Indigenous leaders from Sarawak demand an end to timber greenwashing in the UK

Indigenous delegates from Sarawak, Malaysia visit the United Kingdom this week to talk about Britain’s part in the destruction of rainforests in Borneo. The UK is the third largest importer of MTCS certified timber in the world.

(LONDON, UK/BARAM, MALAYSIA) An Indigenous delegation from Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, is visiting the United Kingdom to launch a new UK campaign to clean up the tropical timber trade and ask the UK government to suspend the import of so-called ‘sustainable timber’ under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme MTCS. The UK is the third largest importer of MTCS-certified timber in the world. The new CUT campaign (Clean up the Tropical Timber Trade) highlights the impacts of destructive logging in Borneo’s forests and Indigenous territories and encourages the UK, as a key market destination for Malaysian timber, to act.

While in the UK, Celine Lim, Indigenous Kayan leader and head of the Malaysian grassroots organisation SAVE Rivers, and Komeok Joe, a Penan elder and head of Indigenous organisation KERUAN - Voice of the Penans, have met with UK and European government representatives, Malaysian diaspora and climate justice NGOs and activists. They have raised their communities’ concerns over deforestation and corporations’ failure to respect Indigenous land rights, as well as the role of the UK in driving these impacts.

On Monday 23rd January, Celine Lim and Komeok Joe were joined by over 30 UK supporters in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to collectively mourn the loss of the world’s rainforests and show gratitude for our Earth. From underneath Cecilia Vicuña’s gargantuan ‘Dead Forest Quipu’ installation, Komeok Joe and Celine Lim called out in solidarity to Indigenous Earth activists across the globe, and bestowed a traditional Sarawak ‘ash-blessing’ on participants during a powerful ritual-ceremony devised by British artist and activist Gaby Solly. The group went on to form a ‘funeral procession through London, to hand-deliver letters to the UK Government and to King Charles, Leader of the Commonwealth, demanding UK action to stop further rainforest destruction.

In the letter to the King and the British government, communities explain: “the logging companies tell the UK that their timber is sustainable. Do not believe them. They have not asked us for permission to log on our territories.” The letter invites the King and British government representatives to visit their area and witness the destruction themselves: “After seeing the destruction of our forests with your own eyes, we cannot imagine that you will still allow this timber to enter your country.”

Last year, the Indigenous delegation visited the Netherlands, top importer of MTCS-certified timber, to bring their #StopTheChop campaign abroad and show how the global community is linked to destruction of the rainforests.

Quotes from participating organisations:

Celine Lim, Managing Director of SAVE Rivers, said:
“The UK’s consumption of Malaysian timber puts pressure on our forests and threatens the Indigenous communities’ way of life. The logs are taken from our forests without the knowledge, even less the consent of the affected communities. We have repeatedly raised the communities’ concerns with logging and the dangers of greenwashing under the MTCS label with the respective authorities in Malaysia, to no avail.”

Clare Oxborrow, Friends of the Earth’s forests and supply chains campaigner, said:
“As a significant importer of Malaysian timber, the UK has a responsibility to ensure that our demand for wood and commodities like palm oil do not destroy precious forests and cause harm to people overseas. For too long, communities in Sarawak and elsewhere have been ignored while decisions are made to clear their traditional lands and forests. Voluntary certification schemes that UK consumers rely on to guarantee sustainability aren’t working. The UK Government needs to hold companies to account for environmental harm and human rights issues in their supply chains, and to give affected communities the ability to seek redress for damage caused to their lands and lives.”

Komeok Joe, CEO of KERUAN organisation, described recent developments on the ground in Sarawak:
“Last year, a logging company extracted timber from an area proposed as core protection zone under the Upper Baram Forest Area, a conservation project supported not only by the Malaysian government but even the International Tropical Timber Organisation ITTO. This company is now taking the first steps to get this timber concession certified under MTCS. The local Penan communities strongly oppose any logging in that area, called Siman mountain, as it has high cultural and spiritual significance. We ask the British government to open their ear to our plight and help us. Anyone must first come and see the reality on the ground before approving it for certification or import.”

Gaby Solly, CUT campaign coordinator and artist, explained why it was so important to include this solidarity action at the Tate Modern as part of the visit by Celine and Komeok:
“Vicuna’s installation at the Tate is an invitation to engage with the real issues of ecological destruction, human-rights abuses and the power of communal action at a very visceral level. Celine and Komeok responded to the testimonies of fellow Indigenous land defenders highlighted in this artwork, calling out in  formidable words of solidarity. People from across Britain came to show their support, and join in this mutual time of grief and gratitude for our Earth - a unique participatory occasion which launched the start of the Clean Up the Tropical Timber Campaign in the UK, and left many in tears.”

Watch the film about the ceremony at the Tate Modern and the mourning march through London: Rainforest ceremony & mourning march through London

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