A tale of two journeys
A guest post by Hoon Seong Teo
In October 2021, I walked from Clitheroe to Penrith with the Camino to COP26.
I came to fell-walking late, when I decided to mark my mid-century by walking the Yorkshire Three Peaks. This sparked a new love of the landscapes of the United Kingdom, a “host country” to my expatriate self. As confidence and ability increased, I wanted to explore more of England’s beautiful North on foot. Hadrian’s wall seemed to fit the bill, and I began planning my route along this ancient monument to celebrate my 53rd year, until a friend in the Christian Climate Action Network mentioned the Camino to COP26 pilgrimage to me.
I had already started to contemplate the idea of walking as prayer before the Camino was introduced. While not professing to be the most devout of Christians, something in the story of Jesus walking into the desert had always spoken to my Quaker faith. As Jesus walked, He prayed and meditated on the nature of God. At the end of His fasting and wandering, He was tested by the Adversary and defeated him. Something in this story had always spoken to my Quaker faith, and when I heard of the Camino to COP26 I had an Aha! Moment. I wanted to combine my own walking journey with something deeper, and this felt, at some instinctual level, to fit the bill. I changed my plans for Hadrian’s Wall and joined up for 8 days of the Camino pilgrimage instead.
I made deep and enduring friendships in those 8 days. The long hikes, hard floors, lack of sleep and constantly wet boots that never dried was counterbalanced by the exhilaration of walking through wild, striking countryside and the kind welcome that was universally given to us in the villages where we stayed. Above all, the camaraderie of the pilgrims, whose journey I joined for just a short while, helped carry me along the path.
God moves the spirit in mysterious and unfathomable ways. Prior to the Camino, I had come to a crossroads in my life. I had served during the COVID 19 pandemic as an hospital intensive care unit consultant, and the experience had moved me to the understanding that pandemics, climate change, the sixth mass extinction and other such disasters now bedevilling us, have as a common cause the extractive nature of our current economic systems and the seeming inability of human societies to remove themselves from the mass consumerism that drives them. Consumerism as defined to me by a good Quaker friend, as consumption over and beyond that necessary for living a dignified life. I knew I wanted to act in such a way as to effect loving change. The problem was, I wasn’t sure how. I vowed therefore to worship in silence as Quakers do as I walked with the Camino and to wait for God’s voice.
The Camino being what it was, meant I didn’t quite find the spirit of silent worship that I’d anticipated. I left the pilgrimage at Penrith, a bit deflated after the exhilaration of the walk, and went back to my normal life. An uneventful (if such a thing exists anymore) month followed, during which I went about my day-to-day NHS duties with as much sanguinity as I could muster in the face of the 2021 winter-COVID induced backlog of NHS work .
Then, in November, I started having a series of intrusive flashbacks. They were always the same. A tiger, the animal emblem of my dear country Malaysia, being captured and tormented by callous hunters, and killed for the money that could be made by selling it’s organs to the East Asian medicinal markets. These visions went on and on, no matter what I did. I could claim that I was doing my best for Nature, by being involved in Extinction Rebellion and running an organic farm but nothing dispelled the nightmares. I prayed and begged Him to remove them. No dice.
Eventually, I asked a fellow Quaker to conduct a meeting for clearness. He directed this with great skill, and I was asked to consider in my heart of hearts what it was I felt called to do, and might be avoiding. A few weeks later I contacted an old friend in the Reformasi movement in Malaysia and offered my help. She introduced me via mutual friends to Peter Kallang, the head of the SAVE Rivers Network in Sarawak, an organisation leading the Indigenous fight to push illegal logging out of the remaining primary rainforests of Borneo. Much to my own surprise, I found myself telling Peter that I would do whatever I could to support him.
Peter had, by then, against all the odds spearheaded a tribal campaign that had defeated the Baram mega-dam project; but SAVE Rivers was now facing a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation). The SLAPP was issued by Malaysia’s most notorious timber multinational, incensed by SAVE Rivers’ righteous whistle-blowing on their continued illegal incursions into tribal territory. This small organisation faced a lawsuit demanding a payment of $5 million MYR for “defamation”. I wasn’t sure what I could do, so I decided to walk and to listen to what arrived within.
I reconnected with XR Walkers and carried a placard (Like all good Christian Climate Action Network activists!) that told everyone who wanted to know that I was walking for Sarawak. I started to raise funds for SAVE Rivers, through JustGiving, pledging to walk 500 miles to match the distance covered by the Camino to COP26. And I began to educate myself about the global trade in forest commodities of high harm, such as tropical timber and palm oil.
