KUCHING: In June last year, Wong Mun Hoe, 29, boarded a small aircraft taking off from Miri to Bario. As the plane climbed higher, he looked down at the landscape and reeled in shock.
A coarse brown line snaked through the rainforest for what seemed like an endless stretch. Wong remembered that the journey took 35 minutes with the grotesque streak accompanying them throughout. He estimated the distance to be at least 100km. It turned out to be 300km.
“The trail only ended a short distance from Sarawak’s border with Kalimantan,” he told FMT in a phone interview. “The amount of land harvested from the rainforest was staggering.”
And with that Wong gave voice to the Borneo Resources Institute’s (Brimas) worst nightmare. In 2008, Brimas has expressed deep concern over the construction of a logging road connecting Bario highlands with Miri.
The road was built by Samling Corporation, one of the top five logging companies in Sarawak and a global giant in timber trade. That was enough reason for Brimas to suspect that it was a front to open up the whole Bario highlands for timber extraction. Brimas was right.
Bario, which is geographically similar to Genting Highlands, is populated by the Lun Bawangs and Kelabits. A prominent Kelabit who came from the area is Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Idris Jala.
Since the construction of the logging road, his community has had to deal with the dreaded slew of troubles that are delivered right to their doorsteps.
“Many tourists used to visit Bario to jungle trek and bird watch,” said Wong. “But with the deforestation there are fewer animals so tourists have stopped coming. And the villagers have lost an important source of income.”
In an interview published in Kelabit News, Brimas director, Mark Bujang, warned that Bario was an ecologically important region with a fragile ecosystem and weather system.
“Logging immediately changes an environment’s bio-diversity,” he said. “Land is compacted by the Caterpillar tractors and heavy trucks moving up and down with the loads of timber. Rivers get silted, dirty and unfit for life.”
Wong confirmed that the streams in Bario are already suffering alarmingly low water levels which have dealt the villagers another blow.
“The villagers travel by boat from one point to the next,” he explained. “But now their boats are grounded and they have to travel on foot.”
“They also said that the old roads were wide enough only for a motorcycle. Now huge lorries are easily passing through. But they can’t do anything about it because Bario’s paramount chief is friendly with the state government.”
And the government is adamant that the logging road has brought about more perks than problems.
Three years ago, the then Ba’Kelalan state assemblyman, Nelson Balang Rining, emphasised the importance of the road in “linking the highlands people with the outside world”.
“It will open up accessibility to settlements that were once only linked by flights,” he had said. “It will facilitate easier transport of fuel and food to the remote highland settlements.”
Balang also clarified that the road belonged to Samling and not the state or federal government. However, he added that the government hoped to eventually adopt and tar-seal it.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud just last month denied reports of massive deforestation in Sarawak and invited international teams to verify that more than 70% of rainforests remain intact.
“They will see we still have much more rainforest than people give us credit for, to be preserved for the next generations,” he stated.
Climate has changed
Bujang meanwhile said the deforestation would continue because the state government has given Samling control of the land.