Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beware of Strange Bedfellows: The Curious Case of Gordon Brown, his Sister-in-Law, and the Rainforests of Exotic Borneo

By Rachel Motte

WASHINGTON, DC – What do U.S. presidents and British prime ministers do when they leave office? Usually they write their memoirs, create libraries and foundations, and– if they are Tony Blair– make a lot of money working for investment banks.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has published his book, but has otherwise kept his head down since losing the British election a year ago, having by then become one of the least popular politicians in British history. Among the reasons for Mr. Brown’s unpopularity: he was blamed for the UK recession, he was seen to be a cold and aloof figure who had for years been plotting to take over from Tony Blair, and he also took the blame for a huge British parliamentary scandal that involved the fiddling of expenses by Members of Parliament on a range of personal expenses.

In 2009, Prime Minister Brown was himself part of the scandal. British taxpayers were unhappy when they found he had used their money to arrange for his own family to manage his personal housecleaning expenses.

That was when Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law, Clare Rewcastle Brown, made her first public appearance, having previously been simply the obscure relative of a British politician. She and her husband had accepted taxpayer money from the Prime Minister to pay for house cleaning bills. Her public defense of Gordon Brown, namely that she and her husband had just been keeping “a bit of an eye on him on the domestic front”, was not well received in Britain.

Fast-forward to the last 30 days. Gordon Brown and his sister-in-law have returned to the British press, this time not as bit players in a broader scandal, but as accusers of the local government of Sarawak, a tourist destination in the rainforests of Borneo.

The former British prime minister has expressed concern about the deforestation of Borneo as a result of logging, and his sister-in-law heads an environmentalist campaign with a host of allegations, including the claim that 90% of the rainforest has been destroyed by logging. As the two find themselves at the center of a complex Malaysian political feud, it’s important to remember that former presidents and prime ministers must be scrupulously sure to get the facts straight when they lend their names to apparently worthy causes.

If you imagine the picture Gordon Brown paints of Borneo, you might envision a barren landscape, raped and pillaged of its native beauty by the unceasing march of progress. The real story is much more complicated than either of the Browns would have you believe.

The former UK Prime Minister says deforestation has run rampant through Sarawak’s rainforest and “only five per cent” of the forest is left. That’s a startling statistic, and Clare Rewcastle Brown’s figures are even more alarming. Her activist blog suggests “less than 3% of the original rainforest remains.”

In an interview published this week, Sarawak’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib directly refuted these claims noting “the fact is more than 70% of our forest are still intact.” He also said that 14% of the state’s secondary jungle has either been replanted or is in the planning stage for replanting. As often happens in such debates, it’s likely the most accurate figures, which are difficult to measure given the density of the very rainforest that is supposedly in its last death throes, lie somewhere between the two figures. Necessary land clearing and cultivation has changed, but not utterly destroyed, the forest. This is perhaps regrettable, given Borneo’s incomparable wealth of rare plant and animal life, but it’s also quite good: people live in that rainforest, and those people must have roads, clean water, medical care, education, and a means to support themselves financially. They need clear, farmable land to ensure their own survival, and they have provided it for themselves. Whether they have always done so to the highest publicly acceptable degree is inconsequential compared to the ways in which these people’s lives have been improved and even saved by their cultivation of the land.

In the interview, Chief Minister Taib asserted that he had “nothing to hide” and invited “independent and international inspection teams” to come to Sarawak to document and verify the facts. He further emphasized that a considerable percentage of the cultivated land was being replanted and rehabilitated to proactively avoid the sort of deforestation that the Browns find problematic.

It’s odd that these complaints come from a figure well-known for his own shortcomings in environmental policy. Gordon Brown’s policies regarding aviation and planning were ineffective in Britain. He refused the advice of advisers who lobbied him to adopt energy saving measures by insulating homes and embracing renewable energy resources. Even Labour Party members close to Brown considered him a crashing disappointment in the field of environmental policy. Perhaps he feels the need to atone for his failures in Britain by asserting authority over the indigenous peoples of a far away island state—a strange ambition, to be sure.

Or perhaps he thinks he can benefit from the political power to be gained from interfering in Sarawak, which has just announced that it will hold state elections in April—though exactly how he might expect to profit is anyone’s guess, as his career is more likely to be harmed than helped in Sarawak. Read more.

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