was too trusting and direct to make an effective lobbyist or negotiator: his meetings with bureaucrats yielded vague promises and much publicity, but few concrete results. What he was best at, and what he loved most of all, were stunts, the more dangerous the better.

He chained himself to a lamppost at the G7 in London, parachuted into the Earth Summit in Rio, and climbed a 300-foot tower in Brussels to hang a protest sign. In 1993, he went on a hunger strike for sixty days (Bobby Sands, for comparison’s sake, died after 66 days). He made two demands of the Swiss government: a ban on the import of tropical wood, and a legal obligation on importers to declare the origin of all wood products. The spectacle of Manser wasting away on the Bärenplatz provoked widespread sympathy, but the commercial pressures were too powerful. Switzerland exported to Malaysia far more than it imported, including two-fifths of its overseas arms sales. In the end, the mandatory declaration became law, but not the embargo. ‘What shocks me is the inconsistency I see in the politicians and economists,’ Manser said, with naive amazement. ‘They are personally moved, they see what is going on and in private they fully agree, but they can’t support and speak out for it on account of their political status. Today’s politics are not honest.’

The stunts became increasingly bonkers. He completely alienated his greatest ally and right-hand man, Roger Graf, with a pointless slide down a wire suspended beneath a Matterhorn cable car, which was all but ignored by the media. He became obsessed by the idea of parachuting into the palace of Sarawak’s first minister, Taib, and presenting him with a lamb. Having buried the hatchet with the man whom he had been denouncing for years as a corrupt kleptocrat, he would then offer his services as an adviser. ‘If he accepts my offer, he could distinguish himself worldwide as the saviour of the rainforest,’ Manser told Suter. ‘I am also prepared to do PR work for him.’ He eventually paraglided to Taib’s palace in Kuching, clownishly clutching a cuddly toy sheep. Instead of being offered a place in the kitchen cabinet, he was arrested, and put on a plane back home.

By the late 1990s, 85 per cent of the Penan’s forests had been destroyed; the 250 true nomads who remained were steadily being bought off and turned against one another by the timber companies. ‘All my efforts in the last few years were to no avail,’ Manser told Suter. ‘As long as the bulldozers are churning up the rainforest, the actions on behalf of the local people are useless. I will continue to fight against the logging, although soon I won’t know how we can continue to resist.’

*

In 2001, I trekked into north-east Sarawak to meet Along Sega, who was still searching for Manser a year after his disappearance. I didn’t realise at the time how close the Penan were to the end of their nomadic existence. On the fourth day, after the hardest walking I have ever done, my guides and I limped into the upland settlement that was the temporary home of Sega and his group. Spaced at intervals beneath the forest trees were four shelters (the word ‘hut’ would be too grand for them). Cooking fires smouldered constantly, keeping off the insects. Dogs skulked beneath the raised platforms, along with snickering pet monkeys on the ends of chains. Small pale-skinned children stared at us as we approached, their black hair long at the back and cut straight in the fringe – the characteristic Penan mullet.

On each of the platforms an entire extended family cooked, ate and slept. A week ago, there had been nothing here, and in a few weeks’ time the Penan would have moved on and the forest would have swallowed up all trace of them. Every few hours a new meal was produced: blackened lumps of roast boar; thick monotonous sago; the rich, dark meat of the monkey; and precious rice, bought for cash from the town and carried on the nine-hour walk to the settlement on somebody’s back. They had shelter above their heads, and food for a few days. But they had nothing to spare. I had seen poverty in Indonesia, in Papua New Guinea and East Timor. But these were the poorest people I had ever met.

The children played quietly around the shelters and stared up at the visitors. They led me to the end of the settlement, where three toy shelters stood, perfect miniatures of the real thing, containing child-sized baskets, a child-sized cooking bowl and a stack of child-sized firewood. From the roof hung a tiny cradle and inside it was a doll baby, a tiny poppet of rags and sticks. One of the little boys had a hare lip, exposing a tiny deformed stump of tooth. In the shelter was another boy of 12 or so, who smiled and laughed all the time, but could not speak or stand. He lay in the shelter, wriggling and cackling, and his sister washed and fed him.

