Article is taken from Malaysiakini and can be found here.
Tania was in Form Four when she first visited a timber camp. She was a lively girl of 15, well-liked among her schoolmates. Like all her friends, Tania enjoyed swimming, playing netball and making fun of boys in her small rural school in Sarawak. Like many teenage girls, she was impatient to grow up, see the world, meet the man of her dreams and start a family of her own.
At the end of one school term, four years ago, when all the children were returning to their far-flung villages, Tania was picked up by a 4×4 truck.
A large timber company, which was operating a concession in her village’s area, owned the truck. The driver should have sent Tania back home, three hours’ drive by logging track. Instead, the driver took her to one of the timber camps about an hour’s drive of her school.
Almost all of Tania’s schoolmates were boarders at their remote secondary school. The students’ villages were spread out far and wide – a day’s walk, or even further, from the school. To get home for a term break, or go back to school, they climbed into three-tonne monster logging trucks, or they squeezed like blue-and-white livestock, into the open back of a 4×4 logging vehicle.
The Company’s broken promises
Most of these vehicles belong to a timber giant, called ‘The Company’ by local villagers. The Company extracts enormous profits from the forests belonging to Tania’s village and other communities in the area. Many resisted the invasion of their native customary rights (NCR) land. But some village headmen, like the one in Tania’s village, gave in to the Company.
The Company had promised transport for students on its fleet of trucks, free of charge, every time the children needed to get home or return to classes. The Company told Tania’s village that its bulldozers would help to shore up dams for the village’s piped water supply. The Company said that schools and clinics follow after the logging tracks were built, and that logging would bring development to these remote communities.
The Company employed ‘community liaison officers’ to preach the good news to the villagers. These public relations people presented jerseys to village football teams, and handed out cash at Gawai and Christmas.
But after logging took off, the Company talked less to the villagers. Wild game and fish, usually abundant, became scarce. The villagers’ water supply turned brown, because of logging around the water catchments on the hills. The water coming through the pipes “looked like Milo”, the villagers said.
The local people complained to the district office, but their appeals for help were ignored. Later, the Company went back on its promise to use its bulldozers to deepen the dam for the water catchment supplying Tania’s village.
Young men from Tania’s village felled a tree to set up a blockade across the company’s logging access road, to try to make the company keep its promises. The Company lost tens of thousands of ringgit a day.
The Company brought in hired thugs, or samseng, from the towns, to force the villagers to take down the blockade. The young men from Tania’s village fired a couple of blowpipe darts, without any poison in the tips, into the door of the thugs’ guardhouse at one timber camp, and most of the thugs fled back to the towns.
Then the police came to Tania’s village. The young men tried to reason with the police, but were met with intimidation and threats. The blockade was dismantled by force. The Company continued to build logging tracks and drag trees through the forest to the ports on the coast, and beyond, to Japan, China and Europe. In the end, “community relations” became strained.
A daughter’s disappearance
Against this backdrop, Tania might have been expected not to want to visit a timber camp. But she was driven to a timber camp all the same by the logging Company driver. Camp workers told Tania’s father later that Tania had gone there voluntarily, to “watch TV and drink beer”.
At first, Tania’s father waited for her to return from school as he saw the other schoolchildren coming home to their parents. After Tania failed to turn up, her father went to her school to look for her, hitching rides along the way.
Tania’s father arrived at her school, and found out that Tania had left school with an unknown man, in a truck belonging to the Company. Tania’s father asked for help from the headmaster, but the headmaster said Tania had already left the school, and was no longer his responsibility.
Tania’s distraught father hitched a ride from one timber camp to the next, searching for his daughter, making his way along the many miles of long, dusty logging track. At each camp, he was told Tania had not been there, or had just left.
After three weeks of desperate searching, Tania’s father found her in one of the timber camps, and took her home. Tania was as relieved to see her father, as he was to see her. But she talked little about her ordeal. And she did not want to go back to school.
Tania’s father later brought Tania to the nearest police outpost, in a small township, six hours from home, to make a report of rape. The police accepted the report but shrugged their shoulders. The police could not, they said, investigate a crime so far away. The police did not mention the distance they had travelled to demolish the logging blockade at Tania’s home village.
Tania’s father was a poor farmer, and did not know where to turn. He travelled even further downriver, to the divisional police station. He spent a crippling amount of money to get there. His report was accepted, but again, his appeal for justice was not answered. He was told to go home.
Several months after returning home, Tania recovered her animated spirit. But the 15-year-old never behaved again like a schoolgirl. She had learnt some of the mannerisms of a grown-up. She looked, in some ways, like a grown-up, although she was only a girl. She still played netball with her friends, but she was no longer one of them.
Tania is now in her late teens, working in a bar in a town, many hours from her home village. She gave up school soon after she was taken to the timber camp.
Sexual abuse by loggers
Other rural girls and women, throughout Sarawak, have said they have suffered sexual abuse by timber camp workers. Several girls made this allegation in the Star newspaper, in an Oct 6, 2008 article ‘Penan girls claim abuse’.
Two different logging companies denied their workers were involved in sexual abuse of girls in their areas of operation. Their public relations staff claimed that, on the contrary, the companies worked hand in hand with local communities, to bring development to these rural areas.
Other people from rural communities tell of bitter experiences too. One young man, Musa, described the effects of the intrusion of a logging company on his home village. The logging company was the same giant operating in the area of Tania’s village.
Musa was staying with relatives in a longhouse, a day’s walk from his own home village. He was explaining why he had left home, and recounting his life story, sitting on the bare wooden floorboards, in the small arc of light of a kerosene lamp, while he smoked cigarette after cigarette.
Musa said most of the young people in his home village, both men and women, had left home, just as he had, since a logging camp had begun operations there two decades ago.
“The logging camp workers come into our village at night,” he said quietly. They are usually drunk on ‘langkau’, and they’re looking for a fight. They harass our women. The girls and women hide from them.
“The timber camp workers try to take the women away. That’s why I left. I couldn’t stand it any longer. If I’d stayed in my home village, I’d have wanted to fight. And then I might not have survived.”
Some communities are still able to look after their young. One exemplary rural secondary school in Limbang division in Sarawak, has arranged for the transport of its children to and from school. Road travel by trucks to rural villages is organised, and paid for, by the school.
The school’s headmaster and teachers have taken their own initiative to source funding for these travel arrangements. The teachers themselves oversee their students being picked up and dropped off. The rural communities in that part of Limbang are delighted.
We all have a role to play in keeping our children safe. We all share a responsibility for our children’s well-being, and for justice, everywhere in Malaysia. The crimes against Tania and the other girls were crimes against humanity.
Crimes against humanity in rural communities are crimes against our collective humanity. Will the rest of us stand up against these injustices?