It is the responsibility of all of us who live in the modern world to heed the call of the world's indigenous peoples, so that a new world will come into being when all peoples can live according to human need...

Acceptance speech – Sahabat Alam Malaysia – Sarawak (SAM)

We are extremely happy to be here with you this evening, and we are very gladdened to be given the great honour of being one of the recipient this year of the Right Livelihood Award.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed”. So said Mahatma Gandhi who was the inspiration and leader of India’s independence movement, a truly great leader of the Third World, and now being more and more recognized as a pioneering and practical philosopher of a socially just and ecologically sustainable form of development.

I was pleased to learn that this saying of Gandhi is also one of the slogans of the Right Livelihood Award. It is also a favourite quotation in Sahabat Alam Malaysia (or Friends of the Earth, Malaysia) and in the environmental and consumer movement in our part of the world.

Our gathering here this evening from different parts of the world is a significant tribute to the efforts of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation to bridge the gap between philosophy for justice and practical action; between the rich North and the poor South; and between the greed of a few and the need of the many.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues, Sahabat Alam Malaysia has been given this honour tonight in recognition of our work to save the environment, and in particular the battle to save the forests in Sarawak. In reality, the honour belongs more to the native people of Sarawak who in the past few years have been waging a relentless fight to save what is left of their precious rainforest. A rainforest that is 150 million years old, the oldest in the world. A rainforest where their fathers and forefathers have lived for countless generations, in harmony with the green and natural environment.

When the logging companies came some years ago, they chopped the trees, caused the animals to run away, eroded the soil, disturbed the farmlands of the native people, polluted the rivers, and desecrated the ancestral graves of the natives. The people suddenly lost large parts of their natural resource base, their sources of food and clean water, and an important part of their cultural and spiritual links with their past and their history.

Especially affected are the Penan people, the last remaining hunters and gatherers in the Borneo forests, but also affected are other tribal groups like the Kayan, the Kenyah, Iban, Kelabit and Lun Bawang, who grow their own food, and live at the edge of the forest. All of them, around half a million, rely extensively on the forest for life.

Starting in March 1987, they put up human barricades across logging roads at more than 20 points in two major logging districts in Sarawak. These blockades comprise some logs and frail wooden structures and their own human bodies; hundreds of men, women and young children, standing across the logging roads, blocking the timber lorries from getting through. This stopped logging for several months.

At the end of last year, the blockades had to be taken down, but the latest report is that new blockades are appearing once again. Against the full might of timber interests and the full power of the modern world system, the natives’ defence of their forest looks so frail, so heartrendingly pitiful. It is because of this that their fight is even more courageous, and so full of significance. It is a clash of different systems, of different civilizations – on one side a powerful modern system motivated by greed; on the other, a traditional system that is oriented towards fulfilling human needs.

The natives are fighting not only for their property, their land and forest, but also for their food supply, their water, their very life. They are fighting not only for themselves, but for their tradition, history and culture passed from their forefathers; and for their children, and their grandchildren in the generations to come. They fight not only for themselves, but ultimately for the world, for all of us in this indivisible world, for if the forests are destroyed, life on earth will be irreparably damaged through the loss of human cultures, the loss of animal and plant species, through the Greenhouse effect, the rise in carbon dioxide levels, the rise in temperatures, the terrible changes in atmosphere and world climate.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, Sarawak is only an example of the crying need for human understanding of the worldwide destruction of the tropical rainforest and the cultures and livelihood of indigenous peoples.

From the Amazon to Africa, across to Asia and the Pacific, large tracts of forests have been devastated for profit. In Africa, hinds once covered with forests are now bare. As a result, desertification is increasing at alarming rates. Thailand which was a leading exporter of tropical wood is now forced to import for domestic needs. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are fast losing their tropical forests.

At the forefront of the battle to save the forest are the indigenous people. For these people whose lives depend immediately on the forest, their very survival is at stake. From the Arctic through Amazonia and the Pacific, across the continents, the rights of indigenous peoples are trampled upon. Millions of these people are suffering who are unable to comprehend the evil actions of modern man. It is modern man whose selfishness and relentless pursuit of materialism who is destroying their habitat, taking away their lands, and even killing them.

In culturally and physically destroying the indigenous peoples, those who live in the modern world are also destroying themselves. For the whole world is now slowly awakening to the realization that the economic growth and development patterns of the modern world are not sustainable, are in fact, suicidal. The indigenous peoples possess cultures and knowledge accumulated over generations, a precious heritage and understanding of how to live in harmony with nature. They are the true masters of sustainable living, of sustainable development, of a kind of sustainability that is genuine, not the types of sustainability that has now become the fashion, that wants to do a technological fix-it job, but continues to waste resources for a meaningless high-level lifestyle.

In this regard, we believe that the roots of the problem of deforestation and waste of resources are located in the industrialized countries, where most of the tropical wood, most of the oil, mineral, metal and fishery resources of the Third World end up. The rich nations, with a quarter of the world’s population, use up four-fifths of the world’s resources, and mostly for things that don’t contribute to human well-being or happiness. It is the throw-away society of the North that is leading to the throwaway of the world. Thus despite the so-called greatness of knowledge of modern science and technology, the modern man is far less knowledgeable, in fact far more stupid than the indigenous, native man who lives close to nature.

I will give you just one mull example. In the deep forest of Sarawak, the Penan people eat their sago food with a unique kind of chopsticks, which they use for years and years. In Japan, the Japanese now use and throw away 20 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year. Some of the wood for these chopsticks comes from Malaysia. When we told this to the Penan in Sarawak, their response was: “Why are the modern people so stupid to use their chopstick once and throw them away? Don’t they know this uses up the precious forests of the world?”

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, this is exactly the point, which the Penan understand so well and which the modern people have forgotten to understand. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” That message given to us by the sages through history, is still being passed on to us from the indigenous peoples of the world.

That message must be absorbed by us in all humility, a humility that is necessary for modern man and woman to acquire if we are to learn from the native man and woman. And having absorbed the message, we must all move into action, to intensify our actions, to help save the world’s environment, to build a new and different world, a world that is socially just and equal, a world which is ecologically sustainable, a world which attains genuine peace because people have learnt to live justly with one another and in harmony with nature.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, when our Sahabat Alam Malaysia representative, Harrison Ngau was told of this Right Livelihood Award, his response was that “We will all have to work harder to save the forest.” Mr Harrison Ngau apologizes for not being able to be present here to share this evening with us. When Harrison told the Penan people about this award, and told them that the award was given to SAM and equally to the Sarawak natives the Penan replied: “We are very happy that the world now recognizes our existence and our problems. We now hope our problems will finally be solved.”

It is the responsibility of all of us who live in the modern world to heed the call of the world’s indigenous peoples, so that a new world will come into being, where all peoples can live according to human need and not according to human greed.

Once again, I thank you for the honour of giving us this precious Right Livelihood Award.

SAM Sarawak
P.O Box 216
Marudi Baram
98058 Sarawak
21, Lintang Delima 15
11700 Penang