Making friends with the natives

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 12:00am

How many dispossessed people does it take to change a policy? in a 40-year career involving meeting, and in many cases campaigning for, tribal people driven from their ancestral homelands, British explorer Robin Hanbury-Tension has yet to find the answer.

Whether in canada, Indonesia or China, government blueprints rarely shift to accomodate indigenous people or ancient woodlands. Almost nothing stands a chance against greed and the electric saw.

'Sometimes I want to throw rocks, or plant bombs,' said the urbane, charming president of Survival International who sees himself on the 'acceptable side of protest' precisely because he does not do these things.

Hanbury-Tension was visiting Hong kong this month to give a talk to the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), before setting off on one of his less rigorous assignments - giving lectures on the luxury minerva cruise ship en route to Borneo.

'It's tough,' he joked. 'You have to lecture twice a weerk. On the QE2 it was only once a week. I had to give talks to the crew or I'd have got withdrawal symptoms.' He is, he would happily agree, a dreamer, a schemer, a sometime talker in pinstripes and a sometimes walker in bare feet.

'I am not a scientist, I'm not a specialist. But I can talk to a lot of people, and sometimes they listen,' said Hanbury-Tension, who has the proper 19-century gentlemanly credentials for being an explorer (Eton and Oxford educated, vice president of the Royal Geographical Society, and an insatiable wanderlust).

His talk to the RGS was about the Twareg of Niger who showed him the early rock art of the Sahara, and the Penan tribe of Sarawak in Borneo, Malaysia, victims of the world's demand for toilet paper.

The Niger visit involved a film crew and external funding, and was more a reflection of Hanbury-Tension as 'adventure traveller' than 'explorer' since he did not find anything new.

His rule of thumb is that 'explorers change things', and the only thing he was stirred to change in Niger (apart from the six kilograms he dropped in a fortnight), was the amount of tourism in the area.

'I almost never encourage tourism because they spoil things, but in this case the Twareg need tourists, and they are ready for them,' he said.

Apart from blisters and a Discovery Channel cameraman who contracted malaria, the expedition was encouraging. After years of war and repression, the Twareg are still very much their own people - looking for new cargo (preferably with foreign currency) to take across the spectacular, hostile Tenere desert.

The story was not the same in the remote Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. Mulu has lodged itself in Hanbury-Tension's psyche and, he says, changed his life's direction. Yet he has been unable - in any concrete way - help the indigenous Penan people, who so strongly affected him.

His first visit to the region in 1979 promised to be just another extraordinary job in an extraordinary life. It was the largest expedition to date, and the RGS sent dozens of scientists and explorers to what looked like the largest surviving primary rainforest in Southeast Asia.

They learned some terrible truths - that the rainforest was disappearing at a frightening rate, and that it does not regenerate. 'We had suspected those things before, but now we knew them with a terrible certainty,' said Hanbury-Tension.

'What we saw in Mulu turned us into campaigners.' His call to arms, especially when talking to teenagers, became: 'There is only one important thing that you can do in your life, and that, quite simply, is saving this planet.' In Mulu, he also formed a rare friendship with Nyapun, a man who could kill a lizard from 30 metres with his blowpipe.

After 18 months, the RGS left Mulu, having discovered terrible truths about the fragile ecosystem. Hanbury-Tension had finished the research for his next book, and he too returned home, promising to do what he could for the Penan. He felt he could pledge his life to helping them. They had lived in one way for more generations than history can calculate, and now their world was being looted by logging concessions, their forest was being slashed and burned by men from Kuala Lumpur, and their normadic lifestyle was not just threatened, it was doomed.

Hanbury-Tension did try. He lobbied the Malaysian Government and politicians back in England, and worked for Survival International, a group which aims to give a voice to the dispossessed tribal peoples of the world.

But other projects beckoned, and the Penan soon became yet another source of guilt for Hanbury-Tension.

'I am a dilettante,' he said. ' And I don't see that as a bad thing.' He admits he has always made grand promises, and only occasionally fulfilled them. 'But that isn't a bad thing: think of all the people in the world who never make promises at all,' he insisted.

'I try and do something by doing everythingm and sometimes that ends up by being nothing.' His guilt is really about a horror unchecked, rather than his own inability to check it. 'We did try,' he said, recalling the cast in this real-life rainforest massacre that included a Malaysian minister of the 'environment' who believed golf courses were eco-friendly, and Malaysian high commissioners in London who greeted Hanbury-Tension, Jonathan Porrit (Friends Of the Earth) and botanist David Bellamy on their visit with a propaganda film depicting how dirty the Sarawak tribespeople were.

'I almost walked out,' he said.

Over the decades, Mulu became a symbol for him, and the future of his friends something too terrible to think about.

When he returned 18 months ago to produce a moving documentary for Channel 4, he found his old friend Nyapun and his family living without money in a money economy, the children neither learning the best from the West nor the secrets of their own people.

Nyapun had been in prison: 'I told the government that we could share the land, but they wanted it all; I said that every people had to have somewhere, and we had nowhere. And they put me in prison,' he tells Hanbury-Tension in the documentary.

The explorer left again with more plans and promises. 'In Mulu I realised it was time to change direction. There was no point in dwelling on what had disappeared: you have to try and make the most of wHat you have.' Part of his plan was to transform the 150-room Mulu Hotel into a Rainforest University, where the teachers would be the people who knew the forest best. It's an idealised, inspiring strategy that could maintain a people's pride in their culture, while expanding the world's knowledge of medicines and the natural government.

The plans have progressed no further than the boardrooms, but Hanbury-Tension is optimistic as his ideas have not been binned by the Malaysian Government either. 'We know it's the beginning of a long process,' he said.

So is Hanbury-Tension just a dreamer, or can he and his contacts really help an entire culture transpose itself with dignity into the modern world? 'One of my favourite-quotations is by T.E. Lawrence,' Hanbury-Tension said. 'He saidl all men dream by night, but beware the ones who dream by day: those are the really dangerous ones.'