Sarawak natives have jammed another wrench into the land acquisition machine of plantation companies with close ties to Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Taib is the state minister responsible for land, and is under investigation by several foreign governments, as well as (ostensibly) by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, for alleged graft.
Tua Kampung Nyipa Anak Tingang, representing his longhouse of 30 doors in Sebauh, 25km from Bintulu, has notched up another significant victory against state-sponsored plantation tycoons, in the campaign for native customary rights (NCR) land.
On Jan 20, Nyipa won a court injunction against Pusaka KTS, a forest plantation giant with vast interests in Bintulu, Belaga and Baram.
High Court Judge Rhodzariah Bujang, in a hastily convened hearing in Kuching, put the brakes on Pustaka KTS bulldozers in a ‘buffer zone’ of land claimed by Rumah Nyipa.
The ‘buffer zone’ comprises an area 60 metres from limestone caves, highly treasured by the villagers as a source of edible swiftlets’ nests.
Pusaka KTS is a lucrative partnership between state logging agency Sarawak Timber Industry Development Council (Pusaka) and timber conglomerate KTS Holdings.
KTS is owned by the Lau family, longtime supporters and beneficiaries of Taib’s administration for over 30 years.
Native communities say Pustaka KTS clears natural forests on NCR land for profit, then replaces the forests with fast-growing tree plantations or oil palm.
Pusaka KTS has been lampooned for promising ‘development’, but delivering monocultural plantations instead – while natives forfeit their ancestral land.
Suing government was last resort
Nyipa, 49, is a Punan village chief. The Punan are a settled, agricultural ethnic group. They are culturally and linguistically distinct from the Penan, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, that has also suffered immensely from logging concessions.
In his submission to the court, Nyipa claimed that he discovered last July that Pusaka KTS had trespassed onto his village’s NCR land, felling trees using heavy machinery.
He met a Mr Lau, an employee of Pusaka KTS, in early August, to try to persuade him to stop logging. He explained the NCR land had been farmed, and the buffer zone around the caves had been used by the natives to harvest birds’ nests over several generations.
“I told him that I have rights over the said land and that the extraction of the timber would cause damage to the ecosystem inside the buffer zone and this will endanger and would seriously harm the breeding, life and environment of the swiftlets in the birds’ nests caves,” he recounted.
He also wrote to the Land and Survey Department Superintendent’s office in Bintulu.
“However I have not received any reply whatsoever,” he stated.
He corresponded with the Forest Department, and lodged a police report. The local Forestry Officer assured him on Jan 6 that the buffer zone was protected from logging. Yet felling continued apace, and the police took no action.
Lawyers turn lawmakers
Dismayed, Nyipa turned to Baru Bian and See Chee How, PKR land rights lawyers elected to the Sarawak state assembly last April.
His lawyer See, state assembly representative for Batu Lintang in Kuching, was delighted the injunction was granted.
“This is good news for Sarawak NCR landowners, a cause for celebration,” he said.
He pointed out that Malaysia is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). UNDRIP has increased the pressure for all parties to respect constitutionally guaranteed NCR land claims.
As a result, amidst barely concealed fury among state ministers, legal precedents have been piling up against the executive’s land deals and logging concessions.
But Pakatan is unlikely to feel confident that such court decisions will translate into large gains in rural seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
There are several examples of communities that, despite having NCR land snatched from them, still voted for the incumbent candidates, and re-elected staunch supporters of the land grab.
The reason for this is not as simple as vote-buying during hustings, though this undoubtedly exists.
A widespread feudal attitude of deference towards Barisan and its patronage, a lack of information about alternative governments, and Taib’s effective ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy among ethnic groups, are other crucial factors.
Pakatan is changing the tide in several rural constituencies, by championing NCR land issues. Some Pakatan leaders have also shown a multi-ethnic concern for all rural folk.
NCR lawyers representing rural communities, like Baru (left in photo) and See, have turned into lawmakers as a result.
These political developments are certainly transforming rural Sarawak politics.
But this painfully slow ‘revolution’ will take years to produce politically aware voters. The impact will be unlikely to be seen in most rural seats during our upcoming general election.
Barisan rural incumbents enjoy the edge, with enormous advantages in money, logistics and media coverage.
They will expect to win handsomely, though they may lose two or three rural seats in Bintulu, Lawas and Baram.
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org