Wednesday, 24th July 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court

Posted on 03. Mar, 2024 by in Articles, Environment

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

A Penan shaman from Sarawak, Malaysia. Will the court accept that he has the right to represent threatened tree spirits?


Borneo Tree Spirits Go to Court
Rainforest numina accuse the Malaysian government of crimes against nature.



“Your honor, I call our ethno-witnesses.” At a signal from Alexander Ajang Mering twelve men and women stood, hesitatingly.

The chief justice, a bemused ethnic-Indian Malaysian named Samuel Aithihyamala, stared over his half-glasses at the plaintiff’s lawyer, Alexander Ajang Mering, then at the large group of men and women who had just risen. “Just how many witnesses do you have, Mister Mering?”

“One for each of the large old-growth trees in the Penan homeland,” Alexander Mering answered. “We’re not sure of the precise number, but probably in the region of six thousand.”

“You’re planning to call approximately six thousand witnesses?”

“No, your honor. That might challenge the patience of the court. I’ll keep the number down to a dozen.”

“The court appreciates your consideration, Mister Mering.”

* * *

The witnesses for the plaintiff had Penan names, but they were not recorded by the court stenographer, a bored civil servant who was exhausted because she hadn’t been sleeping well — she was worried that her husband was cheating with their widow neighbor. The stenographer described the defendants as “Penan witness A, male,” “Penan witness B, female,” and so on. I did get their names, though: Katong, Ruth. Paya. Melang. Tingang. John. Nari. Gisa. Aiau. Along. Jemal, and Sega. They were shamans, or dayong, who could heal and communicate with the spirits. And they represented the Penans’ last hope to save their forest.

* * *

It was the toughest case of Alexander Ajang Mering’s career.

Alexander Mering is a member of the Kayan tribe, one of several indigenous ethnic groups that live in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. I was friends with his father, Patrick, a chief’s son who years earlier had hosted me in his longhouse on the Upper Rajang River. Patrick was a keen secondary school student and I was a just-graduated Peace Corps volunteer just out of university. Patrick went on to have just one child, Alexander, and made sure the boy got a solid secondary school education at St. Thomas’s in Kuching, the Sarawak capital. By virtue of his brains, friendliness, and financial help from a large environmental NGO, Alexander went to Washington, D.C. where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree at George Washington University. He was Sarawak’s first, and is still the state’s leading, human rights lawyer. For decades he has argued on behalf of indigenous Sarawakians who have had their lands confiscated by timber operators, who have had their traditional forests stolen by conglomerates wanting to plant oil palms, who have seen their Native Customary Rights ignored.

* * *

In Mering’s case, “The rainforest of the Tutoh/Apoh/ Baram rivers ecosystem versus the Government of Malaysia, the Government of Sarawak, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Asia Pulp and Paper, Double Bintang Oil Palm Plantations Limited, and Numerous Local Officials,” his plaintiffs were the trees themselves, or, to be more precise, the spirits, or penakoh, that live in the trees. According to the Penans, who were told so by their shamans, each large tree is inhabited by a specific spirit, described in anthropological terms as a numen (plural: numina). Each numen has a right to exist. It was the numina that occupied the trees that would speak through Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang, and the seven others.

Mering said that the trees should be granted juristic personhood by the court, just as corporations, governments, and ships at sea are also considered juristic persons, with inherent rights and responsibilities.


Rainforest Alliance

Does this rainforest tree have its own spirit? If so, do the spirit and its host-tree have a legal right to survive?

* * *

Such philosophical concepts are fine, but a legal case requires a specific plaintiff to claim that a specific crime has been committed by a specific offender.

The crime, in this case, was considered a violation of the innate rights of nature, akin to a basic violation of human rights.

And the specific request for damages? That the entire river catchment area of the Tutoh, Apoh, and upper Baram rivers in Sarawak be preserved for eternity and that application be made to UNESCO to designate the area a biosphere reserve in which the Penans and other resident indigenous groups would have freedom to live in the forest where they could cohabitate peacefully with the forest spirits found therein.

* * *

The Penan dayongs didn’t testify immediately.

First, Alexander Mering presented the conservation problem.

He called on scientists, conservationists, and biologists who presented attractive charts and sobering films showing the extent of forest destruction related to oil palm cultivation.

Several of the scientists gave testimony heavy on numbers and statistics — the extent of river pollution and estimates of biodiversity loss. One researcher tried a “numbers overload,” a conservationist’s tactic to overwhelm a listener with profuse and complicated statistics — he came up with a dozen different ways to present the statement “since I began my testimony rainforest half the size of Andorra has been destroyed.”

