LAWAI LAING says the muddying of river waters swirling past his village turned him militant. Until 1985, the Kenyah chieftain accepted $100 a month from loggers cutting timber on Long Geng ancestral lands deep in the forests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on vast Borneo island.
But Mr. Lawai says he had a change of heart when timber companies overcut, and erosion of one bank of the lucent, fast-flowing Balui River gave the waters a peculiar two-tone color.
Convinced that the loggers were cheating Long Geng and hurting crucial fishing and palm-oil harvests, the chief broke off the deal. Two years ago, the native people began erecting their first barricades on timber-company roads and facing the possibility of arrest.
"We are not against logging," says the tattooed 89-year-old, his ears pierced and elongated from the heavy metal rings customarily worn by his Kenyah people. "But we say, `If you want to do logging, don't come onto our land.' "
At home and abroad, Malaysia grapples with deepening controversy over cutting tropical forests.
The major exporter in a region that supplies 90 percent of the world's tropical-timber supply, this fast-growing Southeast Asian economy has been targeted by Western environmentalists for allegedly devastating its thick forest canopy.
Destroying tropical woodland contributes significantly to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the environment, accelerates the trend toward global warming, and even endangers human survival, environmental experts say.
Although cutting dropped slightly during the past year, it is estimated that at current rates, the virgin forests of Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo, could be gone in a decade. In the other state, Sabah, the situation is even more dire. Virgin forests there will be logged out by 1995, according to a July 1991 article in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
With timber ranking as its third-largest export, Malaysia counterattacks and defends its right to harvest its timber resources.
Feisty Malay Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known for his broadsides against Western criticism of environmental degradation, human-rights abuses, and limits on personal freedoms, says that if the West values forests, it should pay to conserve them.
"To ask the poor to help the rich is against all human principles of charity and fairness," the Malaysian leader said in a recent speech.
At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro last month, Malaysia fought a legally binding international convention on managing forests.
Any accord on forests, says Lim Keng Yaik, primary-industries minister, would impinge on Malaysia's "sovereign and inalienable right to utilize, manage, and develop forests" and should be matched by a Western timetable for reducing carbon emissions.
Branding the antitimbering movement, centered mainly in Europe, "a widespread smear campaign," Mr. Lim says, "These pressure groups have even poisoned the minds of the people in the developed countries to the extent that school children have not been spared by their campaign."
Yet, as Malaysian officials parry international alarm over deforestation, tensions over logging grow in Sarawak and its sister state on Borneo, Sabah.
The standoff over timber, the political and economic cornerstone of Sarawak, is rooted in the state's power equation and an undercurrent of ethnic tensions, observers say. In the towns, the Muslim Malays dominate the government and bureaucracy, while the Chinese run businesses and the economy.
Upriver, Kenyahs and other forest people known as the Orang Ulu live mainly in communal longhouses and subsist on farming, hunting, and raising a few cash crops such as coffee. One group, known as the Penans, are mostly nomads. The native peoples, many of whom are illiterate, account for almost half of Sarawak's 1.7 million people.
Since a mass central-government crackdown on dissidents across Malaysia in the fall of 1987, more than 400 people have been arrested for resisting logging operations, according to the Institute for Community Education, a nongovernment organization in Sarawak.
The resistance gained international attention when itinerant Penans joined other tribes in resisting logging, and the Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia) and Western groups spotlighted the confrontation.
Contending that the rain forest is theirs, the native Sarawakians, backed and organized by the environmentalists, say that land use should be governed by tribal laws, which the government threw out in 1958.
Until then, the government recognized a traditional system in which 200 to 1,200 acres of land were allocated to longhouses or families, and boundaries were honored.
"Logging is a complex issue between groups which are seen as controlling the economy and the political power and the others who don't have it," says a native official who works for the government. "It is a very sensitive dilemma that will be difficult to resolve."
Indeed, Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud acknowledges that concessions are controlled by a coterie of friends and relatives who are mainly ethnic Malays and sign contracts for millions of dollars to timber companies owned by Chinese businessmen. The firms then export mainly to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Japan, the largest importer of the hardwood, converts most of its logs into disposable plywood-frame molds for pouring concrete, says Pam Wellner, tropical-timber campaigner at Rainforest Action Ne twork in San Francisco.
The central government in Kuala Lumpur is privately embarrassed by official corruption and rampant illegal logging, officials say, but winks at abuses in order to retain crucial Sarawak political support.
"It's the politics of expediency and collective gangsterism," says Sim Kwang Yang, an opposition member of Parliament from Sarawak. "There's this cartel controlling 95 percent of the wealth in Sarawak, and it's all laundered through Hong Kong, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, and Australia." Officials in the Sarawak prime minister's office would not comment.
One of the biggest roundups of logging opponents came in January in Long Geng when 44 people were arrested at a barricade. Like other similar incidents, most of the detainees were released. However, two were imprisoned for three and six months.
Opposition among native peoples has split villages like Long Geng, a cluster of longhouses holding 1,500 people set more than 300 miles upstream from the mouth of the Rajang River, one of Sarawak's major waterways.
Logging - and largess from timber companies - has set longhouse against longhouse, family against family, and relative against relative.
Ijan Laing's husband, Kayang Dasa, is now serving six months in prison for obstructing timber trucks. The woman backs her husband's action but says she and her seven children are paying a high price.
"It is very difficult because my husband is not around, and there is no one to accompany me to work on the farm," she says, the red juice from chewing betel leaves sluicing through her teeth. "In this longhouse, people are spreading rumors that my husband will be in prison for a long time."
Lawai, the headman who sat, slight and hunched, on a rattan mat on his longhouse veranda, also knows. The old chief was invited back from retirement after the community split over the issue of working for Seriku Company for a laborer's pay of up to $20 per day. The natives say they believe the timber company is partially owned by Sarawak's chief minister.
Lawai's son-in-law Gara Jalong leads the antitimber protests and has been arrested four times. His son Katan is a government representative at Long Geng and is on a retainer from a logging company.
"When logging came, many of us were confused. The appointed government leaders said that this was good and we would get good pay and jobs," says the chief. "But then others said, `What will happen to our land, our rivers, and our fish?' "