Fourteen months ago, Manser returned to Batu Lawi at the end of a 12-year personal crusade to help his adopted tribe, the Penan, preserve their landscape and their way of life from the cancer of all things modern: cash, Coca-Cola, television, but above all the mowing down of their native forest. If he had reached the summit he would have been confronted with glaring evidence of his failure: the verdant forest slashed by logging roads, a net of wounds bleeding orange mud, the animals largely gone. Manser had lived with the Penan in their jungle for six years. Then he became a noisy public advocate for the tribe, whom he considered the most peaceful people on earth. He said he would help them and tried with all the passion he could bring. He had failed utterly.
Manser separated from two Penan acquaintances near the base of the mountain, saying he would climb it alone. With just a few days of walking, he would have been reunited with his closest Penan friends. But Manser never made that hike. After he was left near Batu Lawi, he was never seen again.
What happened to Bruno Manser? The body of the Swiss adventurer-turned-activist, who would now be 46, has never been found, despite numerous searches by his Penan and European friends. Nor has any trace been found of his 30-kg rucksack. When he vanished, some suspected foul play: Manser had fallen on the wrong side of the logging interests in Borneo—who can be ruthless. There was talk of a bounty on his head and suspiciously heavy movements of police and loggers in the area at the time of his disappearance. Malaysia's politicians were fed up with the troublesome foreigner. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly complained of "white people (who) think we do not know how to administer our country."
More optimistic friends hoped that Manser was performing one more stunt—that somewhere, somehow, the short, wiry activist, hardened by years of living in extreme conditions, was alive and reveling in the swirl of mystery surrounding his disappearance. Manser was, after all, a man who would do almost anything to get publicity for his cause. In 1996, he slid almost 3 km down a half-frozen funicular railway cable in Switzerland; three years later, he buzzed the capital of Malaysia's Sarawak province in a motorized hang glider. According to Roger Graf, who joined Manser in the mid-1980s to try to stop logging in Sarawak, where the tribe is based, all that's really certain is that Manser was very close to giving up on Sarawak and his Penan friends. "He said this was his last trip," says Graf, who abandoned the struggle in 1996; he now works as an administrator and publicist for the Zurich Zoo. "He told me, 'If I don't do it this time the battle is lost.'"
He may simply have given up on life. "I know Bruno and I know what was in his mind," says Graf. "He knew some of the Penan were selling their land to the loggers. He had seen some of his best friends abandon their traditional clothes and, for the first time, don T shirts and shoes. Everywhere, he saw logging." Manser was an idealist, the kind of earnest campaigner who makes people uncomfortable, who goes too far, a man described by one Swiss friend as half child, half hero, a man who would never abandon the fight for his friends. But even heroes give up sometimes. "I had wondered for a long time if Bruno would ever find peace again," says Graf. "He was so bitterly disappointed. And I'm convinced that if he wanted to die it would be somewhere around Batu Lawi." Graf continues: "There are many ways of seeking to die."
Manser's story is really the tale of the Penan, a people out of time, the last hunter-gatherers in Asia. Once masters of a seemingly endless rain forest that covers Borneo, almost all of the 9,000 Penan have given up the struggle against what must once have seemed a ludicrous impossibility: that loggers would sweep through all but a tiny fraction of Sarawak's forests, polluting rivers, driving animals away and bulldozing the trees and plants that for centuries have served as the Penan's medicine cabinet, toolbox and larder. There are barely 200 fully nomadic Penan left: small groups of two or three families who refuse to build permanent settlements, cultivate crops and apply for government identity cards. One of them is Along Segar. He was Bruno Manser's closest Penan friend.
Along is the last of his kind in the Penan community living near the confluence of the Limbang and Adang rivers near Sarawak's eastern border with Indonesia. Along has remained in the same area for more than a year, an eon for a nomadic Penan, but stubbornly refuses to move into one of the new villages inhabited by his tribesmen. His hope is that Manser will appear: this is the rendezvous spot mentioned in one of the Swiss friend's last messages.
Along builds a new home of wood and thatch in the forest every few weeks or months, depending on the availability of game. He dresses in traditional Penan attire, a loincloth that covers his genitalia but leaves his muscular buttocks bare. His feet are disproportionately large and splayed, never having been confined by shoes. He wears necklaces fashioned from rattan and brightly colored beads, the bezel of a gilded wristwatch glinting incongruously beneath a mass of twine bracelets. (The watch has stopped at 3:50.) When he was young, his earlobes were distended by heavy weights. They now hang in 8-cm loops of flesh that almost touch his shoulders. They are his pride, along with the blowpipe he uses to hunt squirrels and monkeys and birds.
But the sixtysomething Along—like most Penan he is vague about his age—doesn't get much chance to use his blowpipe these days. "The hunting is almost finished here because of the logging," says Along. "But there is nowhere else we can go. This is the last place left to us. Two of our children—one of them was my youngest son—were killed in January and February, poisoned after drinking river water. The loggers poison the water to catch the fish. My son Ayang was only 18 years old."
In fact, Along probably doesn't hold any rights to the land of his ancestors. In Malaysia, says lawyer and activist Harrison Ngau, control of land rights lies almost entirely with the state governments. In Along's case, a large swath of the land surrounding Batu Lawi was gazetted in 1997 as "protected forest," a misnomer for land that can be assigned for logging whenever the government so decides. Logging generated almost $1 billion in revenue last year in a state with only 2 million inhabitants. With such huge sums at stake, bitter disputes—and occasional bloodshed—are inevitable. In 1997, police shot and killed a member of the Dayak tribe and wounded 15 others who were protesting the allocation of traditional land to a palm oil company. In 1999, enraged villagers massacred four heavies employed by a plantation company.