Some of the conservationists chose the emotional (some might say sanctimonious) approach. One of the world’s last remaining rainforests is being destroyed! A rainforest one hundred million years old will cease to exist! A crime against both humanity and nature!

Such testimony went on for a day, often interrupted by angry interjections by the defense lawyers. That study has not been peer-reviewed! Conjecture! Emotional blackmail!

The witnesses shamelessly played on the heartstrings of the judges using poignant appeals that work so well with Western donors, by showing photos of orangutans that had been hacked to death by oil palm farmers elsewhere in Borneo.

Objection your honor! There are no orangutans in the upper Baram.

“Poetic license,” Mering replied.

“Sustained,” said a weary Judge Aithihyamala. “Stick with photos of dead animals from the region in question, Mister Mering.”

* * *

Then Alexander Mering sought to establish that the Penans lived in harmony with the forest, how their livelihood depended on the forest, and how they only took what they needed.

Mering put three Penans on the stand. They dayongs who would later commune with spirits for the enlightenment of the court, but in this case they were just ordinary folks, who Mering hoped, would explain what their daily life was like.

It was the “noble savage” argument of countless conservation presentations.

Unfortunately the Penans were not the best witnesses. They had difficulty in explaining their customs, termed molong, which characterized their relationship with the forest. Mering asked them simple questions to elucidate how the forest provided them with food, medicine, shelter, and spiritual sustenance. In spite of Mering’s coaching, it didn’t go well. The Penans answered in monosyllables. They were intimidated by the formal courtroom setting, and exhausted by the strange food, smells, and noises of the city.

* * *

Mering asked for a break.

He had anticipated that the Penans would need support, so he called on five foreign expert witnesses. These men and women were prominent Singaporean, Indonesian, Japanese, British, and German ethnographers and anthropologists. They had written books about how the Penans lived. They had spent years with the Penans documenting their customs, myths, and cosmology.

This part of the trial got off to a hesitant start with the testimony of Herr Professor Doctor Doctor Helmut Friedrich von Bulow.

When asked by what criteria the German professor with two PhDs considered himself an “expert witnesses,” the scholar reviewed the dynamics of his academic specialty: Contra disciplinary solipsism. Ontology as an example of a ‘toss and turn’ dynamic that succeeds interpretive, postmodern, cultural materialist, componential analytic, structural-functional, historical particularist, and unilinear evolutionary turns. “It’s an easy question,” Judge Aithihyamala said. “Where did you study? Did you live with the Penans? Did you write books? Do you teach?”

Judge Aithihyamala was eager for lunch. He told the expert to get on with it. Heedless of his scolding the European offered views on the varying importance of describing the Penan situation: Animistic, totemistic, analogistic, and naturistic modes of relating to the environment. And through it all the defense lawyers smirked.

Multi-syllabic jargon flew like trailer park debris during a tornado.

Charging like a determined rhino, Herr Professor Doctor Helmut Friedrich von Bulow continued: The Penan situation is affected by the biogenetic structuralism that accounts for the structure of experience. Simply put, you might know it as the phenomenological “reduction” in the Husserlian sense.

One of the defense lawyers leapt to his feet. Objection. The witness is addressing the court as if we are children.

“I will determine the intelligence level of the court,” Judge Aithihyamala replied. Then he addressed the witness. “And your point is?”

I think it’s obvious. There is a liminal warp that mediates two cognized steps of experience — if you would like an easy-to-understand analogy consider it a doorway through which various forms of consciousness move from one room to another. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Of course, a defense lawyer said under her breath.

There are, as you are aware, four agents of warps, often to the point of evanescence. For example, the warp between the waking phase and the dream phase…

* * *

To Mering’s relief, after a lunch break (spaghetti bolognaise for Judge Aithihyamala, Hainanese chicken rice for the Penans), the four experts who followed were easier to understand, and their presentation style was more welcoming.

Mering asked the British academic expert to describe the Penans’ perceptions of nature, and their perceived place in the natural order of things. Life flow, life force. Acculturation. The inversion of the material world with that of the spirit world. “Can you summarize in simple English? asked Judge Aithihyamala. The anthropologist did her best. The Penans had a complex and inter-dependent relationship with the natural world. They are not “conquerors” of nature, but part of the whole. They follow numerous explicit behaviors so as not to antagonize the spirits of the forests, including specific tree spirits. “Thank you,” a relieved Judge Aithihyamala said. “Wish you had said that earlier, could have saved this aging brain of mine quite a bit of mental gymnastics.”

