How a Small Group of Activists Helped Bring Down Corrupt Government In Malaysia

Borneo Death Blow

Directed by Erik Pauser and Dylan Williams (2017)

Film Review

This is a fascinating documentary about an activist group that campaigned hard to bring two major Malaysian corruption scandals to international attention – including one involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak and 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The story starts in the early nineties when Bruno Manser, a Swiss environmentalist, and Mutanga, a Penan tribesman in Sarawak, paired up to protest wholesale rainforest logging on the island of Borneo (Malaysia). After successfully blockading the logging trucks for more than nine months, the activists and their supporters were imprisoned and torture.

In 1992, they undertook a world tour to bring the plight of Borneo rainforests and the Penan. They visited 24 cities in 13 countries, including the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the UN. The response they received was underwhelming.

In 2000, Manser returned to Sarawak and was “disappeared” in the jungle. Fearing for his own life, Mutanga went into exile in Montreal.

Fifteen years after Manser’s death – – concerned about a controversial dam project that  permanently displace an additional 50,000 indigenous Penan – Mutanga linked up with activists running Radio Free Sarawak shortwave station from London

Meanwhile the founder of the radio station Claire Rewcastle Brown partnered with the Bruno Manswer Foundation in Switzerland to research the $15 billion in private wealth the Malaysian forestrt minister Taib Mahmoud accrued for allowing foreign companies to illegally log Bornero’s pristine rain forests. It was an extremely complex scenario involving money laundering, off shore accounts and holding companies, as well as Goldman Sachs, UBS, HSBC and Deutsche Bank.

The went public with their findings at a Deutsche Bank shareholder meeting. Their presentation instantly focused international and social media attention on Malaysian corruption for the first time.

Taib was forced to resign, with the new forestry minister committing to ban both logging and new palm oil plantations.

Thrilled by the outcome, Brown subsequently undertook an investigation of the corrupt relationship between Malaysia’s prime minister and 1 MBD. In July 2015, she published a  report revealing that personal bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak held nearly $700 million tied to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The attention her report received led to a prolonged mass protests in Malaysia and the defeat of Razak in the 2018 general election.


*1MDB was a fund set up to finance various Malaysian development projects: Malaysia Corruption 1MDB Scandal

 

 

Economic colonization: Gold mining in the Philippines

Golden Gamble: Gold mining in the Philippines, a dirty business

RT (2017)

Film Review

This documentary concerns rural Filipinos who scavenge abandoned goldmines in a continuous struggle to feed their families. Because the old mines are submerged in up to 30 feet of water, the operation relies on divers to scoop up mud from the bottom. Others treat the nuggets with mercury to extract the gold, without face masks or protective clothing. The gold is sold on for $16-32 per gram to local gold merchants.

Although this informal mining is illegal, the government turns a blind eye. The scavenging operations generally produce 10 grams per 24 hours of operation. Children as young as eight can earn about $2.30 per day to buy food for their families.

Mortality rates are extremely high, from collapse of the mine walls, failure of the divers’ breathing tubes and lung and neurological disease from mercury and other toxic exposures. Other participants in the operation develop debilitating skin rashes and ulcers.

There is pressure on the government to fence off these unofficial mines – something local Filipinos oppose as the region offers no other source of employment.

Economic Colonialism: Who Really Pays for Your Tires?

Rubber Tires: A Dirty Business

DW (2019)

Film Review

This documentary examines the brutally exploitive and unsustainable conditions in which tires are produced.

The filmmakers begin by visiting rubber plantations in Thailand, the world’s largest rubber producer. On one of the largest rubber plantations, Cambodian immigrants (Thai workers refuse to work for the starvation wages offered) receive approximately half the minimum wage ($140/month), despite working everyday and four nights a week. They are also exposed to Paraquat, a deadly herbicide causing severe liver and kidney disease and banned in 32 countries.

Pay and working conditions in Thai rubber processing plants are somewhat better. There workers earn $150/month ($250/month in the busy season), plus free accommodation and electricity and 20 kg of rice a month. Unlike plantations workers, they live in shacks provided with kitchens and bathrooms.

The filmmakers also visit Cambodian rubber plantations, where they speak with villagers who have been illegally driven off their land to make way for rubber plantations.

The final segment of the film investigates the tire retread industry, which recycles old tires by putting new tread on them. Studies reveal that modern retreaded tires are just as safe and reliable as new ones, despite using 80% less new rubber than new tires. With global demand for tires increasing by 7% annually, there needs to be a much greater effort to market retreaded tires to sustainability conscious consumers.

The tire manufacturers DW contacted about the atrocious working conditions on their rubber plantations and in their processing plants (Goodyear, Bridgestone, Michelin, and Continental) declined to be interviewed.

Economic Colonialism: The World’s Dirtiest River

Citarum: Indonesian River Keeps Textile Industry’s Dirty Secrets

RT (2019)

Film Reiview

This documentary concerns the world’s dirtiest river, the Citarum River in Indonesia. Citarum Island, one of the poorest regions in the world, is home to 5,000  factories producing clothing for fast fashion labels such as H&M, Calvin Klein, Uniqlo, Tommy Hilfiger and Marks and Spencer (see The made in Indonesia opportunity). All illegally discharge toxic waste into the river.

In addition to irrigating 4,000 rice fields, the Citarum provides drinking water to 25 million residents. Rice farmers complain of severe skin rashes and ulcers, as well as the virtual collapse of their rice harvest.

