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March 3, 2010

Sarawak: The Human Consequences of Logging


The physical and mental health consequences of logging on the native peoples of eastern Malaysia have, to date, not been fully realized in the West. Instead, local, Malaysian, and international efforts to adequately protect the native forests of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah have primarily focused on the ecological and cultural damages incurred through logging. Recent reports from local native groups and from international visitors, however, have brought attention to health problems and inadequate medical care of the area's indigenous people.

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee decided to sponsor this study as part of its work to protect diminishing wilderness around the world and the indigenous people living in them. The study's objective as to evaluate the severity and extent of the health consequences of deforestation and to offer corrective solutions. The study area was in the Tutoh and Baram River districts in eastern Sarawak, adjacent to the borders of Brunei, Sabah, and Kalimantan. The native cultural groups visited were the Iban, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, and Penan.


Malnutrition affects between 20 and 50 percent of Sarawak native children, who are more susceptible to this than adults. A 1987 study by Paul Chen of the University of Malaysia Medical Faculty found that malnutrition among Penan children was high in recently logged areas (31.4 percent) as compared to forested areas (10.9 percent) Marudi Hospital reports admissions for scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and protein deficiency at the rate of six per month. Malnutrition also lowers immunity, leading to increased frequency and severity of infectious disease, particularly in children.

Malnutrition is attributed directly to deforestation Construction of logging roads, timber camps, large-scale cutting, damage to residual uncut trees, and crude methods of extraction all significantly depreciate the wildlife and wildlife habitat upon which the settled and nomadic native people depend. As logging escalates, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to hunt traditional game animals. Further, ground surface exposure, flooding, road collapse, and slope instability from logging cause watercourse siltation, which diminishes fish populations and fish habitats. Commercial logging depletes other wild foods, too.

The state government has provided some - albeit inadequate - alternative food sources through development of village agricultural plots. Not only is the scale of agricultural assistance inadequate, however, but there is cultural resistance to agriculture by the seminomadic villagers (those who live in permanent longhouses, yet hunt and gather food in the primary forest).

Infectious Disease

Although childhood immunization and malaria control programs have been implemented with some moderate success, infectious diseases abound. Tuberculosis afflicts many, with 30 or more new cases admitted to Marudi Hospital each month. Many more go untreated due to prohibitive transportation costs.

Parasitic diseases such as roundworm, hookworm, scabies, and lice are prevalent in outlying communities. Rheumatic fever (and subsequent valvular heart disease), too, is very common. Bacterial skin infections are particularly common, especially in children, and postpartum infections in women and newborns are also particularly high. Because children are not fully immunized, measles, mumps, rubella, and diphtheria are not uncommon. With the introduction of a cash economy and changing cultural values, sexually transmitted diseases have become prevalent, predominantly in the larger centers.

The high levels of infectious disease are attributed to the concentration of traditionally nomadic people in settled villages. Other causal factors include decreased resistance through malnutrition and the shift to a nontraditional diet. Inadequate community health education and inadequate health services further compound the infection rate. In contrast, nomadic Penan are reported to have better nutrition and less infectious disease than their settled counterparts.


Despite servicing a population of 50,000 Marudi Hospital is staffed by only three physicians and a number of hospital and field nurses. Although the available medical personnel provide a good level of service for their small numbers, overall the area is undersupplied in medical staff. The Sarawak government has actively encouraged nomadic Penan to settle in villages and has failed to live up to its promises of improved health services. A notable exception is the village of Long Bangan, where improved housing is being built and a health clinic and improved agricultural plots are being established. Supposedly, this community receives special treatment due to its proximity to a large tourist center, which would make the community highly visible to foreigners. In theory, outlying villages are expected to have one field nurse visit per month, as well as ongoing immunization and malaria control programs. In practice, however, some villages were missed for more than six months. (In one I was told that the medical visit three days earlier was canceled so that the medical attendant could go hunting.)

