Swiss activist Bruno Manser was passionate, quirky and determined to save the habitat of the Penan tribe of Borneo. His journey brought him to jungles, boardrooms—and an unknown fate
Members of the Penan tribe of northeastern Borneo know that Batu Lawi, a 2,000-m sheer limestone pinnacle, is a demon-haunted place to be avoided at all costs. To Bruno Manser, however, Batu Lawi represented everything he loved about the untouched forest of the region. He almost perished trying to reach its summit in 1988. As he told friends, he spent 24 hours hanging from a rope, unable to reach the rock face. Only a desperate swing brought him within grabbing distance of the rock.
Fourteen months ago, Manser returned to Batu Lawi at the end of a 12-year personal crusade to help his adopted tribe, the Penan, preserve their landscape and their way of life from the cancer of all things modern: cash, Coca-Cola, television, but above all the mowing down of their native forest. If he had reached the summit he would have been confronted with glaring evidence of his failure: the verdant forest slashed by logging roads, a net of wounds bleeding orange mud, the animals largely gone. Manser had lived with the Penan in their jungle for six years. Then he became a noisy public advocate for the tribe, whom he considered the most peaceful people on earth. He said he would help them and tried with all the passion he could bring. He had failed utterly.
Manser separated from two Penan acquaintances near the base of the mountain, saying he would climb it alone. With just a few days of walking, he would have been reunited with his closest Penan friends. But Manser never made that hike. After he was left near Batu Lawi, he was never seen again.
What happened to Bruno Manser? The body of the Swiss adventurer-turned-activist, who would now be 46, has never been found, despite numerous searches by his Penan and European friends. Nor has any trace been found of his 30-kg rucksack. When he vanished, some suspected foul play: Manser had fallen on the wrong side of the logging interests in Borneo—who can be ruthless. There was talk of a bounty on his head and suspiciously heavy movements of police and loggers in the area at the time of his disappearance. Malaysia’s politicians were fed up with the troublesome foreigner. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly complained of “white people (who) think we do not know how to administer our country.”
More optimistic friends hoped that Manser was performing one more stunt—that somewhere, somehow, the short, wiry activist, hardened by years of living in extreme conditions, was alive and reveling in the swirl of mystery surrounding his disappearance. Manser was, after all, a man who would do almost anything to get publicity for his cause. In 1996, he slid almost 3 km down a half-frozen funicular railway cable in Switzerland; three years later, he buzzed the capital of Malaysia’s Sarawak province in a motorized hang glider. According to Roger Graf, who joined Manser in the mid-1980s to try to stop logging in Sarawak, where the tribe is based, all that’s really certain is that Manser was very close to giving up on Sarawak and his Penan friends. “He said this was his last trip,” says Graf, who abandoned the struggle in 1996; he now works as an administrator and publicist for the Zurich Zoo. “He told me, ‘If I don’t do it this time the battle is lost.’”
He may simply have given up on life. “I know Bruno and I know what was in his mind,” says Graf. “He knew some of the Penan were selling their land to the loggers. He had seen some of his best friends abandon their traditional clothes and, for the first time, don T shirts and shoes. Everywhere, he saw logging.” Manser was an idealist, the kind of earnest campaigner who makes people uncomfortable, who goes too far, a man described by one Swiss friend as half child, half hero, a man who would never abandon the fight for his friends. But even heroes give up sometimes. “I had wondered for a long time if Bruno would ever find peace again,” says Graf. “He was so bitterly disappointed. And I’m convinced that if he wanted to die it would be somewhere around Batu Lawi.” Graf continues: “There are many ways of seeking to die.” Manser’s story is really the tale of the Penan, a people out of time, the last hunter-gatherers in Asia. Once masters of a seemingly endless rain forest that covers Borneo, almost all of the 9,000 Penan have given up the struggle against what must once have seemed a ludicrous impossibility: that loggers would sweep through all but a tiny fraction of Sarawak’s forests, polluting rivers, driving animals away and bulldozing the trees and plants that for centuries have served as the Penan’s medicine cabinet, toolbox and larder. There are barely 200 fully nomadic Penan left: small groups of two or three families who refuse to build permanent settlements, cultivate crops and apply for government identity cards. One of them is Along Segar. He was Bruno Manser’s closest Penan friend.
Along is the last of his kind in the Penan community living near the confluence of the Limbang and Adang rivers near Sarawak’s eastern border with Indonesia. Along has remained in the same area for more than a year, an eon for a nomadic Penan, but stubbornly refuses to move into one of the new villages inhabited by his tribesmen. His hope is that Manser will appear: this is the rendezvous spot mentioned in one of the Swiss friend’s last messages.
