During his lifetime, Bruno Manser, one of the founders of the Bruno Manser Fund and its president for many years, was the best-known Swiss activist campaigning for the protection of the rainforests and the respect for human rights. Between 1984 and 1990, he lived in Sarawak with the Penan, one of the world’s last nomadic peoples still inhabiting the primeval forests. Confronted with the rampant destruction of the rainforest by the timber industry, he helped the Penan to resist further intrusion by the loggers and became the international mouthpiece for the threatened people of the primeval forest. He disappeared without trace after his last journey to Sarawak in May 2000.
Biography of Bruno Manser
Fascinated by ancient traditions
Bruno Manser was born in Basel on 25 August 1954. After completing the gymnasium (the academic upper secondary level), he spent several years working on various Swiss Alps, pursuing interests in traditional crafts and medicine as well as speleology. Obsessed with the desire of leading a life free of money, he left for Borneo at the age of 30 so that he could live in the rainforest and "learn from a people still living close to its origins".
Journey into the jungle
Manser travelled to the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where he gradually made his way to the nomadic Penan living in the primeval forest. He spent six years (1984-1990) with the Penan and learned how to survive in the jungle as well as about the culture of his hosts. However, Manser’s newly-discovered "Garden of Eden" was being threatened. It was the time when local timber companies were starting to ruthlessly penetrate the Penan territories and to clear-cut Borneo’s unique primeval forests. The Penan today are still suffering the consequences including the destruction of their livelihood, contaminated drinking water and erosion.
Commitment and escape
Bruno Manser drew the attention of the international media to this situation and helped the Penan to defend themselves against the loggers by means of peaceful road blockades. The result was the wrath of the Malaysian authorities and narrowly avoiding arrest in 1986. After spending six years in the jungle, he returned undetected to Switzerland in 1990. His aim was to use Switzerland as a base to inform the public about the situation in Sarawak.
After his return from the primeval forest, Manser, assisted by a number of friends, set up the Bruno Manser Fund (1991), published a book entitled "Voices from the Rainforest" (1992), held numerous lectures and drew attention through spectacular protest actions. In 1993, he went on a sixty-day hunger strike in front of the Swiss federal parliament building in Berne in the hope of obtaining an import ban on tropical timber and the introduction of mandatory declarations for timber. One particularly risky exploit took place 1999 when he landed on the Chief Minister’s residence in the Sarawak capital of Kuching using a motorised hang glider. Manser’s actions were widely publicised at home and abroad, and he gained the reputation of a charismatic, credible fighter for the cause of maintaining the tropical rainforests and upholding the rights of the indigenous peoples.
...but few measurable results to show for it
It was thanks to Manser’s commitment that the issue of tropical timber was placed on the political agenda in Switzerland, and his campaigns focused public attention on the catastrophic ecological and social consequences resulting from the clear cutting of the rainforests. However, in Sarawak there is little measurable success to show for it. The government is adhering to its destructive, short-sighted forest policy, with the consequence that less than 10% of Sarawak’s original primeval forests are intact. The Penan and other indigenous groups are still waiting for the recognition of their rights to the land in the forest areas that they have traditionally inhabited.
During his stay in Borneo, Bruno Manser never tired of documenting the flora and fauna of the rainforest, the Penan culture and the resistance to the destruction of the forest. Manser was a man of many talents, who produced numerous detailed drawings, exhaustive notes, tape recordings and more than 10 000 photographs – documents of tremendous value for contemporary history and ethnography. In 2004 the Basel-based publisher, Christoph Merian Verlag, published his "Tagebücher aus dem Regenwald" in German (Diaries from the Rainforest) after they had been edited by the Bruno Manser Fund.
Vanished but not forgotten
After coming back to Switzerland at the end of his first journey, Manser regularly returned to visit his friends in the primeval forest, kept up with logging developments and tried to provide help on the spot. He never returned from his last journey to Sarawak. The last known trace of him was on 25 May 2000 in the Borneo rainforest. Several search parties failed to find him. On 10 March 2005, the cantonal civil court of Basel-Stadt officially declared him missing and presumed dead.