Some 100 Ibans from 15 longhouses in upper Sebangan in Simunjan, Sarawak, appeared en masse at the Kuching High Court this morning, to sue two logging companies, two of their own government-appointed village leaders and the Sarawak government.
The Iban, accused by logging company Royal Billion of setting fire to a local logging camp on Oct 15, announced they are taking the fight for their Native Customary Rights (NCR) lands to court.
The 15 villages are proprietors, occupiers, holders and claimants of NCR lands surrounding Kampung Entanggor, Ensika, Lumut, Arus Dayak, Tongkah Dayak, Tongkah Dayak Lubuk Manta, Tongkah Dayak Atas, Tongkah Dayak Rumah Panjai, Lunying, Belimbing Besi, Ketimbong and Bajong Ili, Bajong Ili Atas, Bajong Ili Tengah, Bajong Ili Baruh.
The villagers say their lands have been invaded and damaged by Royal Billion loggers, business partners with Quality Concrete, a timber licensee partly owned by Roziah @ Raziah Mahmud (left), sister of Taib Mahmud, chief minister and the minister responsible for granting the concession.
The Iban landowners have named as defendants timber concession licence holder Quality Concrete Holdings Berhad, contractor Royal Billion Sdn Bhd, as well as two community leaders, Penghulu Merum anak Babu of Kampung Arus, Sebangan and Tua Kampung Agu anak Kaleng of Kampung Bajong Ili, as well as the Sarawak government.
Village leaders named as defendants
Roziah @ Raziah Mahmud is one of the main shareholders of Quality Concrete Holdings, and also a director of the company. Another family-related shareholder of the company is Hamed Sepawi, the first cousin of the chief minister, reported to be worth at least RM600 million.
This legal action against the Penghulu (community leader) and Tua Kampung (village chief) is unusual. The villagers say this is because the two leaders had taken the side of the loggers against their own communities.
The two leaders are said to have claimed to represent the communities in allowing the companies to log in the villagers’ communal forests. However, the vast majority of the villagers have never consented to their communal forests being logged.
It is very rare in land rights cases in which villagers have included their government-appointed leaders as defendants. It is a sign that many rural Sarawakian villagers are rejecting authority imposed on them by those backing the loggers. They have refused to accept infringement of their rights when their appointed leaders do not have the villagers’ consent.
In contrast, several anti-logging village leaders among the Iban, Penan and other communities have had their office revoked, or have been denied government recognition. They have had their Penghulu and Tua Kampung posts and allowances revoked when they have stood with their respective villagers in defending their NCR rights against logging and plantation companies.
Ibans reject company overtures
Lead Plaintiff, Numpang anak Suntai, one of the seven villagers who were arrested on Oct 22 and detained until Oct 25 told Malaysiakini at the courthouse press briefing of the injustice inflicted on the villagers. “This injustice has to stop!” Numpang emphasised. “If you want to create wealth, create through the proper way.” Numpang then insisted that the creation of wealth for the companies “not come through the blood and sweat of our people.”
Seven villagers were recently arrested and subsequently freed on police bail, after the Sibu-based contractor, Royal Billion Sdn Bhd, alleged that villagers had burnt and destroyed machinery and property at the logging camp belonging to the company.
The arrest of seven Iban organisers on Oct 22 occurred against a backdrop of some 30 police reports lodged by the longhouses. The villagers lodged the reports against Royal Billion and Quality Concrete for trespassing and logging in their communal forests.
However, the police have never taken any action against the companies. There has been no sign of police investigations, not even of cursory interviews, into the reports of trespassing and illegal logging.
Sarawak PKR chairperson Baru Bian and state information chief See Chee How, both prominent land rights lawyers, represented the 15 villages in filing the case at the Kuching High Court today.
The lawyers explained that the plaintiffs’ communal forests and lands are actually outside of the timber concession boundaries. However, the companies had encroached onto the villagers’ lands without permission and had logged the people’s forests.
Baru Bian added that this case is the latest in the hundreds of NCR land rights claims filed in the Sarawak High Court over the past two decades.
The difference in this case is the highly publicised link to Taib Mahmud, the chief minister and the minister responsible for issuing the logging concession to a company partly owned by his sister and his cousin.