This is a story of a man who dedicated his life to his beliefs, who fought for the rights of others, who gave a voice to the world’s oldest rainforest, and who mysteriously disappeared in 2000.
Bruno Manser was the kind of legend who descends upon us once a generation: A Swiss medical student turned Alpine herdsman turned member of the Penan nomadic tribe turned Malaysian Enemy of the State turned international environmental activist turned environmental legend. So here goes the story of Bruno, the original rebel we should all remember.
Bruno grew up in a normal family in the outskirts of Basel, Switzerland in 1954. Since a young age he was fascinated by nature. As a boy he would insist on camping in his home’s backyard, even if it snowed. In 7th grade during a school trip in the mountains he took some morning glory seeds knowing they have similar properties to LSD—resulting in him getting too high to continue the trip. At age 19 his strong convictions in freedom, Taoism and Zen-Buddhism lead him to refuse the Swiss mandatory army service, as a consequence he ends up in prison for 4 months.
His twenties are intellectually chaotic. After dabbling in medical school he decides that being close to nature is the only way to achieve real freedom. This prompts him to leave for the mountains of Garubunden where he enrols in Agricultural studies and then lives for several years as a herdsman. During his time in the Alps he comes to the realisation that he is seeking a different experience and meaning, he must come to know people who live self-sufficiently and without money—people that cannot be found in Switzerland. He starts preparing his trip to Borneo. A trip that will radically transform his life and purpose.
By 1983 he is on his way to Bangkok, his first stop. An avid speleologist (someone who studies caves) he travels through Thailand by train stopping every once in a while to explore and climb caves. By the time he reaches the Malay border he decides to test his stamina and ability to live “from nature” by isolating himself from the village of a small island and spending 6 weeks eating from the land—with no local knowledge this results in several poisonings. A month later, Manser travels to Kuching in Borneo aware of a British cave expedition about to begin to the off-bound area of Gulung Mulu national park. He hopes to join them to obtain the necessary permits to enter the “protected” area. The English speleologists cave to his pleas, and with them he enters Penanland for the first time.
Life with the Penan
After the cave expedition Bruno finds the Penan tribe in 1984, he spends a total of six years living with this nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe of Borneo’s ancient rainforest. He learns their way of living: their language, their hunting methods, their healing formulas, their weaving techniques, as well as their incredible ability to share: “conflicts of ownership are completely unknown to the nomads, because their community is based on the principle of sharing.” Nothing the Penan use comes from the outside, everything is fashioned from what the forest provides. In no time he is a full member of the tribe, accepted to everyone as laki Penan—the Penan Man. Far away from Swiss civilization Bruno has found what he was looking for: roots. A life of simplicity, tranquillity, endurance, but also of compassion and selflessness.
The Fight Begins
By 1985 these roots are torn, the blissful tranquillity of the clear cascades and swathes of untouched rainforest are disturbed by the unnatural noise of chain saws. For the Penan this noise was unheard of in the midst of the forest, and unbeknownst to them they are listening to the beginning of the end of their paradise. For Bruno reality hits, the civilisation he escaped is coming back to haunt him, tearing down century old trees and destroying his new home. A dark awakening descends upon him: “My heart weeps as in a dirge—does the paradise really have to die, giving way to chainsaws and bulldozers? An eco-system, like an organism, which, untouched for millennia, has evolved in all its variety.”
One year into living with the Penan and Bruno is already using his knowledge from the outside to write to the authorities. Later another Swiss traveller joins the fight, Roger Graf, he meets Bruno in Sarawak (Penanland in Malaysian Borneo) and commits to helping them once he returns to Europe. By 1986 Graf has obtained over 6,800 signatures on a petition to save the last indigenous people of Sarawak and has founded the Pro Penan Association supported by Greenpeace. Back in the jungle Bruno meets with leaders from other Penan tribes and villages discussing a blockade to peacefully protest against the loggers.
The protest and blockade begin in March of 1987. 4,700 people from 26 Penan and Kelabit villages block the access roads to loggers for 8 months—preventing over 1,600 loggers from entering with 210 bulldozers. Manser and the Penan formally request the Malaysian Government to establish a natural reserve and put an end to the massacre. Delegates of Penan people even travel to Kuala Lumpur in desperation to plead with the government. However, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamed’s stance is clear, he WILL bend to corporate greed, better yet? He’s realised that the Penan’s best weapon is Bruno Manser, so he places a bounty on his head. Anyone who brings Bruno to the authorities receives around $25,000 in compensation. A large sum for forest dwellers, or an insignificant one for people who don’t use money.
By 1988 Bruno is classified as an enemy of the state. Meanwhile outside of Malaysia a completely different story is circulating, the image of Bruno as a spokesman for the Penan becomes a media sensation, with international human rights and environmental NGOs joining the fight. By the end of 1988 the fight seems to be gaining momentum. Switzerland declares a boycott of tropical timber, whilst the European Parliament places a limit on import of tropical timber. This is a big blow to the Malaysian government —Malaysia back then was the world’s largest producer of tropical timber (The bans were reversed in 1992). The same year film producers take wind of Bruno’s story and three movies are produced about Bruno and the Penan fight: Tong Tana, Blowpipes and Bulldozers, A journey into the heart of Sarawak.