Along builds a new home of wood and thatch in the forest every few weeks or months, depending on the availability of game. He dresses in traditional Penan attire, a loincloth that covers his genitalia but leaves his muscular buttocks bare. His feet are disproportionately large and splayed, never having been confined by shoes. He wears necklaces fashioned from rattan and brightly colored beads, the bezel of a gilded wristwatch glinting incongruously beneath a mass of twine bracelets. (The watch has stopped at 3:50.) When he was young, his earlobes were distended by heavy weights. They now hang in 8-cm loops of flesh that almost touch his shoulders. They are his pride, along with the blowpipe he uses to hunt squirrels and monkeys and birds.
But the sixtysomething Along—like most Penan he is vague about his age—doesn’t get much chance to use his blowpipe these days. “The hunting is almost finished here because of the logging,” says Along. “But there is nowhere else we can go. This is the last place left to us. Two of our children—one of them was my youngest son—were killed in January and February, poisoned after drinking river water. The loggers poison the water to catch the fish. My son Ayang was only 18 years old.”
In fact, Along probably doesn’t hold any rights to the land of his ancestors. In Malaysia, says lawyer and activist Harrison Ngau, control of land rights lies almost entirely with the state governments. In Along’s case, a large swath of the land surrounding Batu Lawi was gazetted in 1997 as “protected forest,” a misnomer for land that can be assigned for logging whenever the government so decides. Logging generated almost $1 billion in revenue last year in a state with only 2 million inhabitants. With such huge sums at stake, bitter disputes—and occasional bloodshed—are inevitable. In 1997, police shot and killed a member of the Dayak tribe and wounded 15 others who were protesting the allocation of traditional land to a palm oil company. In 1999, enraged villagers massacred four heavies employed by a plantation company.
Along is still musing over what to do, his thoughts often returning to Manser. “Bruno wrote letters for us to the company and the government and then helped us from the outside after he left. He always said never to fight, never to hurt anyone. But now he is lost to us and I don’t know anymore whether we should fight or not.”
A day later, there is less doubt in Along’s mind. Stalking through a patch of ruined forest an hour from his camp where the bulldozers and chainsaws had just completed a sweep, Along jabs his spear into the glistening red stump of what was once a 100-m meranti tree. “I’ll kill the next man who cuts a tree here,” he shouts to the empty jungle.
When Manser entered the forest in 1984, around 45% of Sarawak’s primary forest was untouched. By the time he disappeared, the figure was 5%. “He didn’t want to go back,” says Peter Manser, his 44-year-old brother. “Bruno had many other things he wanted to do, other people to meet and places to explore: Siberia and South America. But he had no choice. He knew the situation was desperate and that time was running out fast for the Penan.” It was a paradoxical situation for Manser: he had spent almost his entire life preparing himself to live in the wild with people like the Penan, people who were pure, living “close to their source,” as he once wrote. When he was a boy, “Bruno made a bed on our balcony out of branches and ferns and slept in it even in autumn and winter,” says his sister Monica. “That was normal. It was just the way Bruno was. My parents, our family, we were all used to it.” She sits amid geraniums, coffee cups and delicate chocolate cakes on the balcony of her small apartment in a suburb of the family’s hometown, Basel, the black rattan Penan bracelets on her wrists the only sign that she is something other than an ordinary Swiss housewife.
Manser was the only one in the family to finish school (where he once said he felt “like a cow … just rechewing the food fed to me as a pupil.”) After he graduated, Manser went to the mountains to learn from the shepherds and farmers. When his high-school diploma arrived, he fed it into the flames of a potbellied iron stove.
He stayed in the hills for 12 years, herding cows and making cheese, seeking work and knowledge of the old ways: how to work wood and leather, tan hides, stitch clothes. Monica remembers visiting her brother and coming across a cow that had fallen in a ditch and broken a leg. Manser cut its throat and, with Monica’s help, butchered and skinned it on the spot. In 1984, Manser went to a university library to read up on denizens of the rain forest. As he wrote later: “I just came across a tribe whose name is the Penan people, a nomadic hunter and gatherer society. And then one day I decided I would go and try and live there for a couple of years.” After several false starts and brushes with death in the forest—once he got lost and ran out of food; another time he was violently ill after eating a poisonous palm heart—he finally met up with two nomadic Penan. They did their best to ignore him but, as his friend and colleague John Kuenzli says: “Bruno had a thicker skin than anyone I have ever met.” He followed the nomadic group like a lost puppy, and, after some weeks, they took him in.
It was Manser’s dream. He spent his time recording everything, sketching the pattern of a cicada’s wing, how a dead gibbon’s hands were tied so the animal could be carried, how the Penan drilled holes to make a blowpipe.