* * *

Mering saw the judge was getting tired, and he hoped his other expert witnesses were competent communicators.

According to the Indonesian expert witness: The Penans use their resources sustainably — they call that behavior minut. The spirits insist that people are gentle when dealing with nature, otherwise bad things will happen to wrong-doers.

Not for the first time, one of the defense lawyers jumped up and shouted, just as he had learned to do by watching American courtroom dramas on TV. Objection your honor! Hearsay! Unreliable witness! Samuel Aithihyamala generally overruled such objections.

* * *

The trial continued; the experts testified another full day.

The Japanese ethnographer, a strong-willed but softly-spoken Japanese lady, offered dozens of examples of the competence and yes, the humanity, of the Penans. Trees bloom in response to the peacock’s song. Dozens of wild plants used for everything from curing hangovers to treating snake bite and upset stomach. The Penans predict the time by the sound of the cicadas. They carve precision blowpipes from tropical hardwoods, and make a poison for their hunting darts from the sap of a forest vine. Deceased ancestors are buried in the forest so their spirits could take root as saplings.

Western idealization! The defense attorneys roared; they were, after all, paid high fees for defending the corporate and political leaders of the nation. Paternalistic arrogance! Fear-mongering! Primitive folk superstitions!

Most tantalizing, was the comment by a Singaporean anthropologist: During important festivals shamans enter a “dream wandering” trance in which they speak a language only the gods can understand.

The courtroom audience listening to this testimony had no alternative but to feel that the modest Penans were Masters of the Rainforest.

* * *

The most touching testimony came when John, one of the Penan elders, who had the triple distinction of having received a secondary school education and who was both a Penan shaman as well as a lay Christian preacher, took fifteen minutes to explain how the forest featured in the Penan origin myth. The first man and woman, created from trees themselves, learned about sex by watching a branch from a tree entering a hole in a second tree during a storm.

* * *

Then came the time for Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang, and the other Penan men and women to appear before the court. They were simple people. Mering had wanted them to wear traditional dress, but the plaintiffs felt that they would be mocked in sophisticated Kuala Lumpur if the men wore loincloths and the women went bare-breasted. So they were dressed in ill-fitting western clothes — dark trousers and inexpensive factory-printed batik shirts for the men, and dark skirts and equally bright batik shirts for the women. Their appearance was like rustics wearing their children’s school uniforms. They wore distinctive woven rattan caps decorated with large black and white rhinoceros hornbill feathers (an endangered species, but Mering didn’t think anyone would notice). They couldn’t eliminate their tattoos, of course, and the men didn’t alter their hair styles, which featured a bowl cut in front and a narrow pony tail in back.

* * *

Mering’s case depended on the testimony of Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tinggang and the others. Would the nature spirits cooperate?

The numina in this case were other-than-human entities that lived in large rainforest trees. These spirits were at the heart of Mering’s case. He needed to prove three things — that the spirits existed, that they had a basic right to exist, and that they would cease to exist if the forest was destroyed.



Over the years Alexander Ajang Mering fought the good fight on behalf of native peoples and their ancestral homes. His first major case took place in 2001, when Chief Justice Lucas Chin of the Malaysian state of Sarawak decided on behalf of the Iban community of Rumah Nor in a landmark land-rights case against the state’s largest timber company. Chin had realized that his decision would be both criticized and much cited, and he made the effort to explain the history proving that the Ibans had legal ownership of the land by virtue of traditional land use. Chin started by analyzing historical tribal ownership patterns, then chronologically dissected the legal situation of indigenous land ownership under the Sultanate of Brunei, the rule of the three White Rajahs of Sarawak, the British colonial period, and finally under the Federation of Malaysia.

One of the defense’s arguments was that the Rumah Nor longhouse was virtually uninhabited, which they argued, meant that there were no “victims” in the case. When I visited Rumah Nor, shortly after Justice Chin’s landmark decision, only a few old folks were in residence; the remainder of the people who gave Rumah Nor as their permanent address actually lived in the nearby city of Bintulu, where they were able to more easily find work in Bintulu’s huge liquefied natural gas complex.

