Veteran journalist and author James Ritchie with 35 book titles to his credit has kept himself abreast with political events in Sarawak. Excerpts from his Taib – 50 Years book tell of the present TYT’s efforts to transform Sarawak from a backwater state into what it is today during his 50 – year active political career.

Taib with children at Sabal Oil Palm Scheme in Simunjan.

REVENUE FROM TIMBER

After the economic recession of the mid-1970s and after the OPEC era and oil producers’ realignment, Taib realised that depending on the export of raw materials alone was not the solution to the State’s economic woes.

The answer was to invest more money in value-added products.

It was found that the State was over-reliant on import-substitution and as such there was a need to shift to export-oriented manufacturing. One of the areas which could benefit from the value added policy was the timber sector.

After putting logging on the right footing, Taib was confident that the State would not lose an important source of income. He felt confident that Sarawak’s policy of sustainable logging would carry the state through the years. Years later he would say: “…our existing logging methods are concurrent with the guidelines of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and have been used for the past 25 years.

“Hence, allegations that Sarawak only concentrates on felling trees and clearing the jungles without considering the environmental impact are not true.” (NST, October 28, 1989).

The Chief Minister attributed the success of the timber sector to a fully integrated timber policy with prudent management practices. The timber people were also given “inducements” such as longer periods of licences as well as rebates for raw logs extracted from their concessions if they were willing to go downstream and invest in processing.

“It took us 10 years and now we are okay. At present we have arrived at what I call the completed policy for the timber industry, that is, complete with good environmental control and protection, long term policy, building processing facilities that can be upgraded from time to time and making sure that the forest logging practices are tuned in to the processing function.” (NST, August 5, 2001)

PENAN BLOCKADES

In the early 1980s, a series of anti-logging blockades started when loggers began to enter the remote regions of the Baram district, affecting the habitat of nomadic Penan tribesmen. With a Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser championing their cause, the first major blockade occurred in late 1986, and Sarawak became the focus of criticisms by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and international environmental groups.

The issue was further politicised because Taib and his uncle Rahman had already revealed that their relatives had allegedly owned millions of hectares of timber concessions. This gave the impression that logging had nothing to do with helping uplift the socio economic status of Sarawak’s inhabitants, but was to enrich a handful of politicians.

There were also allegations that the widespread logging had depleted much of the forest, was causing floods, siltation of rivers and turbidity of upstream river water and reducing the aquatic and wildlife population.

As the publicity was focused on the Penan and the destruction of their habitat, Taib said that logging was unavoidable because the state government needed to earn an average of RM600 million in logging revenue annually. Logging also provided about 50,000 jobs and had a spin-off effect benefiting about 120,000 people. Speaking to reporters after chairing a state security meeting in Petra Jaya, he said:

“I am aware that many of the rivers have been polluted because of active logging activities. This is why I set up a timber development fund to help the affected areas” (Star, July 3, 1987)

He also announced that the government was going to set aside a biosphere reserve for the community. Taib said that the biosphere reserve in the Ulu Melana protected forest would be able to accommodate the 400 nomadic Penans who had yet to adapt to the modern lifestyle.

“If it is really true that some of the Penans want an area in the jungle to roam and hunt and fish for food, I’m willing to reserve an area.

“But it (the reserve) cannot be sold to timber operators. We will also not force those who are not ready to settle to accept development as this can endanger their survival.” (Star, July 3, 1987).

Later Taib established a Penan Service Corps comprising young Penan school-leavers and youths who were trained and sent back to the villages to help their people adapt to the rapid changes that Sarawak was undergoing. He also appointed a Penan Liaison Officer to help the state government co-ordinate their projects in line with the community’s aspirations.

ITTO’S ROLE IN FOREST POLICY

Following the 1980s anti-logging campaign against Sarawak, Taib sent an independent group to the Sixth Session of the governing council of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) at Abidjan, Africa
in 1989.

Taib, who led the delegation, met ITTO officials and invited a team of experts to help look at the status of Sarawak’s forest management and make recommendations. Led by Lord Cranbrook, the ITTO Mission comprising members from the United Kingdom, Norway, USA, Denmark, Australia, Ghana, Japan and Indonesia reported that forest management “was without doubt, of a much higher standard than in most countries”.

Among ITTO’s recommendations was that the Forestry department be strengthened and that the state pursue a sustainable annual harvest of 9.3 million m3 (based on 4.5 million ha of forest land on slopes of 60 percent and below).

In 1992, the state government began reducing its annual harvest in stages in order to meet ITTO’s suggested harvest figures.

In light of the new forest developments, Taib’s government managed to increase PFEs from 4.5 million to six million ha and TPAs from 290,000 ha to 1.03 million ha. Sarawak also intensified its research and development activities, resulting in the comprehensive documentation of flora and fauna.

The Chief Minister said that logging had in fact opened up remote and inaccessible areas in the jungle that were “doomed for isolation and poverty”.

He added: “More than half the rural people have had their lives changed because of the logging activities in the interior.” (NST, March 27, 1992)
To ensure that the timber would have value added to it, Taib also announced that hundreds of millions had been set aside to develop the wood-based industry in the state. The government increased from 10 to 13 per cent, the amount of log exports which had to be reserved for manufacturing.

“Sarawak has invited Japanese and Taiwanese businessmen to make substantial investments in the state, especially the wood-based industry.” (Star, January 31, 1990).

Taib also announced that about 10 percent of the state’s forests, comprising 8.6 million hectares, would be gazetted as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. At present, Sarawak has seven gazette national parks and animal sanctuaries.

(To be continued)