And the whole six years he was there, he later recalled: “I didn’t once see two Penan quarrel with each other. I didn’t even see one person shouting at another person. I didn’t even see somebody … interrupted while speaking.”
Of course there were things Manser didn’t say too loudly: that life expectancy for the Penan was estimated to be only in the high thirties; that, except in the best of times, hunger was a constant presence, malnutrition and disease not far behind; that it was a deadly place to bring up children. Manser himself nearly died twice, once from malaria and later from a snakebite. Still, he had found his “paradise,” as he called it, a place where he finally felt at home, “like the child in the belly of the mother.”
Like most paradises, however, Sarawak had its Satan: the loggers invaded, unchecked, and the Penan asked Manser for help. He was reluctant. “I just wanted to hunt with the Penan and make drawings of lovely animals and so on,” he said in 1999. “I knew if I got involved I would be biting into a sour apple.” He became what he called “their secretary,” putting their complaints and demands into letters, usually in English, to logging executives and government officials.
Inevitably, the “white Tarzan” began to draw press notice, as well as the less admiring attention of the Malaysian government. After several ethnic groups in Sarawak’s interior started blockading roads to prevent access by logging companies, the Malaysian government blasted Manser as an ignorant Westerner interfering in the country’s internal affairs and sent the police to catch him. On the run almost permanently, he was captured twice, but managed to escape both times, the second by jumping out of a police Land Rover and diving into a river. Manser said shots were fired at him. He also lost all the notebooks and drawings he had done in the preceding four years.
By 1990, Manser realized that his increasing notoriety gave the Malaysian government a convenient scapegoat. (The Penan “cannot be allowed to become anthropological specimens for foreigners to gawk at,” Mahathir once thundered.) Friends in the environmental movement convinced Manser he could make an impact by campaigning in Europe. And so, with a new haircut and a forged passport, he flew out of Sarawak and launched a campaign to stop the destruction of Sarawak’s forest. In 1993, he and Martin Vosscer, a physician friend, went on a hunger strike in front of the Swiss parliament in Bern. Vosscer pulled out after 40 days but Manser insisted on continuing and “nearly died,” Vosscer says, only agreeing to stop the fast after 60 days at his mother’s request. The hunger strike, Vosscer says, failed to achieve its aim—a complete ban on the import of tropical hardwoods in Switzerland—but it did reap publicity. Manser, and the Penan, became famous, particularly in Switzerland and France, where tropical hardwood use started to decline. Al Gore introduced a resolution to the U.S. Senate condemning logging in Sarawak. Britain’s Prince Charles described the treatment of the Penan as “genocide.” He got more notice from Malaysia, too: Mahathir wrote to Manser, telling him it was “about time that you stop your arrogance and your intolerable European superiority. You are no better than the Penan.”
Despite such pyrotechnics, Manser was aware that, as he himself described it, his efforts were having “less than zero” effect where it counted—in Sarawak itself. Logging continued at a furious rate throughout the 1990s, only slowing during the Asian economic crisis near the end of the decade. The knowledge of his failure haunted Manser. Never comfortable in Switzerland, or in the endless round of international conference halls, always missing the forest but dreading returning to it, Manser spent half of each year trying to forget the burden of campaigning, trekking to meet the nomadic Pygmies in Africa, walking for weeks across the Alps. He returned to Sarawak, or tried to, almost every year, crossing over from Indonesia or Brunei. And as the situation there worsened and international attention shifted away, particularly during the Asian economic crisis, his tactics and risks grew more desperate.
In 1997 Manser and a friend tried to enter Malaysia from Singapore as part of a plan to buzz the Commonwealth Games, held that year in Kuala Lumpur, with a motorized hang glider. He was recognized at the border and turned back. The two men considered trying to swim across the Johor Straits, says his companion Jacques Christinet, but abandoned the plan when they realized the journey would involve a 25-km swim and passage through a swamp. A subsequent attempt to get into Sarawak by rowing a dingy from an Indonesian island had to be abandoned when Manser’s campaign office, the Basel-based Bruno Manser Foundation, received a call from the Malaysian embassy warning him not to try. “Somehow they already knew exactly what we were planning,” says Christinet, who now works as a mountain guide in the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
Undeterred, they traveled to Brunei the next year and swam across the 300-m-wide Limbang river in the middle of the night. Christinet was almost crushed by floating logs and gashed his leg deeply on a branch. “You could see the muscle and there was a lot of blood,” Christinet comments, “but Bruno sewed it for me with a needle and thread.” The two men spent three weeks in Sarawak, most of it hiding from police. They also pursued an abortive attempt to order four tons of 25-cm nails for the Penan to hammer into tree trunks, Christinet says. Similar tactics were employed by antilogging groups in the U.S. during the 1990s, sometimes resulting in severe injuries to loggers when chainsaws met the imbedded steel nails.
