Malaysian indigenous communities gathered in Miri, Sarawak for a one-day conference and workshop. Save Rivers reports on what transpired.
The objective of the event was to start collaboration among indigenous communities in the three regions to overcome the challenges they are facing relating to their native customary lands.
The event on 16 April 2018 was organised by the civil society organisations, Save Rivers and Jaringan Orang Asal Semalaysia (JOAS).
The participants and speakers at the conference comprises villagers and activists from all over Malaysia, including some well-known land rights lawyers among whom were the West Malaysian lawyer Dr Yogeswaran Subramaniam, Sarawak lawyers MS Sandhu and Harrison Ngau. Jerald Joseph a commissioner from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia was also invited. But he was refused entry to Sarawak by the state government.
The challenges common to the indigenous communities from the three regions over their lands are encroachments either by logging, industrial farming, mining or mega dams. As a result, thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land in Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia are affected. In some cases the people are forcefully displaced. The indigenous communities, whose livelihood and traditions are closely related or dependent on their lands, rivers and forest, are thus severely affected.
In his keynote address, Yogeswaren said it could not be denied that the issue of customary lands has been a longstanding struggle for the indigenous communities. “This stems from the non-recognition of customary land rights – or customary land rights are recognised but the authorities are weak to implement relevant laws to protect these rights.”
There are hundreds of land court cases in Malaysia by the indigenous peoples over the encroachment into their land by developers who are given licences by the respective state authorities. In practically all the cases, the owners of the land were not consulted. In Sarawak alone, there are more than three hundred cases which are still pending in the court.
Nasri Salbiah, a representative from the Sungai Rumanau community in Sabah, said, “If conflict can be avoided before going to courts, everyone wins.”
Yusri Ahon, president of JOAS and an Orang Asli representative from Pahang, shared his experience on the land rights issues faced by the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia. He mentioned that a lot of Orang Asli land is allotted for logging, plantations and infrastructure development.
Even to look for forest resources the Orang Asli communities would have to apply for permits from the government. “The government is not concerned about Orang Asli rights but are concerned about people who can give them benefits which exclude the Orang Asli,” said Yusri.
The “Malaysian Indigenous Peoples’ Declaration on Customary Rights Land” was to be submitted to the various state governments, the federal government and political parties in Malaysia.
Save Rivers is a civil society organisation which advocates for and empowers rural communities to protect and restore lands, rivers and watersheds through research, training and capacity building.