Ben Fogle accused over Sarawak environmental propaganda
A British television presenter has been accused of fronting an environmental propaganda campaign that seeks to mask the destruction of Sarawak’s rainforests to make way for industrial logging and palm oil plantations.
- Published: 29/03/2013 at 11:22 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
Ben Fogle meets an orangutan in Sarawak in a photo circulated among "mummy bloggers" in Britain (photo by Sharon L Sagan, courtesy of familyaffairsandothermatters.com)
Ben Fogle, known to millions of BBC viewers as a presenter of travel documentaries including The World's Most Dangerous Roads, Swimming With Crocodiles and Lonely Planet's Year of Adventures, made a series of films for the Sarawak Tourism Board under the title Ben Fogle’s Sarawak Adventures.
The 39-year-old wrote about his trip to Sarawak, in which he was pictured playing with orangutans and swimming in waterfalls, in his Ben Fogle, The Adventurer column for the Daily Telegraph and in an article for Hello! magazine.
Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, has been run by its 76-year-old Chief Minister Taib Mahmud since 1982.
Britain’s Independent newspaper reports that it has the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia and exports more tropical logs than Africa and Latin America combined. Sarawak reportedly has only 0.5% of the world’s tropical forest but accounted for 25% of tropical log exports in 2010. Less than 5% of its rainforest remains in a pristine state and much of the logging has been at the expense of indigineous tribes who have been forced off ancestral lands.
Taib is reportedly the richest man in Malaysia, although he doesn't appear on the Forbes rich list. Swiss NGO the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) has estimated his wealth at US15 billion dollars (439.5bn baht), according to the Sarawak Report blog, a fierce critic of his government and its conservation record.
“It seems Ben Fogle may have been made a pawn,” Clare Rewcastle, founder of the Sarawak Report, told the Independent.
“Anyone with the slightest knowledge of environmental matters should know the issues around Malaysian oil palm destruction and the culpability of the Sarawak state government.
“He should not be promoting them for responsible eco-tourism or pretending that they are protecting the jungle habitat of the orangutan. The only place you can find orangutan in Sarawak is in caged enclosures or in a few remaining patches of jungle where the state government is at loggerheads with the local tribes because it has issued licences to cut it down.”
Fogle wrote of his adventure “deep in the primary rainforest of Malaysian Borneo” where he “came face to face with a ‘man of the forest’ – as the name orangutan means in the local language,” in his Telegraph column in February. He later explained that the orangutans at the Matang Wildlife Centre near Kuching had been “uprooted by deforestation or poaching”.
“This is one of the most beautiful rainforest regions on the planet... This is the future of conservation here in Sarawak... looking after this pristine environment and the riches this country has,” Fogle says in the opening words to one of his films for the Sarawak Tourism Board.
Environmental campaign group Global Witness last week released a film that allegedly exposes relatives of Taib who they say were prepared to make corrupt land deals that would clear rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations.
The undercover filmmakers were allegedly told by lawyers that the money should be diverted through Singapore to avoid Malaysian taxes.
Taib is currently under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
“This film proves for the first time what has long been suspected – that the small elite around Chief Minister Taib are systematically abusing the region’s people and natural resources to line their own pockets,” said Tom Picken, Forest Team Leader at Global Witness.
“Whoever advised Ben Fogle that doing PR for the Sarawak government on environmental issues was a good idea has let him down badly.
“Promoting tourism in Sarawak is positive in itself, but it must not gloss over the environmental destruction and exploitation that is devastating the region.”
Fogle told the Independent that he carried out “due diligence” on Sarawak and said that he stood by his description of its natural beauty.
“I visited Sarawak on the understanding that the environmental situation has been improving,” he said.
“It was breathtakingly beautiful. While I observed some palm oil from the air while flying into Kuching, I did not visit the areas of deforestation. I was in Sarawak to make some short films about adventurous travel for Sarawak Tourism’s website.”
He added that he has been touch with Global Witness to raise his concerns about the allegations made in their film.
“I was aware of online allegations of corruption, but most governments – including [Britain’s] – have also had allegations of corruption levelled against them,” he said.
“I make a distinction between the Sarawak Tourism Board and [Sarawak Chief Minister] Taib Mahmud. I was in Sarawak to promote tourism which employs thousands of people and is estimated to be worth more than a billion pounds to the economy. I have never knowingly supported the ‘regime’.”
Fogle’s Sarawak films had been widely promoted to a network of “mummy bloggers” in Britain, encouraged to share them online and invited to meet the presenter at a champagne reception this week in London. It was reported that the bloggers would have the chance to join a “Sarawak Blogger Ambassador Club” and possibly go on a trip to Borneo.
Fogle told the Independent he had postponed the event and would not be making any more films for the Sarawak Tourism Board until he received answers to the “many questions” he now had.
Global Witness video: Inside Malaysia's Shadow State