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Bruno Manser’s biography

Bruno Manser’s biography

Bruno Manser, one of the founders of the Bruno Manser Fund and for many years its chair, was during his lifetime the best-known Swiss rainforest campaigner and human-rights activist. From 1984 until 1990, he lived amongst the Penan people in Sarawak, who were then one of the last groups on earth to still be living as nomads in the primeval forest. Finding himself confronted with the rapid destruction of the rainforest by the logging industry, he helped the Penan put up resistance to the advancing loggers and became the international mouthpiece of the threatened primeval-forest dwellers. He has been missing, presumed dead, since his last journey to Sarawak in May 2000.

Fascinated by exceptional, deep-rooted traditions

Bruno Manser was born in Basel on 25 August 1954. He completed upper-secondary (baccalaureate) education and then went on to spend several years living and working on various Swiss alpine pastures and took an interest in handicrafts, therapeutics and speleology. Inspired by the desire to live a life without money, he set off for Borneo at the age of 30, with the aim of "getting to know a people still living close to its origin".

Journey to the jungle

Manser travelled to the Malaysian federal state of Sarawak, where he encountered the Penan, who were then still leading a nomadic life in the primeval forest. He spent six years (1984-1990) with them, learned about survival in the jungle and became familiar with his hosts' culture. However, the paradise that Manser had just discovered was under threat. It was at that time that local logging companies began their ruthless incursion into the Penan territories and started to clear Borneo's unique primeval forests. The Penan lost the basis for their livelihood. Deforestation reduced the vegetation that was crucial for survival, contaminated the drinking water, drove the animals away and desecrated the Penan's heritage sites.

Commitment and flight

Bruno Manser drew the attention of the international media to the situation and helped the Penan to stand up to the logging companies by means of peaceful road blockades. He thus drew the anger of the Malaysian authorities on himself. He came very close to being arrested in 1986. After spending six years in the jungle, he returned to Switzerland in 1990, managing to conceal his identity. His intention was to use Switzerland as his base to inform the public about the situation in Sarawak.

Even more commitment...

After his return from the rainforest, Bruno Manser, helped by a few friends, founded the Bruno Manser Fund in 1991, published a book, "Voices from the Rainforest" (1992), held numerous lectures and attracted attention through various spectacular protest actions. The aim of his 60-day hunger strike in front of the Swiss federal parliament building in Berne in 1993 was an import ban on tropical timber and the introduction of mandatory declarations for timber. He indulged in a particularly risky act in 1999 by landing a motorised hang glider next to the residence of Sarawak’s chief minister in the federal state's capital of Kuching. Manser's actions earned him a great deal of attention in Switzerland and abroad, and he built up the reputation of being a charismatic and credible campaigner for the conservation of the tropical rainforests and respect of the rights of the indigenous peoples.

...but with few measurable successes

Bruno Manser’s dedication had the effect of placing the issue of tropical timber firmly on the political agenda in Switzerland, and his campaigns drew public attention to the catastrophic ecological and social consequences of the clearance of the rainforest. It has to be admitted that there were no real measurable successes in Sarawak itself. The government stuck to its short-sighted and destructive policy, with the outcome that today less than 10% of Sarawak's original primeval forest is still standing. The Penan and other indigenous groups are still waiting for recognition of their land rights to their ancestral forest territories.

Passionate record-keeper

During his stay in Borneo, Bruno Manser never tired of documenting the rainforest flora and fauna, the Penan culture and the resistance to forest destruction. The multi-talented Manser produced numerous detailed drawings, copious notes, audio recordings and more than 10 000 photographs. These are extremely valuable documents in the fields of ethnography and contemporary history. His "Diaries from the Rainforest", which were edited by the Bruno Manser Fund, were published in Basel in 2004 by Christoph Merian Verlag.

Disappeared but not forgotten

After returning to Switzerland, Manser frequently went back to visit the Penan in the rainforest, followed the logging activities and tried to provide assistance on the spot. He was, however, never to return from his last journey to Sarawak. His steps have been traced as far as the Borneo primeval forest on 25 May 2000. Several search parties after that failed to find any sign of him. On 10 March 2005, the cantonal civil court in Basel-Stadt officially declared him to be missing, presumed dead.

At all events, Bruno Manser lives on in the stories recounted by the Penan. They are never going to forget their companion. Right up to the present, he remains an inspiration for people all around the world who are championing the causes of the rainforests and human rights.