There were other legal hurdles that Chin had to address. One was that Rumah Nor’s property boundaries were neither clearly defined nor mapped. Chin addressed this by accepting the plaintiff’s claim that oral tradition, coupled with natural markers (a stream, an old tree, a waterfall) could serve as legal proof of ownership.

Another problem was the defense’s interpretation of Malaysian law that stated a community could only claim ownership of land if the land was used for farming. The Ibans of Rumah Nor, like the tribal communities in the rest of the state, generally practiced “static” farming only near the dwellings — fruit, vegetables, rubber. But much larger areas further afield were devoted to shifting cultivation to produce “dry rice” in which the growing area was moved every year, leaving large blocks of land fallow for up to seven years in order to allow secondary vegetation to grow and thereby restore fertility of the soil. According to the defendants, such land was not “used,” and hence not “owned.”

Chin’s decision gave a boost to the now-commonly used term Native Customary Rights, or NCR. His decision was over-turned on appeal. The forces of what Mering termed “dark greed and unstoppable ego” were too powerful to overcome the arguments of the simple folk of Rumah Nor longhouse.



The Penans in this fictional story are hoping a novel legal argument will stop rainforest destruction such as this nascent oil palm plantation in neighboring Indonesia.


* * *

But no matter how you looked at it, all previous legal cases were based on a Western model of jurisprudence. Spurred on by the cultural and religious beliefs proposed by the three stern, paternalistic desert religions, Western-Jurisprudence basically takes the view that man has dominion over nature, man has both a responsibility to protect nature but also a right to “make nature productive,” and that land ownership has to be proven by Western guidelines.

Alexander Mering was taking a different view. He was promoting a revolutionary way of looking at our relationship with the natural world. He was challenging the pervasive status of Western-Jurisprudence with a threatening new legal concept based on ancient truths — Ethno-Jurisprudence.

* * *

In a way, this was a last-ditch effort by Mering. Nothing had worked previously. Blockades. Negotiations. International pressure. Civil disobedience. Not even the Robin Hood antics of Bruno Manser, the daring Swiss who lived with the Penans for years and had earned international awareness for their cause, had helped. The forces of “development,” arrogance, and greed, were just too strong for the beleaguered Penans and their tree-spirit-brothers.


Indigenous people of Sarawak have enacted numerous blockades and protests against illegal timber operations in their homeland forests, but these actions have not stopped the destruction.

* * *

Over a weekend break during the trial I invited Alexander Mering to lunch so he could explain his audacious legal approach.

It was not uncommon for indigenous groups worldwide to argue that they had ownership of natural areas that dated back centuries, he explained. Indigenous groups also argued, often successfully, that some natural sites were Sacred Natural Sites, or SNS in conservation jargon. These folks made the case that a particular forest, lake, mountain, meadow, river, or grove had special cultural and religious importance, and therefore should be saved not only for conservation reasons (and there are many such reasons) but also because they are, as Mering said, “important and, well, sacred.”

But that wasn’t the tactic Mering was using in this case.

* * *

During the trial Mering introduced a new legal argument based not on standard Western-Jurisprudence but on the opposite concept of Ethno-Jurisprudence. It would not be humans who were fighting on behalf of nature, but rather nature fighting for itself. If you accept that spirits occupy a place or natural feature, you are de facto granting that their abode has an innate right to exist.

Put another way, Mering’s argument was that nature, in various forms, is a “juristic person.”

Many (well, to be truthful, most) legal experts scoffed at the Ethno-Jurisprudence argument giving legal rights to spirits.

Balderdash! shouted one defense attorney who had learned his courtroom interjections by watching BBC period dramas. Ridiculous! Trees are just trees! They have no consciousness!

But during the trial Mering calmly cited numerous examples of case law in which Western-oriented courts upheld his approach.

In their national constitutions, Ecuador and Bolivia have recognized Mother Earth as a “legal person.”

Indian courts have granted “legal person” rights to the Ganges and Yamuna river systems.

In at least two cases in Ecuador involving pollution of rivers the courts have stated that the rights of nature prevail over other constitutional rights.

In 2017, after some 170 years of litigation, a New Zealand court recognized the status of the numina that inhabit each of the more than 240 rapids on the Whanganui River. That judgement, Mering pointed out, has particular relevance to the Penans’ case. Mering cited the New Zealand decision that acknowledged the spirits of the river provide guidance and insight “in times of joy, despair, or uncertainty.”

And in 2014 New Zealand became the first nation on earth to give up formal ownership of a national park when it declared that the area, Te Urewera, has “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.”

