Greed, power and politics: Dirty deeds in the Borneo forest

Logging on a massive scale, and the corruption attached to it, is at the heart of The Borneo Case.
The Borneo Case
Directors: Erik Pauser, Dylan Williams
Cast: Mutang Urud, Bruno Manser, Clare Rewcastle Brown, Peter Jaban
Rating: ★★★


Dedicated to Swiss activist Bruno Manser, who went missing in the dense forests of Malaysia in 2001, The Borneo Case shows the struggle and sacrifices activists face in the semi-liberal country as they fight against corrupt political leaders.

The documentary unfolds by showing the pristine waterways of Borneo, and the raw and lush beauty of its renowned rainforests, before the scenic image cuts to the ugly pictures of  the extensive deforestation and logging of today.

Led by indigenous activist Mutang Urud, The Borneo Case features Mutang’s journey back to Malaysia from Montreal, Canada, after he was exiled for protesting against logging in the early 1990s.

Mutang knew he could not let the rest of his tribesmen suffer in silence after a new dam project flooded his hometown in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on Borneo.

So he contacted Lukas Straumann, the head of the Bruno Manser Fund, along with Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown and Radio Free Sarawak DJ Peter Jaban. Together, they devised a plan to expose the dirty deeds of the then-chief minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is now head of state.

The investigation faced several obstructions along the way, particularly confronting the power of the influential Mahmud and his cronies, making it seem as if success for the activists was almost impossible.

The film follows the actors as they struggle to make their voices heard around the world, from London to Frankfurt to Borneo. The activists juggle challenges, from threats to their personal safety in Sarawak, especially after their actions angered Mahmud, to trying to reach big corporations such as Deutsche Bank, which has been investigated over accusations of laundering money for Mahmud. 

As a piece of investigative journalism, the film has similarities to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, the screen adaptation of The Boston Globe’s expose of Catholic child abuse, in the fight the activists faced against a powerful institution.

But in the end, despite the risks and seemingly impossible chance of success, the activists managed to stop the construction of the dam, albeit temporarily.

Adenan Satem, who replaced Mahmud as chief minister of Sarawak, promised to halt the construction of the dam, and did not make any promises about other dams in the future. He died in January after the film was made, and the new Chief Minister, Abang Johari, has promised flood-mitigation projects. 


The Borneo Case has the potential to be a hit, but the characters are presented in a two-dimensional way which causes the film to fall short. There is hardly room to showcase the vulnerabilities or flaws of each of the characters, instead all the criticisms are directed at Mahmud.

There are several times where the characters are visibly excited or nervous, for example, when they join Adenan Satem at the end when he announces that he will halt the construction of the dam. 

Perhaps because it is a documentary, the characters are not acting from a script and they could simply be this calm and composed in real life, but a bit of drama would have added to the film.

The Borneo Case featured at the Environmental Film Festival in Melbourne this month, after its first screening took place on Malaysia Day, September 16, in more than 30 cities.

The Borneo Case panel talk: The fight to save forests


“Oil palm is the leading driver of deforestation in Asia,” says The Forest Trust’s Michael Pescott, at a panel discussion after the screening of The Borneo Case – an investigative documentary into corruption and illegal logging in Malaysia.

Michael Prescott

The panel discussion, part of the 2017 Environmental Film Festival this month in Melbourne, focuses on three key issues brought up by the movie: informed consent; resources benefiting locals; and the capacity for government control.

In the film, the government was accused of not having notified the indigenous community or asking for their permission before they started building the hydro-electric dam. Even though extensive areas of forests were cleared and it was estimated that millions were earned from it, almost none of the indigenous people benefited from it.

This is why the panellists at the discussion – which included Julia Mylne, a representative of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – regularly ask people to be more savvy with their purchases, asking them to check for FSC certification, which shows that the product was sustainably sourced. 

“As consumers, everyone has that power to make responsible choices and drive that change in the marketplace first. When people are more certain of their choices and what certification is, more people are going to invest in ensuring that their products are coming from responsible sources,” Ms Mylne said.

“Organisations like ours … we often don’t have the resources to invest in uncovering corruption itself, but certainly this is what the purpose of the certification is – to directly fight against those practices.”

The FSC is not just focused on saving forests through eco-friendly and sustainable ways of logging and farming. It also makes sure that what logging is done benefits the local community by providing them with jobs, for example, and making sure that it is an economically viable option.

Jullie Mylne

Ms Mylne said certification had, on occasion, been taken away from companies if they breached the rules, such as not respecting indigenous communities, or deliberately killing native flora and fauna through logging in areas with endangered species.

Melbourne University forest and ecosystem science Professor Rodney Keenan said companies and government should work together to create sustainable and ethical ways to harvest the land to cause the minimum impact on local communities and the environment.

“A lot of traditional uses did include clearing of the forest so they would clear areas of the forest based on rotational basis, a system of shifting cultivation,” Prof Keenan said.

“But that was often 20 or 30-year cycle so the forest would be able to grow back and they would recover their nutrients, status and fertility, and over time they would go back to the area again … so that was a sustainable long-term system.

“As populations grew and the areas they had available became smaller, some of the shifting cultivation approach was shifted to shorter cycle and more intense fixed agriculture areas.

“So if the government had planned the clearing in order to maintain areas for conservation within these areas that have been converted to agriculture, then the biodiversity outcomes could have been better.”

Prof Keenan said making smart choices was a step forward but that did not erase the problem entirely, because most of the problem was actually localised, so the solutions should be targeted at the local community and market instead.

Rodney Keenan

“Eighty per cent of wood harvested around the world does not cross international boundaries so a lot of the problems are much more locally contained. We need to be working at that local level to improve operations within countries in order to provide some impact on these drivers that are causing the problem,” Prof Keenan said.

He said it was a common misconception that all timber production harmed the environment. In reality, sustainable timber production could benefit both the local community and the trees, because businesses would then mark up the value of timber.

“Under the right conditions, timber can be sustainably produced and different types of timber industries can provide benefits to local communities and can bring an economic value to forests and for those communities, and that might then discourage them clearing forests and converting them to high value crops like oil palm,” Prof Keenan said

“Trying to give more value to wood that is being produced and encourage more sustainable approaches to managing timber for sustainable production is a better way to go than just saying we should stop using timber or timber products.”