Rainforest Hero – The Life And Death Of Bruno Manser

Author: Ruedi Suter
Publisher: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, non-fiction

The book starts out with the search for clues about Swiss activist Bruno Manser’s disappearance in the ancient jungles of Sarawak.

The author of the book, Swiss journalist Ruedi Suter, and Manser’s brother Erich embarked on an expedition to look for Bruno; they arrive at the spot where he is last seen by his indigenous companions Nari and his son at about 2pm on May 25, 2000.

After that, Bruno is said to have continued to journey to what is apparently Batu Lawi and he subsequently disappeared.

Initially, the book appears as though it is going to provide some clues to Bruno’s disappearance.

It does create a bit of a puzzle there on whether the book is about the search for him or about his life, as the book title suggests.

But by the second chapter, Bruno’s life begins to unfold in the 330-page book.

str2_ffmanserR_ma_coverThe mystery shrouding Bruno’s disappearance cannot be ignored, and in between describing Bruno’s thoughts and his life from his diaries and from interviewing people close to him, the author also leaves questions about his disappearance for readers to ponder upon.

The book, containing pictures of Bruno, his family and his close Penan friends, first establishes the reason for Bruno’s landing in the Sarawak forest – that he, even as a young man, had always loved nature.

Bruno, brought up as a Roman Catholic and who believed in the Tao philosophy, was peace-loving.

As a young man, he stood up against being listed in military service, and as a result, was sent to jail for it.

Due to his love for the mountains, he became an Alpine herdsman.

He then left the comfortable life in Switzerland in 1984 to live with the last nomads of South-East Asia – the Penan.

Interested in nomadic culture, he wanted to get to know people who live self-sufficiently and without money.

He wanted to seek his own hidden roots, says the author.

Bruno hunted with the Penan for wild boar, which he ate with nao (sago starch), their staple diet.

He made efforts to learn the Penan language and about the many unique animals and plants.

Despite the hard living conditions in the jungle, Bruno was deeply impressed by their consideration for others, their strikingly non-violent nature and their deeply engrained custom of always sharing daily essentials to sustain their community:

“The Penan can make us aware of many things through their example; each and every one of us is free to decide which people are primitive and which still need to evolve.”

Reudi Suter. Photo: George Cheah/The Star

The author, Swiss journalist Ruedi Suter. Photo: The Star/George Cheah

The author also points out that, despite their knowledge about the deadly blow pipes, none of the Penan have ever used the weapon against those who tortured them.

Bruno’s peaceful life was cut short when loggers moved in and started to fell huge, centuries-old trees, leaving many animals and fruit trees gone and rivers polluted, resulting in the indigenous people malnourished and depressed.

Bruno considered himself an outsider and felt that he should not interfere but as the situation worsened, he felt he could not abandon his friends, whom he regarded as his second family.

As the Penan and the Kelabit communities began to hold blockades, Bruno teamed up with the like-minded people he met to carry out extensive campaigns about the destruction of the tropical rainforest that displaced thousands of indigenous people.

The author also raises some puzzling events and questions before Bruno’s disappearance 15 years ago.

A rare photo of Bruno Manser being interviewed, taken in 1986. Author Ruedi Suter had met Manser before the activist went missing in 2000. Photo: Filepic

A rare photo of Bruno Manser being interviewed, taken in 1986. Suter had met Manser before the activist went missing in 2000. Photo: Filepic

Much of the knowledge about the plight of the indigenous people may not be new for those familiar with the issues but Bruno stood in the gap, bridging the Penan’s plight to the world at a time when the Internet did not exist or had just been introduced.

The book raises pertinent questions about human behaviour that has brought about destruction to the rainforest.

“The rapid encroachment of the world economy into isolated regions and ecosystems inevitably leads to the displacement of ancient peoples, to human rights abuse and to the destruction of natural heritages,” writes the author.

Packed with many interesting and important details that serve a useful record of the last nomads in Malaysia, the book is engaging and easy to read despite a few rare disjointed sentences possibly due to loss in translation from the German language.

The book may seem depressing with no winning battles and Bruno’s disappearance but his and his collaborators’ work through the Bruno Manser Fund are so extensive and practical that the legacy continues until today.

This book would appeal to those interested in the plight of indigenous people, conservationists, those who wish to pick up advocacy work as well for the young to inspire them.