In an unprecedented show of dissent by members of Abdul Taib Mahmud’s own party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera (PBB), Malay and Bidayuh villagers from Sampadi, Lundu, gathered at the Kuching High Court yesterday to voice their anger.
The villagers were dismayed at the takeover of their smallholder oil palm farms by Polar Horizon, a subsidiary of Titanium Management, a conglomerate owned mostly by Abu Bekir Taib, son of chief minister Taib Mahmud.
A large crowd of villagers from Lundu cheered when a sub-branch chairman of Taib’s own party spoke out against the provisional licences to 1,500 hectares of land around their villages, awarded by Taib to Polar Horizon, benefitting his own son.
As self-appointed minister of planning and resources, Taib wields power over granting or ‘alienating’ enormous parcels of land for ‘development’.
Earlier this month, the Sampadi villagers were given summary notice to vacate the land within 30 days.
“They never informed us … we were taken by surprise,” said Jamain Mahmud. Jamain, no relation to Taib, is the former ‘ketua kaum’ or village chief, and current PBB sub-branch head, in Kampung Sungai Cina in the Sampadi area.
The communities resisted the eviction notice, and Polar Horizon began legal action against them. When the villagers appeared in court yesterday, they filed a countersuit against Polar Horizon and the state government, claiming the provisional licences had encroached onto their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land.
“We’re only asking for consideration for our land, which has already been settled and planted with oil palm. We’ve already done all this (ourselves). What the government has been calling for, (saying that) NCR land must be developed, we’ve done,” said Jamain.
“But why did we not get (the rights to) the land? People who never opened up the land got the land.”
The villagers’ lawyer, land rights activist See Chee How, condemned the land takeover.
“This is the most blatant and outrageous land grab among all the cases we have handled,” he said.
Jamain, and eight others named in the counterclaim, represent 481 other villagers from Kampung Sampadi, Kampung Sungai Cina, Kampung Setia Jaya and Kampung Kangka, just over an hour’s drive east from Kuching.
The Sampadi villagers urged the state and federal governments to protect their native rights, enshrined in the constitution and Sarawak’s Land Code. In their defence statement, they argued the land is “fundamental to (our) social, cultural and spiritual survival as native people of Sarawak.”
The pointed appeal by the grassroots to the federal government highlights Prime Minister Najib Razak’s dilemma, in deciding whether to continue supporting Taib as state BN leader, or to remove him.
International publicity has swirled around Taib’s immense wealth, and allegations of corrupt practices in land acquisition, producing multimillion ringgit windfalls for his children and family.
“We hope Pehin Sri (Taib) as Sarawak’s chief minister, will take responsibility for this matter. I am a (PBB) party member from way back, I have worked in my area, but no action has been taken (on our behalf). So there’s been no use in all our previous campaigning for PBB, because we have been sidelined,” Jamain said.
“To put it bluntly … don’t rob us of our rights, our NCR land. This is the land we have survived on from our ancestors’ generation,” he stressed. His words were echoed by cries of “don’t chase us out!” from other villagers.
The villagers explained to the High Court that Kampung Sampadi had been established by 1902, and that they relied on their land for their livelihood: for fishing, for paddy cultivation, and for planting crops such as durian, rambutan, jackfruit and cassava. Since 2007, they had also begun oil palm cultivation, in collaboration with Rona Hijau, a company based in Sibu.
In court, the villagers presented locality plans and maps produced as a result of surveying work performed by the Land and Survey Department since 1988. Hundreds of parcels of NCR land had been surveyed and identified, they pointed out.
“It is unknown why titles have yet to be issued to the native landowners,” their lawyer See Chee How told Malaysiakini, with some sarcasm.
Large scale oil palm plantations and timber concessions run by wealthy companies, closely tied to the state’s political elite, have caused the loss of huge tracts of NCR land.
As a result, NCR landowners have filed more than 230 lawsuits against the state government. These lawsuits are a political time bomb for Taib’s party, ticking away in court, and spreading anger among rural communities throughout the state.
In contrast, oil palm small-holdings worked by NCR landowners themselves have lifted some communities out of poverty.
“To the Land and Survey (Department), we say, come down to see us, ‘turun padang’, see for yourselves,” Jamain urged. He explained the villagers had appealed repeatedly to the Land and Survey Department, as well as their elected representatives, to recognise their NCR land. But their pleas and signed petitions had bore no fruit.
When asked whether he still supported Taib’s party, Jamain replied, “I can’t say. As PBB branch head, I have to speak up for the people standing behind me. There’s no use being branch head if I don’t fulfill my mandate, and all our villagers’ rights are gone.”
His words were greeted with applause from the other villagers present.