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Swiss environmentalist Bruce Manser: A mystery unlikely to be solved

Rainforest Hero: The Life and death of Bruno Manser

By Ruedi Suter

Swiss Environmentalist Bruno Manser (pictured with the Penan people of Sarawak) went missing in 2000.
Swiss Environmentalist Bruno Manser (pictured with the Penan people of Sarawak) went missing in 2000. Photo: Supplied

Bergli Books

If indigenous rights campaigner Bruno Manser's​ story had been written as fiction it would be dismissed as too outrageous to be worth reading.

But the extraordinary actions of this Swiss-born campaigner – jailed for refusing military service, living with the jungle nomads in Borneo for six years, surviving a pit viper bite, twice escaping police custody, enduring long hunger strikes and hurtling down the Matterhorn aerial cable on a flying fox at 140 kilometres an hour – are true.

Numerous testimonies, videos and contemporary media reports confirm his exploits.

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Now, at long last an English language biography has been published, providing some insight into Manser's life.

Born in Basel, Manser was never going to lead an ordinary life. As a boy he made a bed of branches and ferns on the balcony of his family home and slept on it, even in the cold Swiss winter. Although city-born he enrolled at an agricultural college, trained as a herdsman and took to the Swiss Alps where for 10 years he herded sheep, cattle and goats and milked the animals to make cheese.

But it was his time in Borneo that brought him fame, including a front cover of TIME magazine and feature articles in newspapers around the world.

Surprisingly, this biography devotes relatively little space to his time with the blowpipe-hunting Penan, who in the 1980s were still living nomadically in the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Manser did not simply visit the Penan as an observer. He took to their way of life, learning the language, preparing and eating their staple food, sago, and acquiring many of their skills to enable him to live in the jungle.

Along the way he recorded what he saw in diary entries and in drawings.

Not everything was pleasant and he did not find the way of life easy. At times he got lost and suffered from hunger and cold.

He came closest to death when bitten on the leg by a pit viper. On the 20th day after the bite, when trying to squeeze out pus, a mass of muscle suddenly ballooned from the wound.

"I am scared," he wrote, "… the muscle between between calf and shin has detached itself below the knee and is now hanging like a long horn out of the leg." The next day the muscle was cold and Manser took a knife and severed the mass. Ever the observer, he photographed the hole.

But he was also in luck. A month after he was bitten an unexpected visitor brought potassium permanganate solution and antibiotics and the wound gradually healed.

While Manser was learning the Penan way of life, the forests upon which they depended were being destroyed. Native people had mounted protests and blockades against the logging before Manser's arrival in Sarawak, but in the late 1980s these protests increased in intensity, with the Penan prominent among the native people objecting to the destruction.

The Malaysian authorities saw Manser as a prime instigator of trouble. While he himself rejected the allegation that he was leading the protests, and while the Penan also denied the claim, there is no doubt that he drew world attention to the problem.

Populist media portrayed him as the "white Tarzan" but he also generated serious media attention to the impact of logging on indigenous people and their lack of land rights.

The more the media covered the issue, the more annoyed Malaysian authorities became.

Although his only crime was over-staying his visa, the government was keen to hunt him down and expel him. They got their chance at the Kelabit​ village of Long Napir​ where police arrested him. But when the vehicle transporting him back to the coast stopped to refuel and passengers went to relieve themselves Manser made a break, escaping into the bush.

Later that year, Manser came close to being ambushed by special forces on a jungle track. After a tip-off, the special forces waited for nine hours, but were disbanding their operation when Manser arrived on the scene. Spotting a boat moored on the river, Manser backed off and hid, only to hear voices coming from behind him. Ignoring shots and calls to stop, he crashed through creepers and bush, dived into the fast-flowing Magoh​ River and escaped.

Manser finally left Sarawak in March 1990, persuaded by Swiss friends to return home because his father was seriously ill.

Back in Europe, he campaigned energetically for indigenous rights, fundraising through Bruno Manser Fonds, lobbying politicians to stop rainforest timber consumption and undertaking dangerous stunts to draw attention to the cause.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the account of the tensions that grew in BMF between Manser and some supporters, including co-founder Roger Graf.

Matters came to a head with Manser's plan to launch himself on the Matterhorn aerial cable on a flying fox. None of his key colleagues supported the idea, which they considered attention seeking, too dangerous and too complex.

But finding a like-minded daredevil, Manser did it anyway. Unfortunately it achieved no publicity for the anti-logging cause, only attracting television attention as a stunt.

Manser showed some awareness of his faults, writing to Graf "I have done something wrong by taking you for granted as an ally without sufficiently catering for your feelings."

Burned out, Graf resigned shortly after this exchange.

Manser's concern for the Penan gave him no peace and he demonstrated immense courage in fighting for their cause. But he was also naive, believing at times that he could persuade Sarawak's chief minister to stop the logging and stupidly trusting people who could not be relied upon.

Periodically during the 1990s, Manser slipped back into Sarawak, sometimes walking across the Kalimantan jungle border.

Each time more forest was gone. (Today only 20 per cent of Sarawak's primary forest is intact and only a handful of Penan live nomadically.)

In May 2000 Manser wrote "I am becoming aware of the danger of losing sight of the individual in all this." He observed that he was attracted by everything foreign and young Penan were likewise attracted by everything outside their tradition.

Later that month, walking in the mountainous border region with two Penan he asked them to leave and headed for the twin peak of Batu Lawi.

He was never seen again.

Today there is much speculation as to what happened. Was Manser killed by loggers or police? Did he commit suicide? Is he still alive, living secretly with the Penan? Or most likely of all, did he die as a result of an accident? Search parties have been mounted over the years but so far no trace of him has been found.

Paul Malone is the author of The Peaceful People: The Penan and their fight for the forest