Baram communities call for an end to certification of conflict timber

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Timber certification in Sarawak
Photo: Save Rivers

Even if those responsible claimed consultations have been conducted, these consultations have been received poorly by the community, Save Rivers writes.

In August 2020, the Malaysia Timber Certification Council (MTCC), an organisation that operates the Malaysia timber certification scheme, posted a response on their website to Save Rivers’ press release “Certification without compliance” two months after it was published.

In its article, it claimed Save Rivers’ report was false, stating that Save Rivers does not understand the process involved. The MTCC brushed off community concerns about the certification based on the assertion that it did not receive any complaints from those affected.

Multiple complaints were made by multiple communities in the form of letters to relevant stakeholders. The reason no complaints were made through the MTCC complaints system was that the communities had no idea it existed. Communities have been trying every possible channel to challenge the Gerenai concession, but their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

In early March, prior to the movement control order, the Long Tungan community wrote a letter addressed to David Marsden, chief forester of Samling, seeking an explanation for the forest management certification.

Unfortunately, he denied his involvement in the process and did not offer further assistance. Instead, he said, “matters concerning allocation of forest areas, proposed land use, etc, etc, are government issues over which Samling has no jurisdiction. Such matters should be addressed directly to the Director of Forests.”

Neither the Forestry Department nor the certification body Sirim, which received copies of the letter to Samling, responded. The MTCC website does not provide a comprehensive complaint mechanism either. Consequently, the communities do not understand to whom a complaint should be addressed.

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The MTCC claims in its statement that 18 out of 22 villages were consulted, but it is unclear how many people were present in each village or what percentage of village inhabitants were consulted.

The timing for consultations is also questionable. The only time the whole village gets together is during a celebration such as Christmas. If consultations were conducted during the non-festive season with only elders left in the villages, then it is doubtful there was a genuine understanding of the situation and whether those who attended understood what they were giving consent to.

The MTCC defines free, prior and informed consent as a decision-making process that does not involve coercion, undue influence manipulation (ie free consent), is made before activities are undertaken (prior consent), is founded upon a clear understanding (informed consent) and involves granting or withholding consent (saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to an activity, programme or policy (consent).

In the free, prior and informed consent process, consent is to be understood based on the definition of the term consensus. Informing a community about a project is not the same thing as consent. Speaking with a handful of representatives from a village is not consensus. Folks in the Baram area are culturally hospitable and friendly, but don’t misinterpret their kindness as consent. Several community members have reached out to Save Rivers, stating that consultations were inadequate.

Danny Lawai from Long Semiyang said: “We in Long Semiyang were not consulted. I’ve asked my fellow villagers, they said that they have not even heard about the proposal for the certification of the Gerenai FMU [forest management unit], let alone being consulted.”

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A former headman from Tanjung Tepalit Lepo Gah, James Nyurang, said: “Our headman was called for a briefing with Samling at kilo 10. They asked him for cooperation on the certification, but the community was never called or informed. A few representatives from the Gerenai management once came to our village. They wanted to meet our headman, who was not around. I gathered a few people from the village to discuss with them. We were told that a survey was conducted. But we questioned the thoroughness of the survey, as they only identified one salt spring in the whole area. They avoided answering, but instead they told us that our question will be relayed to the higher authority. Unfortunately, that was the last time we saw them and till now we have yet to hear anything. We request from the people in charge to meet and consult the people properly and to do an accurate survey of the area.”

“None of us in Long Tungan were ever visited by anyone from MTCC. We were never consulted from the start and were not aware of this certificate. We are against this but we have difficulty to voice it out. How can they say that we have given our free, prior and informed consent? Who had given them the permission?” lamented John Jau from Long Tungan.

As the news has been getting a lot of attention in both local and international news since it was first published, Save Rivers is now launching an online petition, called “Stop the chop”, to garner support to stop logging in the Gerenai. Signup can be done on the Save Rivers website, saverivers.org/stopthechop

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As the one who operates this certification, the MTCC should be aware that the community is unhappy with the forest management system. Even if those responsible claimed consultations have been conducted, these consultations have been received poorly by the community. It is best that the issue be discussed out in the open with all the relevant parties so all questions can be answered and made public.

Whatever the outcome, the MTCC and Samling should respect and listen to local voices in the Baram region.

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