With the last legs of logging operations being carried out in Sarawak with the advent of large monoculture plantations, the people’s forest resources have been in a state of acute decline. It could result in the total destruction of the people’s land and forest resources, including their communal water catchments, warns S M Mohamed Idris.
Over the past week, numerous news sources have been reporting of the blockades erected by several Penan communities in Tutoh-Apoh, Patah, Baram, Sarawak. SAM has learnt that the blockades, set up since 20 August 20 at three different locations on the logging roads within the territories of the villages of Long Nen, Long Bangan and Long Belok, have involved some 300 people from at least ten Penan villages in the area.
The blockades were set up to halt the transportation of logs by vehicles of several logging business groups operating in the area that for so long have been harvesting timber within the traditional territories (pemakai menoa) of the surrounding villages concerned.
According to community representatives, the blockades were set up for several interrelated reasons.
First and foremost, with the last legs of logging operations being carried out in Sarawak with the advent of large monoculture plantations, the people’s forest resources have been in a state of acute decline. If logging had devastating impacts on affected communities, plantations would certainly produce worse consequences, considering the fact that clear-felling operations would entail the total destruction of the people’s land and forest resources, including their communal water catchments.
Secondly, this impending deforestation disaster is certainly linked to the lack of land rights security of affected native communities to their traditional territories. For years, the communities’ numerous applications for their village forest reserves to be gazetted into Communal Forest Reserves have never been approved by the state.
In all, the people maintain that logging has failed to produce meaningful benefits to local communities and has instead over the years severely compromised their quality of life. They point out that local people even miss on employment opportunities as companies seem to prefer to hire Indonesian labour. The people also stress that their efforts to negotiate with the companies and their agents have often been futile, with some communities claiming to have experienced frequent attempts at deceptive behaviour on the part of the latter.
We have been informed that the protesters are determined not to give in into any intimidations or threats to dismantle the barricades unless their demands are met by the authorities and companies, the foremost of which is for all logging and plantation operations to be halted on their land, a call which if left unheeded may lead to significant food deprivation and widespread malnutrition among the people. Equally important, the people also demand that their Native Customary Rights (NCR) to be fully recognised and that they be allowed to exercise self-determination with regards to any development plans that may affect them. In our view, all the demands above certainly require an urgent comprehensive response at a policy level from the Sarawak State Government.
In this light, we find the statement attributed to Sarawak’s Rural Development Minister James Masing in an AFP news article published on 23 August which describes the Penan communities as “good storytellers” and that their land rights disputes “were often aimed at wringing more compensation from companies” as most regretful. Similarly, we find the insinuation on the communities’ blockades as suggested by State Assemblyperson YB Lihan Jok as equally unacceptable. YB Lihan was quoted by Utusan Borneo on 30 August 30 as suggesting that the blockades appear to show that as if the Penan communities are uncivilised – despite the fact that many of them have been highly educated -(Sekatan itu… menunjukkan seolah-olah kaum Penan tidak bertamadun sedangkan ramai di kalangan mereka sudah maju dalam pelajaran), filled with revenge and rebellion (Tindakan sekatan ini menunjukkan Penan penuh dendam dan pemberontakan) as well as ethnically prejudiced and selfish (Mereka prejudis dengan kaum lain seolah-olah hanya Penan sahaja yang perlu dibantu sedangkan kaum lain juga perlu perhatian).
In actual fact, the latest blockades put at least three questions over the sustainability claims of the Sarawak timber and plantation industries.
Firstly, from 1997 to 2004, the Sarawak Forests Department under its Licence for Planted Forest (LPF) system, has licensed out at least 2.8 million hectares of land for large monoculture projects, including land within the state’s Permanent Forest Estate (PFE), in addition to its non-gazetted stateland forests. Many Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports of the projects concerned seem to suggest that plantation development is today necessary in Sarawak due to the depletion in timber resources in the state. However, timber harvesting for Dipterocarp forests within the Sarawak PFE supposedly operates under a 25-year cutting cycle. If it is indeed true that timber has been largely depleted in just 30 years since large-scale logging commenced in the state, Sarawak should no longer claim to be practising sustainable forestry management.
Secondly, we believe that the Sarawak State Government has also failed to take full cognisance of our judicial decisions on native rights. The Federal Court in 2007 has ruled on the respect the principles of common law accord to the pre-existence of native rights under native laws and customs, explicitly stating that native rights owes its existence to native customary laws and not to any modern statute or legislation, while affirming that individual and communal native rights have equal legal force. Our Appeals Court meanwhile, on different occasions, have affirmed that such rights cover both cultivated and forested areas and are characterised by proprietary interests that go beyond mere usufructuary rights.
Finally, SAM is of the view that the continuous occurrence of land rights protests in Sarawak is a result of the absence of a participatory and consultative demarcation process of native territorial boundaries in Sarawak. Such a process should incorporate the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) mechanism and a set of substantiation procedures designed to yield corroborative evidence to support each native land rights claim. We strongly believe that this is not only feasible today, given the availability of GPS and other information technologies, but is in fact the most practical and rational way forward to end such protests.
Given all the facts above, we call on the Sarawak State Government to fulfil all the demands made by the blockading communities and exercise restraint in dealing with the protest. In our view, unless Sarawak halts further forest conversions in the state and subsequently establishes a consultative demarcation process which takes cognisance of the full stature, nature and extent of the NCR as ruled by our judiciary, any sustainability claims made on both the timber and plantation industries in Sarawak must be treated with great caution.
S.M.Mohamed Idris is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia