Borneo Tribesmen defend torching loggers' camp 4-24-07

Associated Press Writer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - Four members of a Malaysian Borneo tribe confessed Tuesday to torching a campsite run by loggers, but defended the move as necessary to protect their lifestyle in one of the world's oldest rain forests.

Police released the four indigenous villagers after seven days in custody late Monday and instructed them to appear in court on May 23 to learn whether they will be charged with arson, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, said the tribesmen's leader, Jacob Emang.

“We have no regrets about what we have done,” Emang told The Associated Press by phone from Malaysia's Sarawak state on Borneo island. “Since we could not stop the loggers with our words, we had no solution but to burn their camp. We could not compromise.”


The case has renewed attention to concerns that the timber and palm oil industries in Borneo are encroaching on territories that indigenous tribes have inhabited for many generations.

Conservationists say badly controlled logging and land clearing for palm oil estates is depriving people of land for farming and hunting, and that such developments have critically endangered several plant and animal species in Borneo.

Emang said loggers have come increasingly close to his village of 1,100 Iban tribe members, often bulldozing their fruit and rubber trees. The villagers also feared the loggers' activities might pollute their river and threaten their natural water catchment area.

Emang said he and three others went to the loggers' camp April 12 after verbal requests for them to leave had failed. The villagers ordered the workers out of their makeshift wooden huts before setting the huts ablaze with kerosene, he said.

However, Emang said he and the others plan to plead innocent if charged with arson.

“We had justifiable reasons. We would not have burned their camp if they had not trespassed and destroyed our property,” Emang said.

An industry executive who is advising the loggers said they have temporarily stopped work to confirm the boundaries of their operations with forestry officials. The loggers will let police decide whether to charge the tribesmen, the adviser said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

District police officials declined to comment Monday.

Mat Jusoh Muhamad, the district's police chief, told the AP last week that the loggers had the Sarawak government's approval to operate in the area, which is on state-owned land but is regarded by tribes as ancestral territory.

Timber has been Sarawak's main economic driver since the early 1980s. The state exported about 7 billion ringgit (US$1.8 billion; euro1.38 billion) worth of logs and timber products in 2005, mainly to China, India and Japan, according to government statistics.