Christinet was also central to one of Manser’s most futile—and dangerous—”actions,” the descent of the 2.7-km-long funicular cable in Zermatt in 1996. The two men reached speeds of 140 km/h while hanging onto homemade riders constructed out of steel wheels and ball bearings. There was no clear purpose other than lodging a vague protest against global warming and the melting of glaciers, says Roger Graf, who was administering the Bruno Manser Foundation at the time. And the only media present was a Luxembourg TV station, which showed footage of the attempt without any explanatory commentary. For Graf, that was the last straw. He left the foundation soon after.
The Zermatt action was an apt precursor to Manser’s last stunt, a 1999 flight above the Sarawak capital of Kuching in a motorized hang glider. It was another desperate move by a man who was increasingly becoming irrelevant. His numerous letters to the Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud pleading reconciliation or offering to fund a mobile dental clinic for the Penan were ignored. And so Manser put on his brother Peter’s wedding suit, found a briefcase and had his hair cut again. This time, he managed to make it into Kuching without being stopped and, on March 29, 1999, he flew over the city carrying a symbolic lamb he had knitted as a peace offering to the Chief Minister. (His original plan to bring a live lamb from Switzerland was aborted when Singapore Airlines refused to give the animal passage. There were also objections from animal rights activists among his friends.)
As soon as he landed, Manser was arrested and deported. Media coverage was spotty. While awaiting deportation in a Kuala Lumpur prison, his jailers were amused to see that Manser spent his time playing with the knitted lamb. A serious campaign for the rights and livelihoods of the Penan had descended into farce.
And so, Manser decided that he would make one last trip to see his Penan friends. “His goodbye was very different from other times,” says Vosscer. “It was very open ended about how long he would have to stay in Sarawak. He said he was very tired.”
Manser and John Kuenzli, the administrator of the Bruno Manser Foundation, spent several months in desultory travel around northern Kalimantan, gradually approaching the route that Manser would follow into Sarawak. They talked of various actions Manser might take when he came out, Kuenzli says, but never resolved anything. None of the schemes they discussed—bringing a group of Penan to confront Malaysian politicians at an international timber conference, for example—seemed sufficiently dramatic or effective.
Finally, the two men parted and Manser headed for Sarawak. His first intended stop: the holy mountain of Batu Lawi. After failing to climb it the first time, he told friends, he was determined to reach the summit.
The last two people to see Manser alive were a Penan named Paleu and his son. When the group of three came within view of Batu Lawi, Manser asked Paleu to leave him there. Manser said he was heading to Batu Lawi.
Melai Beluluk was a member of two of the five expeditions the Penan subsequently sent out to look for their friend. “We tracked him to the last sleeping place. We followed his machete cuts into the thick forest until the trail reached a swamp at the foot of Batu Lawi. There he disappeared. He didn’t go back. We could find no trace of him in the swamp.” Nor could they find any trace of anyone else coming through the area, such as possible assailants.
The Bruno Manser Foundation organized its own search party, which penetrated to the foot of Batu Lawi; a helicopter circled the rock. The expedition found nothing. One major gap in all the searches still remains, however: none of the search teams was able—or willing—to follow Manser and scale the murderously difficult last 100 meters of sheer limestone that forms the tip of Batu Lawi.
Along segar needs help. a long time ago, he’s not sure exactly when, he stepped on a rusty nail. The pain forced him to take a long trip to the nearest town for an injection. But now the pain is back, shooting up from his legs to his sides and chest and throat.
Forced out of the forest and into the baking sunlight of the logging road, the confident warrior has transformed into a weak and confused old man. He has put on a purple T shirt and blue shorts to hitch a ride with his wife Iot in a pickup truck to get some medical help. Usually voluble, Along falls silent, his face clenched in anxiety as they approach town. Now and then he inquires aloud whether there is any cash to pay for the hotel and the doctor. Along has no money; he never does. That’s the way of the Penan. The pickup driver, a native Dayak called Jake, says the two-ton logging trucks, each loaded with four or five huge logs, make a combined total of 168 trips a day. Each time a truck passes them, the open bed of the pickup is enveloped in a choking cloud of yellow dust. Along buries his head in his wife’s white T shirt. He keeps his head pressed down long after the truck has passed, and several others have taken its place, refusing to watch, clinging onto Iot’s shoulders. Perhaps it is better that Bruno Manser disappeared: the logging trucks have surrounded his best friend among the Penan, and they’re not going away. Perhaps, that is exactly why Manser isn’t here.
(adapted from TIME)