The Penan children were born in the jungle to mothers who rarely encountered a doctor. They passed through childhood without ever seeing a teacher, and the girls married and had children of their own soon after puberty. They foraged, hunted and ate, and moved through the forest in the only way they knew, and then they died. Few Penan knew their own age, but there is no doubt that they died younger than their countrymen.

To the Malaysian government and especially to its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, their situation was an international embarrassment. ‘There is nothing romantic about these helpless, half-starved and disease-ridden people and we will make no apologies for endeavouring to uplift their living conditions,’ Mahathir said. ‘It is our policy to eventually bring all jungle dwellers into the mainstream of the nation’s life.’ In 1992 Mahathir, who never evaded confrontation with his critics, wrote a scathing letter to Manser. ‘As a Swiss living in the laps [sic] of luxury with the world’s highest standard of living,’ he wrote, ‘it is the height of arrogance for you to advocate that the Penans live on maggots and monkeys in their miserable huts, subjected to all kinds of diseases.’

Do you really expect the Penans to subsist on monkeys until the year 2500 or 3000 or for ever? Have they no right to a better way of life? What right have you to condemn them to a primitive life? … The Penans may tell you that … is what they like. That is because they are not able to live a better life like the other tribes in Sarawak … Stop being arrogant and thinking that it is the white man’s burden to decide the fate of the peoples in this world.

As the American journalist Carl Hoffman writes in his dual biography of Manser and the American collector of Dayak art Michael Palmieri, ‘Bruno, in essence, wanted to stop time.’ He regarded the Penan as an archetype of ideal human coexistence with nature, a people without a past. But more recent ethnography, quoted by Hoffman, reveals a story of change and adaptation. Far from being jungle elves, born fully formed from their environment and now abruptly endangered, the Penan had a complicated history of shifting interdependence with other Dayak tribes. They retreated to the jungle highlands centuries ago to escape the depredations of more aggressive neighbours. Having become nomads, they had an important role in the pre-colonial economy of Borneo as suppliers of jungle commodities and processed products: rattan baskets, deer antlers, rhino horn, combustible resin, and bezoar stones, the magically endowed gallstones of langur monkeys.

‘The presence of a Penan band in an area meant access to forest products and to the income generated by trade in those products,’ the anthropologist Peter Brosius writes. ‘Longhouse aristocrats were proprietary about “their” Penan, and jealously guarded their prerogative to trade with certain groups … In short, Penan were regarded by longhouse peoples as a form of wealth.’ The Brookes, the ‘White Rajahs’ who privately colonised Sarawak in the 19th century, regulated such transactions to the benefit of the nomads, making it less easy to exploit them. As a result, the Penan remembered the colonial period with nostalgic yearning. ‘To the Penan [Manser] was more than just an odd, white Penan,’ Hoffman writes. ‘He was a link to that golden time, the time of the White Rajahs.’

That historical connection helps explain, too, the Malaysian government’s visceral reaction to him. Bruno stood at the very centre of history, a character with a potent legacy, not just to the Penan, but to the Malay politicians like Mahathir Mohamad and Abdul Taib Mahmud, the very men who had brought the nation of Malaysia from shameful subservience to independence. To them, he was the Brookes returned, the very essence of colonialism, an iconic threat to their dreams of independence and Malaysian self-determination.

To plenty of Malaysians, the Penan were depressing, about as picturesque as homeless youths living under flyovers are to people in the West. ‘Outsiders want the Penan to remain nomadic, and I will not allow this because I want to give a fair distribution of development to all communities in the state,’ Taib said. ‘We don’t mind preserving the Sumatra rhino in the jungle, but not the Penan.’ If state and national policy towards the Penan had genuinely been driven by the aims of development, it would be harder to argue. In fact, it was little more than a pretext for rapacity and plunder, with Taib as the plunderer-in-chief. In a blind re-enactment of colonial exploitation, ethnic Malay bosses and their Dayak hirelings extracted the wealth of the forests in the name of ‘civilisation’, using British-era ‘security’ laws to lock up those who sought to frustrate them.