With respect to logging and the ongoing destruction of tropical forests, one thing was certain; the sustainability certification schemes were not working. This became clear when Peter’s delegation flew to Switzerland, supported by the Swiss Sarawak-solidarity organisation, Bruno Manser Fonds, to meet with the CEO of the international Programme for the Enforcement of Forest Certification (PEFC). In spite of evidence proving highly problematic behaviour by the loggers regarding environmental destruction and human-rights abuses, and the fact that over 70 civil society organisations had voiced their concerns over the litigation suit, PEFC refused to de-certify the timber company in question, or even address the valid complaints of Borneo’s forest communities.
While I walked I talked, to whoever would listen about Sarawak’s stolen forests. Mostly, I asked Him for guidance, to show me the next right step. In my mind I knew that I wanted to set in motion a solidarity campaign to support SAVE Rivers in the UK, with an aim to halt the sale of conflict timber from rainforests in the UK.
Towards the end of 2022, one year and 70 miles in, I was introduced via the XR network to Gaby Solly, an activist-artist and a Red Rebel who had been a campaigner with Friends of the Earth (FOE) UK in the 1990s. As we talked something sparked, and we started discussing in more detail a UK/Sarawak solidarity campaign, and the possibility of staging a funeral march for the Borneo rainforest through London. Gaby had recently participated in an opening ritual ceremony for Cecilia Vicuña’s new installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the Brain Forest Quipu. This artwork incapsulates concerns about deforestation, Indigenous land-rights and the power of collective action, and we started to formulate our own rainforest solidarity ritual using this this space.
Bruno Manser Fonds were brilliantly supportive of our developing plans which were made to coincide with a visit to Europe by Celine Lim from SAVE Rivers and Komeok Joe of KERUAN. These Indigenous Sarawakian forest campaigners, were coming to the Switzerland to meet with politicians and timber industry representatives regarding deforestation in Borneo. We approached FOE to ask for their advice with our emerging campaign and also asked for their endorsement. Much to my delight, they agreed. And thus the CUT campaign to Clean Up the Tropical Timber Trade was born: an international partnership including FOE, as part of their Global Commodities programme, the Bruno Manser Fonds, SAVE Rivers and KERUAN Organisation in Sarawak and the Borneo Project.
CUT was launched on the 23rd January with a moving ceremony underneath Vicuña’s vast hanging Brain Forest Quipu sculpture, which left many in tears. It gathered together nearly 30 eco-justice campaigners from Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford, Bristol London and Sarawak, including a great number of Christian Climate Action Network activists and XR walkers – to whom I am very grateful.
Dressed in white shawls, ‘Mourners’ were led through the Tate by London’s Red Rebel Brigade, followed by Celine and Komeok, who bestowed a Traditional ash blessing before speaking in solidarity to Indigenous global land defenders everywhere. The funeral procession then walked to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office with a letter to demand that our Government exercise due diligence over the UK’s supply chains, and ended at Buckingham Palace, where a letter was read out to King Charles, asking for his symbolic support as Head of the Commonwealth. Our journey that day have been caught in a short film by Fergus Dingle, and described in a blog on our new CUT campaign website.
UK Friends of the Earth organised for Celine and Komeok to meet with the Government’s senior Forest Advisor at the FCDO and other NGO representatives at FOE’s London HQ. Celine was keynote speaker at a meeting about international forestry for EU delegates. It felt like our new campaign had travelled a fair way in only a few days…
A month on and CUT is still its absolute infancy. Our first priority is to generate as much publicity as we can, and to communicate clearly to the UK public about the facts around dirty timber and greenwashing. Our website is full of facts and links and also has a Take Action page which we are directing people to. CUT also has Instagram, Facebook and Twitter sites to help spread the word. Our aim is to clean up the UK’s supply chains and to stop all sales of rainforest timber on the UK market, unless and until ‘sustainable’ certification schemes are radically reformed
It feels to me like a new journey has started with this campaign, borne out of the first two journeys I took. I will still continue to walk my 500 miles, to raise funds for SAVE Rivers, and to bear witness to the courage of our Indigenous Earth defenders, in Sarawak, and everywhere. And when I walk, I will do so in the spirit of the Camino “because we care and we have hope”.
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