Bruno Manser, activist from the very first, and selfless fighter for the rainforest.
Bruno Manser, activist from the very first, and selfless fighter for the rainforest. Photo: Erik Pauser / Bruno Manser Fonds

Guardian of the rainforest

Bruno Manser was one of the world’s first environmental activists, and he launched spectacular protests to fight against rainforest deforestation. This earned him admiration, but it also caused him problems with the authorities.

Pascale Meyer

Pascale Meyer

Historian and curator at the Swiss national museum

In March 1993, when Bruno Manser and his followers sat on the Bundesplatz and knitted seven sweaters for the members of the Federal Council, many like-minded people and left-wing politicians gave him an indulgent smile: such campaigns weren’t entirely new, but Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future were still far in the future. In those days, only Greenpeace had the boldness to wage deeply symbolic and high-profile campaigns that grabbed media attention. Nature conservation and environmental protection were not yet at the top of the Federal Council parties’ agenda. And there he was, sitting in front of the Federal Building, knitting sweaters and going on hunger strike in an attempt to force a ban on the import of tropical timber from Malaysia. What was it about the rainforest in the Borneo state of Sarawak that had so grabbed him? Would it not have worked just as well with a forest nearby? Or a smaller island?
TV report on Bruno Manser’s knitting campaign in front of the Bundeshaus (in French). RTS
Bruno Manser grew up in modest circumstances in Basel. After graduating from high school, he spent several years in the pastures of the Alps and led a simple life full of privations, eschewing the trappings of consumerism and the temptations of affluent society. He lived a solitary, hermit-like life, made all his own tools, and toughened himself up. When his dog died, he decided to go to East Asia. The Penan tribe in Sarawak fascinated Manser; he was captivated by their nomadic way of life – in search of the primeval essence of humanity, a simple life of respect for nature and people. He wanted to help save them from the fate met by the Native Americans. In 1984 he travelled to Sarawak for the first time, and was abruptly confronted with the harsh reality: Malaysia’s timber industry was destroying the forests and snatching away the livelihood of the Penan. From that moment on, Bruno Manser dedicated his life to the fight against deforestation and to saving the Penan. He fought this battle with methods that were new at the time: he became a professional activist. The Swiss media did pay him some attention, but neither the media nor the political parties really warmed to him. “Somewhat overblown” was many people’s opinion at the time.
Bruno Manser with Penan chief Along Sega, 1999.
Bruno Manser with Penan chief Along Sega, 1999. Photo: Erik Pauser / Bruno Manser Fonds
In 1996, when he dropped himself down on to the Kleines Matterhorn aerial cable car for the “Five to twelve” campaign to draw attention to climate protection, he was filmed by RTL, but the Swiss press barely noticed him; only the Walliser Bote thought the campaign worthy of a couple of lines. The stunt was a media flop. Hardly anyone in Switzerland took any notice of the fact that Warner Brothers wanted to make a film about Bruno Manser’s life. In the end, Bruno Manser turned down the offer of filming his life, but he still kept the advance payment already made – for his fight. The first major feature film about Bruno Manser wasn’t released in cinemas until 2019 – many years after his death.  
Manser’s campaign at a dizzying height was spectacular, but was mostly ignored in Switzerland.
Manser’s campaign at a dizzying height was spectacular, but was mostly ignored in Switzerland. Bruno Manser Fonds
But why didn’t Bruno Manser become a figurehead in his time, like Greta Thunberg, in the fight against environmental destruction and deforestation? His forms of action were not only radical and bold, but also provided juicy media fodder: he scaled the façades of the cathedral in Brussels and the Bundestag building in Bern and unrolled banners spelling out urgent warnings. When Klaus Schwab failed to invite him to the WEF in 2000, he paraglided down from the Jakobshorn to Davos and unfurled a “Save the Rainforest” banner. The police arrested him immediately. Manser readily embraced any opportunity to say his piece; he was an articulate speaker, with a confrontational attitude. So why wasn’t he more famous? Why was he still treated with an indulgent smile? Did he appear on the scene too early?
In a protest action in 1993, Bruno Manser scaled the façade of Brussels’s town hall.
In a protest action in 1993, Bruno Manser scaled the façade of Brussels’s town hall. Bruno Manser Fonds
When he began his struggle, the first wave of the environmentalist movement had faded away, the fight against new nuclear power plants had been won, the lakes and rivers had been cleaned up and the issue of forest decline, although acute in 1983, was later buried. While the phenomenon of global warming was by then well known and supported by scientific evidence, there was not yet any talk of the impending destruction of our planet. The students weren’t striking yet, and there was no climate report from the IPPC (the first of these would be published in 1990). Although the Club of Rome had given urgent warnings about population growth and scarcity of resources as early as 1972, in those early days the greenies were still finding their feet. And in that era of the 1980s and 1990s, Bruno Manser popped up and started reporting from a faraway country that most people would have had trouble finding on a globe. A monstrosity that, initially, had nothing to do with Switzerland. Or so it was thought. Newly elected Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss, however, showed remarkable foresight: she sat down with Manser on the Bundesplatz and knitted a few stitches by his side. What other Federal Councillor would have done the same?

Further posts