Imagine if strangers trespass and wreck your land, ruining your livelihood, then seize it with impunity. This is a habitual reality for native communities in Malaysia.
In Sungai Buri, an area in Sarawak’s Baram River basin, this occurred in mid-2013. Villagers found, to their horror, workers felling their communal forests and wrecking family farms. In one fell swoop, their crops of rubber, jackfruit, durian, isu, embawang, langsat, tarap and areca nut – a source of livelihood and sustenance for dozens of families – were demolished.
Angry villagers confronted the workers from Indonesia clearing the land, but they replied they were mere labourers and knew nothing about licenses. Till today, no one has ever showed the villagers licenses, permits or maps; no one has ever asked permission to use their land or offer compensation.
The villagers tried to fight back. Reports were lodged at the Beluru police station, but none were ever acted upon. When the Sungai Buri Residents’ Association chair, Gasah Tedong, visited the Department of Lands and Surveys in Miri, a senior officer questioned their land ownership. He said any land not temuda (an Iban term for family-owned cultivated areas) was considered state land. How can this land not be theirs when it holds their rarung, special burial grounds for celebrated warriors?
Protests, letters to the government and meetings with the company proved futile. Under pressure, some villagers sold their land, which is legally questionable, as native customary land cannot be sold to non-natives. This bitterly divided the community.
The plantation has caused “great suffering” to the villagers, forcing them to seek other income sources and food and water sources. Some youngsters migrated to towns. Hunting is no longer easy. Even wild forest vegetables – piths and ferns – are now being bought. Effluent from the factory have killed fish in the river.
The community’s plight was described in a new report by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) entitled “The Land We Lost: Native Customary Rights and Large Monocultures in Sarawak” that was released at the end of July 2019.
The report said more than three million hectares of land – about a quarter of Sarawak’s land area – has been designated by the state for large monoculture plantations (pulp and paper, timber trees and palm oil). Much of this falls on land that native communities claim as customary territories, which include native farmlands and forested areas mostly logged in the 1990s.
Indigenous people, who make up 14% of all Malaysians, are fighting to defend their ancestral land nationwide. Again and again, we hear of land grabs, of plantations encroaching on native land, of covert logging and rivers becoming polluted. Native people have even had to become labourers on their own land.
There has been intimidation, threats, harassment, bribery, arbitrary arrests and violence. On June 21, 2016, activist Bill Kayong was shot in the head in his vehicle at a traffic light in Miri. Are we a lawless cowboy country where might wins over right? How can indigenous people, the people with the most rights to the land, have the least rights in reality?
Currently, Penan and Berawan natives are fighting to stop a plantation firm clear forests on the fringes of world heritage site Mulu National Park with human barricades. Their own bodies are their only defence.
In response to SAM’s report, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok said at the end of July, 2019, that recognition of native customary land rights will become mandatory for Malaysian palm oil producers by the end of 2019, as part of the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standards.
But, “Sarawak currently does not have robust governance conditions” to adequately address issues to enable certification, SAM said. For example, regarding consultation and consent, institutional processes have been “designed to exert state control”. Companies do not have to seek permission from communities, or even inform them, about land use.
The state has put “severe limitations” on community claims of native land while the legislative network has systemic flaws, SAM said, noting that violations of native rights and environmental degradation were linked with large plantations not smallholders.
The government needs to honour its promise to finally address these long-standing issues. We urgently need legal reforms, demarcation of native customary territories and complete transparency in land and natural resource issues. All current developments on indigenous land nationwide need to be reviewed.
The government should heed Indonesia’s bold steps to restore hutan adat, customary forests, to indigenous communities, a move shown worldwide to be helpful to protect forests. Currently, Indonesia is mapping indigenous lands to prevent land grabs.
Preserving forests is not just important for native communities to survive, but for all us, in tackling the climate crisis. Forests are critical carbon stores. The guardians of our forests need our support to save the planet and ensure our own survival.