After a three year investigation, local activists discovered that Citarum lead levels were three times and polonium* and chromium levels six to seven times higher than limits set by the Indonesian government. Treating waste water, which costs $1,000 per cubic meter, would either force contractors to increase the price they charge Western garment brands or cut into their profits.**

In 2018, activists won a lawsuit against Famatex, one of the largest textile contractors. After ordering the company to stop discharging toxic waste (according to Indonesian law the judge should have shut Famatex down), local authorities used cement to dam up illegal drainage pipes the manufacturer used to discharge toxic waste. Activists later found the company had removed the cement.

Famatex also refused to allow local activists to inspect their toxic waste treatment facilities as ordered by the court.

In 2018, the filmmakers collected Citarum River water samples to be tested by an independent Indonesian lab. The government has forbidden the lab to release the results.

Activists report household sewage and waste is at least 50% responsible for Citarum River contamination – local residents have no access to garbage collection, recycling facilities or sewage collection and treatment. The river is responsible for roughly two-thirds of the 2 million tonnes of plastic waste that ends up in the world’s oceans.


*Polonium is a highly radioactive element which is deadly in very low concentrations. In commercial applications, polonium is occasionally used to remove static electricity in machinery or dust from photographic film.

**Yet another compelling reason (in addition to its massive carbon footprint) to boycott fast fashion. See https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-017-0058-9

 

The E-Waste Scandal and Modern Economic Colonialism

Electronics Recycling: The Global Challenge

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

Electronics Recycling is about the latest version of economic colonialism – paying third world countries to dispose of toxic first world products. At present the industrial North pays for third world workers to risk a myriad of toxic exposures to recycle discarded cellphones, computers, printers and other electronic devices.

Theoretically it’s illegal under the UN Basel Convention (1989) to ship e-waste to international destinations. Sadly there’s no way to enforce the ban. Many first world recyclers exploit a loophole that permits international shipping of operational devices for secondhand use. Many don’t work though. In 2016, 19% of electronic devices shipped to Lagos (Nigeria) were defunct.

Many third world countries are reluctant to ban e-waste altogether due to the livelihood it provides approximately 15 million informal e-waste workers. Instead they advocate for laws setting high enough e-waste charges to enable “informal” workers to go professional and adopt processes that enable them to recycle dangerous components without endangering their health.

China, Japan and Korea all have excellent laws (and training programs) to this end.

The filmmakers would like to see more industrialized countries pass laws similar to the EU regulation making manufacturers (instead of taxpayers) responsible for recycling discarded electronic devices. They would also like to see more first world consumers resist the compulsion to upgrade to a new cellphone every year.

 

Amazon Rainforest Protectors: Putting Their Lives on the Line

Brazil’s President vs the Amazon

SBS Dateline (2019)

Film Review

This Australian documentary is about the indigenous Mundruku tribe and their efforta to stop illegal deforestation in the Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Altogether the Amazon is home to 300 indigenous tribes. All are threatened by multinational mining, agricultural and logging interests. This film also looks at the big threat to their way of life posed by the election of right wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as president.

The fillmmakers begin by interviewing the mayor of nearly Intaituba, a strong Bolsonaro supporter facing fines and corruption charges for illegally clearing forest to set up a cattle ranch. The mayor lobbies for international gold mining interests in addition to international and domestic agribusiness.

Under Brazil’s former government, indigenous tribes could file claims to have their ancestral lands demarcated for protection from logging schemes. Bolsonaro who has transferred oversight of indigenous rights to the department of agriculture, has suspended the right of Brazil’s first peoples to make further claims.

In response, Mundruku women from adjoining villages have installed their own signs demarcating their land.They are also organizing a resistance movement to confront illegal loggers. They do so despite numerous threats they have received from logging interests in the past.

They’re not the first Amazon protectors to put their lives on the line. Hundreds of rainforest activists have been murdered (with impunity) in the decades-long battle to save the rainforest known as the lungs of the world.

World Wildlife Fund: Scapegoating Rural Peasants for the Mass Extinction Crisis

Victim of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund)

ZEMBLA (2019)

Film Review

This documentary explores the role of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in driving peasant farmers off their land to expand the Karziranga National Park in Assam India. A lengthy investigation has documented that WWF is arming and training park rangers to expel local peasants (without compensation) for land their families have farmed for generations.

Many are arbitrarily shot and killed (without due process) as alleged poachers. Some victims are merely tortured and released.

WWF, which has arbitrarily identified Third World overpopulation as the major cause of mass species extinction, also runs (with the support of Johnson and Johnson* and USAID**) Indian family planning and sterilization clinics. When the Dutch filmmakers attempt to interview villagers served by the WWF family planning program, they are detained and turned back by police.

The filmmakers blame “Western” (ie colonial) attitudes for WWF’s decision to scapegoat poor peasants – who play no role whatsoever in mass extinction and biodiversity loss. The true culprits are overconsumption and ideologically driven economic growth in industrialized countries.


*USAID (US Agency for International Development) is an “independent” agency of the US government closely associated with CIA and State Department regime change operations.

**Silence of the Pandas is a 2011 documentary about WWF’s close collaboration with Monsanto, palm oil manufacturers and other multinational corporations that are systematically destroying wildlife habitat. See A Classic Case of Greenwashing