A human rights lawyer from Borneo goes to court for a tropical rainforest against rapacious corporate interests. The first installment in a five-part story.
By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski
“Your honor, I call our ethno-witnesses.” At a signal from Andrew Ajang Ledong, 12 men and women stood, hesitatingly.
The chief justice, a bemused ethnic-Indian Malaysian named Samuel Aithihyamala, stared over his half-glasses at the plaintiff’s lawyer, then at the large group of men and women who had just risen. “Just how many witnesses do you have, Mister Ledong?”
“One for each of the large old-growth trees in the Penan homeland,” Ledong answered. “We’re not sure of the precise number, but probably in the region of 6,000.”
“You’re planning to call approximately 6,000 witnesses?”
“No, your honor. That might challenge the patience of the court. I’ll keep the number down to a dozen.”
“The court appreciates your consideration, Mister Ledong.”
* * *
The witnesses for the plaintiff had Penan names, but they were not recorded by the court stenographer, a bored civil servant who was tired because she hadn’t been sleeping well. The stenographer described the defendants as “Penan witness A, male,” “Penan witness B, female,” and so on. I did get their names, though: Katong. Ruth. Paya. Melang. Tingang. John. Nari. Gisa. Aiau. Along. Jemal. And Sega. They were shamans, or dayong, who could heal and communicate with the spirits. And they represented the Penans’ last hope to save their forest.
* * *
It was the toughest case of Ledong’s career.
Ledong is a member of the Kayan tribe, one of several indigenous ethnic groups that live in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. I was friends with his father, Avalon, a chief’s son who years earlier had hosted me in his longhouse on the Upper Rajang River.
Avalon was a keen secondary school student, and I was a Peace Corps volunteer just out of university. Avalon went on to have just one child, Andrew, and made sure the boy got a solid secondary school education at St. Thomas’s in Kuching, the Sarawak capital.
By virtue of his brains, friendliness and financial help from a large environmental NGO, Andrew went to Washington, D.C. where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree at George Washington University.
He was Sarawak’s first, and is still the state’s leading, human rights lawyer. For decades he has argued on behalf of indigenous Sarawakians who have had their lands confiscated by timber operators, who have had their traditional forests stolen by conglomerates wanting to plant oil palm, who have seen their Native Customary Rights ignored.
* * *
In Ledong’s case – “The rainforest of the Tutoh/Apoh/ Baram rivers ecosystem vs the Government of Malaysia, the Government of Sarawak, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Asia Pulp and Paper, Double Bintang Oil Palm Plantations Limited and Numerous Local Officials” – his plaintiffs were the trees themselves, or to be more precise, the spirits, or penakoh, that live in the trees.
According to the Penans, who were told so by their shamans, each large tree is inhabited by a specific spirit, described as a numen (plural: numina) by anthropologists. Each numen has a right to exist. It was the numina that occupied the trees that would speak through Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang and the seven others.
Ledong said that the trees should be granted juristic personhood by the court, just as corporations, governments and ships at sea are considered juristic persons, with inherent rights and responsibilities.
* * *
Such philosophical concepts are fine, but a legal case requires a specific plaintiff to claim that a specific crime has been committed by a specific defendant. The crime, in this case, was considered a violation of the innate rights of nature, akin to a basic violation of human rights.
And the specific request? That the entire river catchment area of the Tutoh, Apoh and upper Baram rivers should be preserved for eternity and that application be made to UNESCO to designate the area a biosphere reserve in which the Penans and other resident indigenous groups would have freedom to live in the forest, where they could cohabitate peacefully with the forest spirits found therein.
* * *
The Penan dayong didn’t testify immediately. First, Ledong presented the conservation problem.
He called on scientists, conservationists and biologists who presented attractive charts and sobering films showing the extent of forest destruction related to oil palm cultivation.
Several of the scientists gave testimony heavy on numbers and statistics – the extent of river pollution and estimates of biodiversity loss.
One researcher even tried a “numbers overload,” a conservationist’s tactic to overwhelm a listener with profuse and complicated statistics. He came up with a dozen different ways to present the statement “since I began my testimony, rainforest half the size of Andorra has been destroyed.”
Some of the conservationists chose the emotional approach. One of the world’s last remaining rainforests is being destroyed! A rainforest one hundred million years old is being destroyed! A crime against both humanity and nature!
Such testimony went on for a day, often interrupted by angry interjections by the defense lawyers. That study has not been peer-reviewed! Conjecture! Emotional blackmail!
The witnesses played on the heartstrings of the judges using poignant appeals that work so well with donors, by showing powerful photos of orangutans which had been hacked to death by oil palm farmers elsewhere in Borneo.
Objection your honor! There are no orangutans in the upper Baram.
“Poetic license,” Ledong replied.
“Sustained,” said a weary Judge Aithihyamala. “Stick with photos of dead animals from the region in question, Mister Ledong.”
(To read the second installment of “Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court,” click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer whose books include “An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles,” “Distant Greens,” “Curious Encounters of the Human Kind,” “Redheads,” “Share Your Journey” and “Soul of the Tiger” (with Jeff McNeely). This story is excerpted from “Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia,” which will be published by Explorer’s Eye Press in early 2018. The author can be contacted at: www.sochaczewski.com.