Congenital Defects

The study area has an unusually high level of birth defects, notably cleft lip/palate (two to three per month see in Marudi Hospital) and ambiguous genitalia (one to two per month). Presumably this is secondary to the use of DDT and other pesticides for malaria control spraying in and around housing, and for the treatment of head lice, In Long San. a chemical sprayer was seen going about his work without gloves, protective suit, or mask.

Cultural Damage and "Lifestyle Disease"

As native peoples are increasingly resettled, urbanized, and integrated into cash economies, diseases related to the use of and addiction to sugar, alcohol, and tobacco abound. Sugared drinks and foods have led to poor nutrition, poor dental hygiene, and diabetes. Alcohol problems - not as extensive as in the West - are really only seen to any extent in the cities. Aggressive tobacco advertising is increasing the number of smokers.

Although those in authority actively and passively encourage an end to the nomadic and seminomadic life of the native peoples, ostensibly for the peoples' own benefit, the voices of those affected are quite different. A document endorsed by native people from 20 villages states, "While we appreciate every good development program that really serves our basic needs, we oppose and object destructions to our land, forest crops, and other properties. We feel that it is our own right to decide... that type of development we want and... at our own pace."

Logging Injuries

Logging is one of the most hazardous industries in which to work in any country; the statistics of logging deaths and injuries in Sarawak are especially high. Logging ranks the highest in fatal and nonfatal industrial accidents in Sarawak, accounting for more than 60 percent and 45 percent, respectively. Between 1980 and 1984, the logging industry in Sarawak had one fatality for every 136,000 cubic meters of logs produced and one nonfatal accident for every 7,000 cubic meters. In comparison, in 1979, the province of British Columbia, Canada, had one fatality for every 3 million cubic meters (25 times less than Sarawak) and one nonfatal injury for every 31,000 cubic meters of logs produced (4 times less). In the hospitals that were visited, logging fractures and amputations took up 20 to 30 percent of the male wards. This high accident rate is attributed to crude logging techniques (in some areas logs are pulled by hand in teams) and lack of adequate education and supervision, together with inadequate or nonexistent safety equipment and a payment system based on log volume produced. Compensation for injury and death is entirely inadequate: permanent disability such as leg amputation is compensated with one year's pay, and surviving families of those killed receive a little over a year's pay in compensation.

Prison Conditions

Although I was not permitted access to the Miri jail to assess the health of the native people being held for blockading logging roads, it was reported that they were receiving poor treatment. Their bail was exorbitant and the blockaders were held in remand (as opposed to sentencing) for up to two months awaiting their scheduled court hearings. Their jailing experience included an inadequate diet, lack of bedding, overcrowding, and mosquito infestation. Some jailed Penan were taken to hospital for treatment during their remand, but hospital staff declined to provide information on the reasons for their medical transfer.

The Penan issued the following statement on their jailings: "The desperate actions [blockades] of the native people (should) not be regarded as criminal and... enforcing the criminal law fails to address the fundamental issue of land rights and survival, as well as environmental protection."


The despair of the Penan and other native groups continues to grow as their forest and rivers, the source of their livelihood, continue to be degraded and destroyed by logging. Appeals to the authorities continue to be ignored, the courts are slow to hear customary land claims, last-ditch blockades are harshly dealt with, and international efforts to data have resulted in an increase in logging operations (in some contested areas hauling has actually increased to three-shift, 24-hour operations). This resignation was felt most severely in the community of Long Sepati, in the Akah River watershed in the upper Baram area, where there was serious talk of the village of 200 people disbanding in search of food and a better life.

