TheBorneoPost, 27 Sep 2019: Last week, a film about one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer tribes living in Malaysia’s rainforest premiered at the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland. The film shows its indigenous actors urging authorities to formally grant them land rights after a decades-long battle. ‘Paradise War’ follows the 1984 expedition made by intrepid Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser who lived with Malaysia’s Penan nomads and made their plight globally known.
Today, most of the estimated 10,000 Penan people in eastern Malaysia on Borneo island are no longer nomadic and instead live in settled communities dependent on forests for food and building materials. Their way of life has come under threat by the recent clearing of forests for logging, oil palm plantations and hydroelectric dams. A small number of Penan are thought to maintain a nomadic way of life.
Indigenous activists hope the RM25.1 million film will bring their plight to international attention and prompt Malaysian authorities to pause logging. “After more than 30 years of logging on Penan land, we call for a logging moratorium and for the official recognition of our lands,” Nick Kelesau, a Penan elder who plays the role of an iconic headman in the film told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Bruno Manser, the film’s main character, campaigned to protect the Penan’s ancient way of life from modernisation and to fend off loggers before he disappeared in the Malaysian rainforest in 2000. “Manser’s story is more relevant than ever,” said the film’s Swiss director, Niklaus Hilber.
Who was Bruno Manser?
He was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1954. During his younger days, Manser was an independent thinker. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, and he studied medicine informally. He later completed his upper secondary school.
At the age of 19, Bruno Manser spent three months in prison, because he refused to participate in Switzerland’s compulsory military service. After leaving prison in 1973, he worked as a sheep and cow herder at various Swiss Alpine pastures for twelve years. During this time, Manser became interested in handicrafts, therapeutics, and speleology. He laid bricks, carved leather, kept bees, and wove, dyed, and cut his own clothes and shoes. He also regularly pursued mountaineering and technical climbing.
At the age of 30, Manser went to Borneo, looking to live a simpler life. Unfortunately, deforestation of Sarawak’s primeval forests started during Manser’s stay with the Penan. As a result, the Penan suffered from reduced vegetation, contaminated drinking water, fewer animals available for hunting, and the desecration of their heritage sites. Manser worked with Along Sega to teach the Penan how to organize road blockades against advancing loggers.
After 15 years of fighting deforestation, Bruno Manser disappeared. He was last seen carrying a 30-kilogram backpack by his Penan friend, Paleu, and Paleu’s son on 25 May 2000. Manser stated his intention to climb a mountain alone and requested Paleu to leave him there. He has not been seen since.
On 18 Nov 2001, eighteen months after his disappearance, he was awarded the International Society for Human Rights Prize for Switzerland. After search expeditions proved fruitless, a civil court in Basel-Stadt declared Manser to be legally dead on 10 March 2005.
Bruno-Manser-Fonds -> https://bmf.ch/en