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Landmark ruling favors Sarawak's indigenous communities

In May, Malaysia's High Court passed a landmark ruling in favor of indigenous peoples. The ruling extended the customary land rights of the native people of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Customary land rights for Sarawak's natives will now include not just land immediate to their longhouse communities, but will extend to surrounding areas that include nearby forests, rivers, and streams.

High Court Judge Ian Chin Hon Chong issued the ruling, banning Borneo Paper and Pulp Plantation from logging in the forests around the lban village of Rumah Nor. Chin also ordered the paper company to pay for the costs of the trial. In the 96-page verdict, Chin ruled that indigenous land rights existed long before government statutes. Therefore, he said, indigenous communities' land claims are natural land rights, and are not dependent on the existence of any legislation, or executive or judicial declaration. Since legal decisions from British Commonwealth countries like Malaysia can be used in other Commonwealth countries, the ruling could potentially serve as precedent for other native groups in any of the 54 countries belonging to the Commonwealth.

The ruling is a sharp departure from the past. Since the early 1800s, when British exploration began, indigenous communities' land claims have been ignored. Even with the creation of the Sarawak Land Code and the Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR), the government has continued to chip away at native lands. Court decisions have sided with the island's industrial needs over the desires of Sarawak's indigenous communities.

At the High Court in May, 200 indigenous men and women listened to Chin as he announced the verdict. Overjoyed elder statesmen shed tears, while villagers at the courthouse began planning festive celebrations across the region. "I am breathless and I simply cannot describe just how happy and relieved I feel right now," said village headman Nor Nyawai. Minutes after the ruling, the Malaysian government announced plans to appeal the decision. The state has earned billions from logging land near indigenous communities.

But the government may face an uphill battle in its appeal. Sarawak's Appellate Court rarely overturns decisions, and Chin sided squarely in favor of indigenous land rights. Whatever the full implications of the case, the ruling bolsters indigenous land claims in Sarawak and around the world.

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