Medicinal Research Damage

Deforestation often means the loss of plants that could open new doors in pharmaceutical research. Plants have been forced to evolve protection, particularly in tropical climates where plant life abounds and is in fierce competition for survival. Already the defensive properties of many plants have been tapped for various drugs, from aspirin (derived from willow bark) to vincristine (a leukemia drug developed from the rosy periwinkle). With large-scale logging and resultant species extinction, the world is losing its medicinal research pool, and Malaysia is losing potential income from research and production of these medicines. In addition, the knowledge of traditional native medicine is being lost. Ethnobotanists describe the loss of this information "as if libraries were being burned down."


In the short term, international relief agencies could provide food and medical aid if the government is unable to do so; individuals and governments can donate relief and directly to the Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth) office in Marudi. In the long term, however, food supply for the Penan and other groups can only be achieved through protection of adequate hunting and food-gathering lands. Indeed, this is what these people have been asking of their government from the beginning of the forest conflict. The native people are seeking control of their customary lands through the courts, though these methods are slow. At the time of writing, there have not been any injunctions to halt logging operations while the legal cases are heard; this would be a constructive step. The legal system should allow halfway facilities for those held on remand.

Logging operations are largely for raw log exports to Japan. Reducing the timber harvest area in order to create customary lands does not necessarily have to affect the economic value of the wood fiber to the country. Alternatives to log exports could be gained through secondary and tertiary manufacturing, whereby increased economic value could offset harvest reduction. Indeed, if this happened sooner than later, more value could be gained in the long term compared to current high-level, low-value added extraction. Japanese timber exporters have a moral obligation to purchases timber from countries that have sound environmental and cultural policies with respect to logging operations.

Infectious disease can be better controlled by improved medical services through reevaluating government spending priorities. Underservicing could be improved by salary incentives and by medical graduate apprenticeship requirements for more physicians and nursing staff to work in outlying areas. If approval is gained from the Malaysian government, Western medical organizations might be able to establish equipment and staffing for clinics in areas of need. Access difficulties to regional hospitals could be averted through funding for transport of legitimate emergencies, as occurs with native people in Canada.

A great deal could be gained through health education. Optimally, educating a health worker in his or her own village could assist in promoting proper nutrition and hygiene. Further, the government could reduce "lifestyle disease" by restricting promotion of harmful products such as sugar, alcohol, and tobacco.

Other measures, such as seeking alternative to teratogenic pesticides, would reduce the high level of birth defects. Adequate wilderness and cultural protection for the study of tribal medicines, as well as for new drugs, should be a priority.

Logging injuries should decrease to levels in the West. This can only be achieved by an industry and a government that is committed to high standards of occupational safety. Injury and death should be adequately compensated.

A recent Sarawak election battle publicly aired current conflicts between private and public interests within the government. Politicians that have financial interests in the departments that they administer should place their investments in a blind trust, as is done in Canada and other democracies.

A Final Word

"Keep your money. You can print money by you can't print land. We want our land."


Australian Wilderness News

1989 Ministers Fiddle While World's Forests Fall. October.

Conservation News

1989 No Forests No Home. October.

Habitat Magazine (Australian Conservation Foundation)

1989 Blowpipes and Bulldozers. February.

1989 Sarawak. A Gentle People Fight for Survival. October.

Hansen, E.

1988 Stranger in the Forest. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Institute of Social Analysis

1989 Logging Against the Natives of Sarawak. Selangor, Malaysia: Institute of Social Analysis (available from Cultural Survival).

Japan Environment Monitor

1989 Timber Action in Sarawak. August.

Malaysian Forester

1986 Trends of Logging Accidents in Sarawak. Vol. 49, no. 3.

Rainforest Information Centre

1989 The Penan. Rainforest Information Centre Newsletter. Lismore, Australia, September.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia

1989 Report of the Sarawak Natives Defending the Forest. Sahabat Alam Malaysia Newsletter.

Sarawak Penan Associates

1989 Statement. 19 October.

Sarawak Star

1989 Be Firm on Green Issue, MP Urges Government. 7 November.

Scanorama Magazine

1989 Wonder Drugs That Go Up in Smoke. November.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.