New book in the Farm Library: The Diaries of Bruno Manser!
A dream has finally come true: after five years (!) of searching, I finally got myself a copy of the diaries of Bruno Manser – one of my personal heroes, who lived with the Penan people in the Rainforest of Borneo from 1984 to 1990.
During this time he wrote down experiences, stories, songs, and recorded in great detail the everyday life as hunter-gatherer in the jungle, including detailed instructions on how to build huts using nothing but a machete, track, hunt, butcher and prepare various animals, prepare sago starch from palms, identify dozens of different fruits, edible and medicinal plants, make baskets, backpacks, bracelets and more from rattan, make torches from tree resin and palm leaves, tie the traditional loincloth, make a blow pipe, darts, and quiver, obtain lacquer, glue and other resins from trees, make tools from bones, instruments from bamboo, collect wild honey, catch snakes and insects, and plenty more useful things for aspiring foragers and wannabe primitives (like us) in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Bruno becomes completely assimilated into the small bands that roam the pristine jungle, he learns how to live like the Penan, how to speak their language, how to use a blowpipe, prepare sago, start a fire, identify trees, and he even wears their haircut and loincloth.
He talks at length about culture, spiritual beliefs, taboos and social life of the Penan, as well as their increasingly escalating conflict with powerful timber companies who invade their land and leave chaos in their wake – loggers bulldoze graveyards, cut down sago palms, dart poison trees and fruit trees, soil rivers and poach in their territory. The government looks the other way, and, in many instances, even encourages the exploitation and destruction of one of the oldest Rainforest on earth. The police acts like the logger’s private army, forcefully opens blockades on logging roads build by the Penan as a protest, and threatens them with violence (and sometimes translate those threats into action). RIdiculously small sums of money, “jobs” (as loggers and prospectors) and housing projects are offered, but never does any official acknowledge that this land actually belongs to those who inhabit it for ages already.
Bruno himself mostly stays in the background, admitting that it is not his land, his culture and therefore not his battle to fight. He wants the Penan to realize themselves what is going to happen and act out of their own intention to protect their unique and beautiful way of life.
The government, the companies, the police and the media use him as scapegoat and blame all the civil disobedience on him – going as far as to portray him as “King of the Penan”, white civilized foreigner among primitives, who uses them to push his own selfish environmentalist agenda. Nothing can be further from the truth, though, all blockades are self-organized and every Penan assures that they don’t have any leader, but everyone has a voice.
Bruno gets caught two times (!) by the police and escapes both times narrowly (!!). After a rumor that the government of Malaysia put a MY$50,000 bounty on his head (logging in Sarawak is profitable enough to allow such lavish expenses), he decides to flee.
After returning to Switzerland, his home country, in 1990, he spent a decade campaigning for the land rights of the Penan and against deforestation of what was once one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
In 2000, he decided to return to the Rainforest and has been lost ever since, with no trace found by either the Penan or Swiss expeditions.
His diaries are his legacy, and an incredibly important and intimate document. Detailed sketches and drawings of plants and animals accompany the reader throughout the books. Long out of print and nowhere to find, the Swiss publisher finally released the fourth edition (only in German available) last month. I haven’t bought a new book in years, but I had to take this chance! Definitely worth it, though!!
Anyone interested should watch the documentary “Bruno Manser – Laki Penan” (available with English subtitles).