Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) would like to express its grave concern on the logging encroachment that has taken place since March this year in the customary territory of Long Pilah, Sungai Jahek, in Baram.
We therefore would like to state our support to the open letter from the Long Pilah residents addressed to the Chief Minister of Sarawak dated 14 July.
In the past year or so, the Chief Minister of Sarawak has repeatedly stated his stance on the urgent need for the timber industry in Sarawak to operate in accordance with the law and more responsibly. The Chief Minister has even announced the halting of the issuance of new logging licences in the state. Unfortunately however, the story of Long Pilah seems to carry the same old tone.
Of particular interest to us is how the open letter describes the utter lack of information disclosure to the affected communities. Confused about the actual status of the harvesting licence and unclear about the outcome of the Forests Department’s investigation on the legality of the operation, the people alleged that their attempt to gather more official information was directly denied by the Department with the untenable excuse that such information is considered to be sensitive.
Why exactly does information on the beneficiaries of the logging industry need to be hidden from public view? This lack of transparency, which has long plagued the timber industry in the country, is a systemic failure in governance.
We are indeed not surprised at the failure of the Long Pilah residents in obtaining information on the status of the logging operations in their customary territory. In 2008, even our attempts to request for maps and information on the Sarawak Permanent Forest Estate failed to obtain a favourable response. Meanwhile, our requests for information on logging concession details were also rejected in 2011.
Further, the villagers are right to question the legality of the operations, regardless of whether the operations are sanctioned by a valid licence. After all, the Malaysian judiciary has ruled that the indigenous customary land rights are in fact proprietary rights, not unlike the documentary land title. Further, the legitimacy of such rights can only be determined through indigenous customs. Modern law is only relevant to ascertain if the rights have been extinguished at any point of time.
However, the state has thus far failed to introduce any policy or legislative reforms in order to align them with such judicial findings. This governance inaction raises the question as to whether it is lawful for states to continue issuing licences for resource extractive activities on indigenous customary territories, without the consent of affected communities. In short, without the appropriate reforms, the legal impeccability of Malaysian timber products may continue to be questionable.
We therefore urge the Chief Minister to take the necessary actions to halt the logging operations within the Long Pilah customary land and to drop the charge against Ajeng Jok, who is only trying to protect his community rights.
Information on the ownership and status of the harvesting licence and the outcome of the investigation by the Forests Department must be made public, as with other information on forestry matters and the licensing of logging and plantation activities in Sarawak.
Further, the appropriate message must be sent to signal that the use of gangs and other harassment tactics to intimidate affected villagers into silence does not have a place in this country.
Last but not least, we urge that the appropriate policy and legal reforms be undertaken in Sarawak to ensure that they are aligned with judicial findings on indigenous customary land rights.
S M Mohamed Idris is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)