I thought I had just been lucky six months ago when I encountered clear, almost alpine air in the mountains in the heart of Borneo. After all, Long Lellang sits at a relatively low elevation (400 meters) and January is supposed to be the end of the "wetter" season. It must be the massive forest and regular passing rain showers that scrub the air until it sparkles.
An hour by longboat down the Akah River sits the Penan village of Long Benali, at the very frontline of the struggle to save the Borneo rainforest. On one side are the Goliaths of Malaysian logging: Samling Global and Shin Yang Group, multi-billion dollar conglomerates advancing in a pincer-like fashion on the last of Sarawak's unprotected virgin forests. On the other side are the impoverished Penan, former nomads forced within my lifetime into a semi-nomadic existence of farming, fishing and hunting under the tutelage of their more settled, more literate neighbors, the Kelabits.
Behind Long Benali is a mountain ridge on the flanks of Mt. Murud, the core of the last primary forest in the area. Makeshift, mostly symbolic barricades erected by the Penan have temporarily delayed Samling's plans to harvest the trees, but they will certainly be back again to continue their methodical advance on what is, according to Sarawak state law, their forest concession.
Six months ago in this village, I could hear the chainsaws of Shin Yang's logging crews felling trees across the Akah River. It was my last day there. So, I could not investigate further.
Dennis, a very youthful 52-year-old, and Adonia, 19, both Penan, now lead me along the Benali River, clear and tea-colored as it flows out of the pristine forest before meeting the cloudy waters of the Akah River, contaminated by runoff from logging.
We cross the Akah by foot and then follow a logging road. Shin Yang, after tense meetings with Long Benali elders, has stopped logging, for the moment.
The temperature rises significantly when we leave the shady forest, triggering a full-body sweat.
All along the road, the forest has been violently torn up by bulldozers. This is "sustainable" selective logging in Sarawak. A side logging road, severely rutted, rips straight up the mountain, taking the steepest possible route. It is difficult for us to keep traction walking up it even though we are all wearing shoes with cleats. Dennis tells me it is less than a year old. Erosion has already chewed down to the soft sandstone bedrock. This sustainable logging has the look of drawers being ripped out of chests and the contents dumped out onto the floor during a daylight burglary. Orange earth has been laid bare. Dead branches of trees torn from their trunks hang lifelessly.
Selective logging is portrayed by the logging industry as botanical dentistry. The commercially valuable trees are carefully extracted, leaving the surrounding forest intact. Instead, gashes run straight down the slope showing how marketable forest giants were slid straight down to save the logging company time and money.
This practice is not the exception but the modus operandi in Sarawak. There are thousands of these gashes spread out all over the mountains of Sarawak. I have seen too many to keep count: up the Rejang River valley, east from the trading post of Kapit to the Indonesia border, along the road to Bakun Dam, on the road inland to Marudi, and now the mountains around Long Lellang are just the latest to be given the treatment.
Atop one such scar, a massive stump is all that remains of a tree, hundreds of years old. The tree was cut down and then dragged down the mountain where it still rests, killed for nothing. The massive tree was hollow and, hence, worthless to Shin Yang.
Perversely, the logging road has opened up a breathtaking view, rare in an undisturbed rainforest. It is midday but there is a morning light clarity. Nothing but virgin forest stares back at the three of us because we're facing east toward the center of the island. The cobalt sky streaked with high cloud could be Yosemite, but it is the sky above one of the wettest forests on the planet, one of the oldest too.
The air is filtered through billions and billions of leaves. It changes, though, when a forest is damaged by logging.
Dennis told me later over dinner that he has heard through the Penan grapevine that oil palm is already being introduced into Penan land far from the sea, working its way closer to Long Benali.
Dinner tonight was vegetarian. There were no fish caught, nor wild boar killed for dinner. Logging has already taken its toll on the staples of the Penan diet by forcing these nomads to become part-time farmers who supplement their diet by hunting and fishing in a shrinking forest. Now even that may soon no longer be a viable survival strategy.
Hundreds of kilometers of forest westward to the coast have been completely logged over. A national park sits to the east, which is good news, and then there is the Indonesian border. This forest near Long Benali represents the last significant tract of unprotected virgin rainforest in Sarawak. The Penan, through non-violent means, attempt to hold on to it by their collective fingertips.