In January 1990 Bruno’s dad falls sick, and his friend is sent to Sarawak to tell him the news. After 6 years in the jungle Bruno decides to keep fighting from Switzerland and return home. As a fugitive his escape from Malaysia is rocky, he needs a fake passport and a different look. However, he succeeds and takes his role of spokesperson for the Penan seriously. Upon his return he has interviews, and meetings every day and founds the Bruno Manser Foundation (BMF). By July protests and hunger strikes are organised in over 13 countries outside of the Malaysian embassies. However, despite all efforts back in Sarawak the situation deteriorates, every day 12sqkm of forest are being torn down, destroying the Penan morale and threatening their very existence. They describe their situation as “feeling like fish who have been thrown onto land.”
A year later the G7 summit takes place in London, Bruno sees an opportunity. He enters the high-security zone climbs up a lamppost and attaches himself to it with a heavy chain, then hangs a banner that reads “G7? SARAWAK? FOREST? DESTRUCTION? HUMAN RIGHTS! VIOLATIONS! MORATORIUM NOW!”
Throughout the 90s Bruno travels continuously undercover back home to Penanland. With his strong campaigning in Europe he has increasingly angered Malay officials, so every time he returns he needs to hike in through neighbouring Brunei or Kalimantan, Indonesia. Around January of 1992 Bruno is invited to Hollywood. Film writer David Franzoni is deeply intrigued by the Swiss Jungle Man and Bruno signs a contract giving Warner Bros the right to film his life. For this he will receive $20,000 a year, his only income until the film is dropped in 1998.
During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio Bruno paraglides from the Corcovado peak into the Maracana stadium with a group of American and Brazilian parachuters. They land during the break of a football match with 100,000 spectators, their message: “From Borneo to Brazil, Save the Rainforest, Respect the rights of indigenous people.” Unfortunately, in 2020 that message still hasn’t sunk in.
By Christmas of 1992 Manser travels to Tokyo. Then the Japanese converted 36% of globally traded tropical wood into disposable chopsticks, fast-food boxes, pallets, and timber formwork every year, 86% of which came from just two Malaysian states: Sarawak and Sabah. Marubeni was the largest manufacturer in Japan, accused of illegal felling it was single-handedly driving deforestation in Borneo. Bruno begins a hunger-strike, dressed only in a loin-cloth in December he campaigns outside of the Marubeni headquarters for weeks. Japanese activists join the hunger strike and together gain high-level attention in the company. Marubeni promises higher standards, but without publishing their import records their compliance remains unclear.
In 1993 the deterioration of Sarawak is deeply felt by the Penan. Their rivers are being depleted by dynamite fishing whilst their rainforest is destroyed by the timber industry. This causes a famine in the community. However, their resistance persists, and hundreds of men, women and children build barricades against the continuous invasion of bulldozers. As a sign of solidarity with the Penan Bruno organizes a public fast in Bern—demanding that Switzerland reinstate its ban of tropical wood. After an insane 60 days of fasting Bruno is on the verge of death, only then does the Swiss government propose a new law: a mandatory declaration of wood and wood products. Such regulation would automatically exclude illegal Malaysian timber. The proposal is later abandoned.
In 1994 Manser amplifies his and his foundation’s interest to other threatened rainforests and indigenous communities, namely he travels to Ituri in Congo and to Greenland to meet the Inuit. He also receives an award for Environmental Conservation by the Prince of Lichtenstein. During his acceptance speech he changes tactic, he pleads with listeners to believe in their power of choice. To choose wisely against the purchase of tropical timber.
The late 90s are a wild mix of strong campaigning techniques and stealth visits to his home in Borneo. The most outrageous stunt is performed by Bruno and Jacques Christinet. The televised stunt shows them dropping 800m with an auxiliary cable on to the Klein Matterhorn aerial cable-car, where they hang banners urging Switzerland to abandon its timber import. During their descent they reached a speed of 140km per hour while riding on a self-made rider with steel wheels and bearings. Other stark examples of his campaigning include paragliding uninvited into WEF in Davos and parachuting into a stadium in Malaysia offering a live goat to the President in sign of peace for Eid Mubarak.
In February 2000 he travels back to Sarawak accompanied by a Swedish film crew, ready to film Tong Tana II.
In May 2000 the loudest voice of the Borneo Rainforest was silenced. The Swedish film crew had left and Bruno alone in Penanland was last seen beginning his ascent of Batu Lawi—a mountain he knew well from his years in the Rainforest. Bruno never returns from Batu Lawi, and his body is never found. His Penan friends searched high and low to no avail. By 2005 Bruno was declared officially dead. Whether Bruno simply disappeared into his beloved forest, or was silenced once and for all by his corporate enemies, remains a mystery.
Today all we can do is ponder on the life of this incredible man. On his search for truth in a desolute world. On his commitment to justice, in an unfair fight. On his palpable courage against corporate and political greed.
I recounted Bruno’s life story in the hopes that it will inspire you. Inspire you to live for justice. Inspire you to want a world that preserves its rainforests. Inspire you to make small changes in your every day life. Inspire you to continue Bruno’s fight and join Extinction Rebellion. As of date, February 2020, 50% of the Borneo rainforest has been deforested.
Ruedi Suter: “Rainforest Hero, The Life and Death of Bruno Manser”
Bruno published his own memoir in 1992 entitled “Voices from the Rainforest: Testimonies of Threatened People.”
By: Isabella Cavalletti