In 2010 the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first city in the United States to declare nature a “legal person” during a case to ban “fracking” within the city limits.

The State of Hawai’i heard a case in which a Native Hawaiian shaman testified that the numina that occupy the Mauna Kea volcano on the Big Island would be furious if a telescope was constructed on its slopes. The court ruled in favor of the Native Hawaiian petitioners and the telescope was not built.


Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

A number of countries have accorded juristic personhood to river systems and even to individual rapids.

* * *

Shaman Katong was first up. He gave his name, his occupation (“farmer”), age and place of residence. He was one of the last few hundred semi-nomadic Penans, and the question of where his home was located was tricky. “Upper Baram River” was the best he could do. When asked he confirmed that when he went into a trance he wasn’t speaking for himself, but merely relaying the voice of the tree spirit. “I have no idea what the spirit is going to say,” Katong said. “And I never remember what happened after I return from the spirit world.”

To preempt arguments that Katong might be faking his altered mental state, Mering had arranged that authorized medical technicians be on hand. They attached sensors to the man’s scalp and chest to measure changes in his brain and heart activity. Katong was also hooked up to a blood pressure gauge and a lie detector that measured variations in voice and temperature, as well as noting changes in surface tension and moisture on his fingertips. Video cameras broadcast real-time images of the gauges and monitors on a large screen on the side of the wood-paneled courtroom.

“Mister Mering, let me know when you’ve finished strapping poor Mister Katong up to your gadgets so we can continue,” Judge Aithihyamala said.

“Good to go, your honor.”

* * *

Katong squatted in front of the witness chair, withdrew a worn plastic bag from his small woven backpack, and began to unpack several objects. “What have you got there, Mister Katong?” Judge Aithihyamala asked.

Alexander Mering intervened. “These are the accessories Shaman Katong needs to enter a trance.” He pointed to Katong’s tools-of-the-trade and offered a commentary. “Let’s see. He’s got a clouded leopard’s tooth. What looks like a smooth stone with a band of quartz running through it. A sliver of petrified wood. A kingfisher feather. Incense made from the sap of a forest liana. Kindling. And a bright orange Bic lighter.”

“Sorry Mister Katong,” Judge Aithihyamala said. “No smoking inside a government building.”

‘Your honor, these, er, things, are essential to help Katong enter a trance,” Mering said.

“Improvise, Mister Katong. Improvise.”

* * *

Katong held the finger-long clouded leopard tooth in his hands, closed his eyes, mumbled some prayers, breathed deeply, and entered an altered state. When he finally spoke his voice had changed into a gravelly, rich baritone. He spoke in the Penan language, a simple but rarely heard tongue. His words were mixed with birdsong, whooshing wind noises, and crickets.

He emitted a woodpecker’s hammering dtak-dtak-dtak into a tree trunk.

“I don’t like this place,” Katong said in a deep voice.

Judge Aithihyamala tried to ask a question, but was waved off by Alexander Mering, who signaled just wait a bit.

“Who are you?” Alexander Mering asked Katong.

“Tree. Leaves. Air. Roots. Flowers. Insects. Moss.” Then a slow whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, the rhythmic locomotive-like sound of a hornbill in flight.

“Do you know what this is?” Alexander Mering held up a small chainsaw, pulled the ignition cord and the aggressive buzz of the tool shook the courtroom.

“Turn it off.”

And Alexander Mering did so.

The nameless spirit spoke in short bursts, sometimes incoherently, sometimes in what sounded like hornbill cries.

The judge wrote a few questions on a notepad and passed it to Alexander Mering. They were typical “Western” questions. Where are you? Are you alive? Do you want to be chopped down?

And the spirit gave indirect “Asian” answers. “I feel the wind.” “Squirrels scratch me.” The coughing call of a barking deer. The wheezy growl of a clouded leopard.

And so it went until Katong shuddered and slowly opened his eyes.

* * *

Some of the shamans repeated a liturgy, which they called ha’ tara, that assisted them to enter a beta state by which they could communicate with spirits. However many of the shamans remained fully alert and lucid and clearly told the court about prophetic dreams they had experienced, or specific bird omens they had seen, which they interpreted as predicting catastrophes, plagues, and disasters if the forest continued to be destroyed.

* * *

Throughout the testimony of Katong and other shamans, the defense counsels, well-dressed men and women with impressive college degrees and a higher hourly rate than Katong and the other shamans earned in a year, shouted their favorite combative phrases. This is a mockery of the law! Next thing you know the plaintiff will be channeling Bruno Manser!

