Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court (Conclusion)

Borneo

Borneo shaman (Wikimedia Commons/Владимир Сазонов)

This is the final installment of a five-part story that recounts a remote Borneo tribe’s courtroom struggle against entrenched interests of the modern economy.

In the earlier installments, we met a U.S.-educated Malaysian lawyer who defends the indigenous tribe and the rainforest they depend on for sustenance. He resorts to a unique defense that holds that rivers and trees have legal rights.

Who will win the courtroom battle pitting natives who live off the land against corporations at the forefront of the country’s economic development? Read on to find out.

By Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Katong held a clouded leopard tooth in his hands, closed his eyes, mumbled some prayers, breathed deeply and entered a trance.

When he spoke, his voice changed into a gravelly, rich baritone. He spoke in the Penan language, a simple but rarely heard tongue. His words were mixed with birdsong, whooshing wind noises and crickets.

He emitted a woodpecker’s hammering dtak-dtak-dtak into a tree trunk.

“I don’t like this place,” Katong said in a deep voice.

Judge Aithihyamala tried to ask a question, but was aggressively waved off by Ledong, who signaled just wait a bit.

“Who are you?” Ledong asked Katong.

“Tree. Leaves. Air. Roots. Flowers. Insects. Moss.” Then a slow whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, the rhythmic, locomotive-like sound of a hornbill in flight.

“Do you know what this is?” Ledong held up a small chainsaw, pulled the ignition cord, and the aggressive buzz of the tool shook the courtroom.

“Turn it off.”

And Ledong did so.

The nameless spirit spoke in short bursts, sometimes incoherently, sometimes in what sounded like hornbill cries.

The judge wrote a few questions on a notepad and passed it to Ledong. They were typical “Western” questions. Where are you? Are you alive? Do you want to be chopped down?

And the spirit gave indirect “Asian” answers. “I feel the wind.”  “Squirrels scratch me.” The coughing call of a barking deer. The wheezy growl of a clouded leopard.

And so it went until Katong shuddered and slowly opened his eyes.

* * *

Not all the shamans went into a trance. Some of them repeated a liturgy, which they called ha’ tara, that assisted them to enter a beta state by which they could communicate with spirits.

But many of the shamans remained fully alert and lucid, and clearly told the court about prophetic dreams they had experienced or specific bird omens they had seen, which they interpreted as predicting catastrophes, plagues and disasters if the forest continued to be destroyed.

* * *

Throughout the testimony of Katong and other shamans, the defense counsels, well-dressed men and women with impressive college degrees and a higher hourly rate than Katong and the other shamans earned in a year, shouted their favorite combative phrases.

This is a mockery of the law! Next thing you know the plaintiff will be channeling Bruno Manser!

And they had a point. If you boiled it down, they were objecting to the complete reversal of the legal system. If the trees’ testimonies were allowed to stand, it would threaten the very principles that formed urban Malaysian civilization.

* * *

During the trial, I sought out the defendants – men and women who were accused of cutting the forest. They were ethnic Malay and Chinese Malaysians, powerful people who had been raised on the idea that man has an in loco parentis right of control over “wild” nature and, by extension, the right of control over the “savage” people who live in the forests.

They had all drunk the “We’re doing what’s best for the nation” Kool-Aid. The lectures I received were similar to scoldings I have received by people in power throughout Southeast Asia.

You Westerners built your great civilizations because you cut your own forests.

Don’t tell us what to do.

We have to help our poor naked cousins the Penans become civilized and enjoy the benefits we city dwellers enjoy.

Don’t tell us what to do.

Oil palm is one of the country’s greatest foreign exchange earners. We need that money to develop. You care more about orangutans than people.

Don’t tell us what to do.

Our farmers grow oil palm following international sustainability guidelines. You tell us to protect the “lungs of the Earth,” but you Westerners do all the polluting. The rainforest left alone is unproductive.

Don’t tell us what to do.

* * *

Eventually Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang and the seven other men and women completed their testimonies. Some were loquacious. Others couldn’t go into trance at all. Few made coherent statements. All, apparently, were sincere.

We exist. Don’t kill us. Bad things will happen.

* * *

The verdict came the following day.

“I empathize with your arguments, but my personal feelings are irrelevant,” Judge Aithihyamala said. “The law is clear. Spirits have no legal standing in Malaysia. Decision for the defendants.”

* * *

The defendants and the defense lawyers punched the air, packed their files and made plans to celebrate that night at a large and garish Chinese seafood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur where the brandy would flow, the sharks’ fin soup would be ladled and the men in the group would smoke large cigars as they had learned to do from watching Boston Legal.

* * *

So that should have been that. The Penans, used to generations of disappointment and being ignored by the powers that be, packed up their few belongings in simple but elegant rattan backpacks, and prepared to return home.

Except just then, as people were filing out of the air-conditioned courtroom into the humid heat of a Malaysian afternoon, Ruth went into the deepest trance witnessed during the trial. She stood rock-still, arms outstretched, and roared.

To say it was an unearthly roar would be misleading. It was a roar of the Earth. To the Penans, it was a sign, surely.

* * *

I wish I could say that Ruth’s lament of the tree’s discomfort led to a hurricane that destroyed a timber camp, or a deadly accident for one of the government officials, or a plague of venomous snakes that attacked non-Penan intruders in the forest.

I wish I could say that Bruno Manser’s ghost appeared, Banquo-like, to shake things up.

As far as I know, none of these things happened. The forest is still being destroyed. Ruth, it is said, still wails, but with less vibrancy than before.

END


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.

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