On a rainy night in Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, the severed arms and legs of a murdered informant are delivered to different recipients as a gruesome warning from the thugs of businessman Abudullah Aziz not to interfere with the timber mafia.
If you were expecting this story to open with drum circles and peace flags, you might have the wrong book.
Environmental activist Dave Currey’s new work, “Stripped,” is the type of book where murder and mayhem are just the opening act — a warm-up, if you will.
From the get-go, Currey writes like a man possessed. He sets a new bar for the often tepid “eco-thriller” genre by finally demonstrating just how thrilling it can be.
Though a work of fiction, the events described in the book are loosely based on Currey’s experience in Central Kalimantan, where he documented illegal logging cases beginning in 1998.
“Stripped” unfolds with the relentless ferocity of a chainsaw. It’s such an intense and engrossing read that it can put readers in the unfamiliar position of feeling physically exhausted by a book.
Set in the dense jungle of Kalimantan, the teeming streets of Jakarta and the squeaky-clean boardrooms of Singapore, the book introduces several characters who at first seem arbitrarily connected.
It doesn’t take long before you begin to realize that they are all caught up in the larger machinations of gathering forces which have spiraled beyond any single person’s ability to control.
Environmental activists Debi, Rita and Sam bravely take up the fight against timber baron Abdullah and his son, Hazim, who exploit Kalimantan’s forests and its people. These crooks keep the community under the boot heel of their oppression using money or violence.
Still, they reserve a special level of brutality for anyone foolish enough to consider getting between the family and their ability to turn trees into money.
In the story, Bambang Santoso, the country’s coordinating minister for politics and security, and Forestry Minister Mohammed Probowo try to support a host of nongovernmental groups in their fight against illegal logging. But they quickly find that political violence and corruption can be just as unpredictable and brutal.
Eventually, they find themselves at odds not just with the ruthless timber mafia, but also with a group of Islamic extremists.
The story gets even more complex when Matt Johnson, an English tourist, and his guide, Koto, are kidnapped and left for dead in the jungle. The international media run the story and start to pull back the layers, exposing the province’s dirty secret.
The story is unflinching in its goal to talk about destruction in Kalimantan. But for every instance of human brutality and greed, Currey manages to bring to light examples of human bravery, selflessness, sacrifice and daring.
The masterful way he writes his tale comes from more than 30 years of experience in the field.
As the co-founder of the Environmental Investigation Agency, British-born Currey has led numerous undercover investigations on crimes against the environment around the world.
“It’s not easy watching hundreds of whales being slaughtered, smelling the carcasses of elephants mowed down with AK-47s or learning what you inevitably learn after 30 years in the environmental movement,” he wrote in the foreword.
“My friends and colleagues at EIA and our Indonesian partner NGO, Telapak, know what I mean,” he added.
His attention to detail also probably comes from his training as a photographer for numerous magazines and newspapers. He has also co-produced documentaries.
Just like “Stripped,” Currey’s experience in Indonesia had its mix of rough patches and inspiring encounters.
“Meeting other activists in Indonesia and other parts of the world reminds me how many extraordinarily motivated and brave people there are providing our world with a future,” he said.
“Sharing experiences with them has maintained the hope in my life.”
Ultimately, this passion rings clear throughout the novel.
More than just an engaging read, “Stripped” is a wake-up call. If just a fraction of environmental literature could muster the same energy and intrigue, who knows, people might actually be inspired to put down their books and fight for nature.
By Dave Currey
Published by Wild Press