And they had a point. If you boiled it down they were objecting to the complete reversal of the legal system. If the testimonies-of-the-trees were allowed to stand it would threaten the very principles that formed urban Malaysian civilization.

* * *

During the trial I paid attention to the defendants — men and women who were accused of cutting the rainforest. The top bosses, ethnic Malay- and Chinese-Malaysians who ran huge timber companies, oil palm plantations, trading companies, government departments, and the banks that funded their operations, did not attend. They were powerful people who had been raised on the idea that man has an in loco parentis right of control over “wild” nature, and, by extension, the right of control over the “savage” people who live in the forests. The CEOs and general managers were busy men and women, and had hired expensive, well-dressed lawyers to represent their interests. However, a few mid-management people from the defense — mostly vice presidents in charge of public relations and operations, were present. I sought them out to get their side of the story.

They had all drunk the “We’re doing what’s best for the nation” Kool-Aid. The lectures I received were similar to scoldings I have received by people in power throughout Southeast Asia.

You Westerners built your great civilizations because you cut your own forests.
Don’t tell us what to do.
We have to help our poor naked cousins the Penans become civilized and enjoy the benefits we city dwellers enjoy.
Don’t tell us what to do.
Palm oil is one of the country’s greatest foreign exchange earners. We need that money to develop for the benefit of all.
You care more about orangutans than people.
Don’t tell us what to do.
Our farmers grow oil palm following international sustainability guidelines.
You tell us to protect the “lungs of the Earth” but you Westerners do all the polluting.
The rainforest left alone is unproductive.
Don’t tell us what to do.

* * *

Eventually Katong, Ruth, Paya, Melang, Tingang, and the seven other men and women completed their testimonies. Some were loquacious. Others couldn’t go into trance at all. Few made coherent statements. All, apparently, were sincere. In essence, the trees said: We exist. Don’t kill us. Bad things will happen.

* * *

The verdict came the following day.

“I empathize with your arguments, but my personal feelings are irrelevant,” Samuel Aithihyamala said. “The law is clear. Spirits have no legal standing in the Federal Constitutional Monarchy of Malaysia. Decision for the defendants.”

* * *

The defendants and the defense lawyers punched the air, packed their files and made plans to celebrate that night at a large and garish Chinese seafood restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, where the brandy would flow, the sharks’ fin soup would be ladled, and the men in the group would smoke large cigars, as they had learned to do from watching Boston Legal.

* * *

So that should have been that. The Penans, used to generations of disappointment and being ignored by the powers that be, packed up their few belongings in simple but elegant rattan backpacks, and prepared to return home.

Except just then, as people were filing out of the air-conditioned courtroom into the humid heat of a Malaysian afternoon, Ruth went into a deep trance. She stood rock-still, arms outstretched, and roared. To say it was an unearthly roar would be misleading; it was a roar of the Earth. To the Penans, it was a sign, surely.

* * *

I wish I could say that Ruth’s lament of the tree’s discomfort led to a hurricane that destroyed a timber camp, or a deadly accident for one of the government officials, or a plague of venomous snakes that attacked non-Penan intruders in the forest. I wish I could say that Bruno Manser’s ghost appeared, Banquo-like, to shake things up and scare the timber barons into gibbering fools.

As far as I know, none of these things happened. The forest is still being destroyed. Ruth, it is said, still wails, but with less vibrancy than earlier.


This story is fiction, but the concepts that are integral to the story — the destruction of the rainforest by Big Politics and Big Business, the unwillingness by courts to respect Native Customary Rights, the judgement of Justice Lucas Chin in the landmark Rumah Nor case, and the plight of the Penans and other indigenous groups — are, unfortunately, all-too-real. Similarly, the concept that trees and forests have legal standing, called “juristic personhood,” is being recognized in a number of countries as a valid legal argument. The existence of tree spirits is widely believed by many Indigenous cultures, but yet to be proven by Western Cartesian evidence.

This story is excerpted from a chapter in Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia. For more information about the book click here.

“Sochaczewski at his very best — sharp, witty, energetic, and unafraid to be irreverent. Reminds me of the satire of Catch-22 combined with the insightful travel memoirs of Bill Bryson and Mark Twain.”

— Benedict Allen, BBC presenter, author of Into the Crocodile’s Nest: Journey Inside New Guinea and Explorer: The Quest for Adventure and the Great Unknown