Fifteen years after I visited the Penan, Hoffman made a similar journey, and describes one of the settlements into which they had finally been herded. ‘Twenty billion dollars’ worth of timber had been cut from these forests, but still no road led to the village and it had no school,’ he writes. ‘So much money – why weren’t there … health clinics, public transportation, running water in every house? Long Adang had little frame houses and a smattering of light bulbs, a church, a community water faucet drawing from the river but nothing else to show for so much that had been taken away.’

*

To an outsider, the word ‘jungle’ is a metaphor for hopeless impenetrability, but to a nomad it is a hospitable, even bustling place. On his last journey in May 2000 Manser travelled on the Dayak equivalent of a main road, and it was a simple matter to trace his route. Penan trackers followed his trail away from the path and through dense jungle. At one point, several trails led off from a single point. Manser, it seemed, had repeatedly hacked through the jungle, stopped, changed his mind, retraced his steps, and then set off in a different direction. But there the trail disappeared.

When I spoke to them in 2001, the assumption among his Swiss and Malaysian friends was that he had suffered a fatal accident. The jungle, depleted though it had become, was still a dangerous place. There were flash floods and tree falls, gulleys and snakes. But it is difficult to understand why after 19 years no trace has been found of him, or of his 25 kg nylon rucksack. ‘If he fell into a ravine and died, then the people passing would smell his body,’ a Dayak activist told me. ‘A python could have swallowed him, but I don’t think that it would swallow his bag.’

Penan such as Along Sega had little doubt that Manser had been murdered. Communities opposing the logging had been harassed by hired thugs before; as late as 2007, an activist chief called Kelesau Naan vanished mysteriously – his broken skeleton was found months later. Manser had not made a secret of his plans to return to Sarawak; the point where his tracks disappeared was a logging area. It was the site of unusual military activity at the time of his disappearance; Along Sega reported army helicopters buzzing the tree line and soldiers on patrol in the forest. And yet, for all their greed, the Malaysians were not crude in their violence: cutting the throats of peaceful foreign activists, even one as persistent and irritating as Manser, was not their style. And they knew, as he did, that, bar a bit of skirmishing, the war was over, and they were the victors.

In 2001, everyone I spoke to had briskly dismissed the idea of suicide. They spoke of Manser’s devotion to his elderly mother, and to his girlfriend, with whom he had discussed having a child. But with the passing of time and the exhaustion of other possibilities, those who knew him best have changed their minds. Both Suter and Hoffman tell the story of a man who from the time of his return to Switzerland was on a downward trajectory. ‘The Penan have gained little besides a great deal of publicity, more repression and a slight slowing of the felling,’ Suter writes of this period. ‘Old friends notice a change in Bruno. He is more impatient, more nervous; his concern for the Penan gives him no peace. He sleeps too little, works too hard, begins to drink spirits.’ The failure of his paragliding stunt, Hoffman suggests, was a humiliating blow. He had hoped for incarceration, ill-treatment and a prolonged and ennobling trial. ‘Instead he’d just been squished like a gnat.’ In a calculated sneer at his privileged status, the Malaysians flew him out of Sarawak in first class.

Unusually for him, Manser sought out old friends before his trip, including a former lover who had broken his heart years before. Several of them suspected that they would not see him again. From Indonesian Borneo, where he trekked over the border into Sarawak, acquaintances had been surprised to receive postcards. The very last of these, to his girlfriend, ended with a cartoon of a grinning goblin-like figure, sticking out his tongue and thumbing his nose.

The act itself need not have been fully conscious: in practice, between the impulse to risk and the impulse to suicide, there may be little difference. A second ascent of the cliff of Batu Lawi; the embrace of one last pit viper. But the absence of all traces suggests deliberation and an effort at concealment. These days we know better than to tut about the ‘selfishness’ of suicide. But to vanish wilfully is a decision that entails torment for those who care about you. ‘I had the feeling that by the end Bruno had no more beliefs,’ said Georges Rüegg. ‘The art of life is to grow old, but not to lose your beliefs as you do. Or if you lose them, to find new ways to be glad to be alive.’