Malaysia Update: Logging-Post Blockade in Sarawak

Since the Malaysian police dismantled all the blockades set up by the various native communities in the interior of Sarawak in October, logging has resumed in full force throughout Sarawak. As a result, Sarawak's native communities now face the same problems they encountered before they were forced to set up wooden barricades across logging roads in order to prevent logging of their customary land and forest in April 1987.

The assurances given by the various federal authorities to the representatives of the native communities when they met in June 1987 have remained nothing but empty promises.

Immediately after dismantling the blockades, the state authorities set up the Penan State Committee with the declared objectives of coordinating the formulation and implementation of policies and development programs for the Penan community. The state government also passed a new law, the Forest (Amendment) Bill, 1987, which makes it an offense for anyone to set up barricades obstructing logging activities. Several Police Field Force and Army units are presently being stationed at various logging base camps to protect logging activities in respective areas.

State officials and politicians who visited the native communities have also advised the people to request for commission (involving a meager payment by timber companies to longhouse communities as a sign of good will) instead of asking for protection of their land rights and cessation of logging operations.

Native politicians who also owned shares in timber concessions have been deployed to undertake information campaigns among the longhouses, asking the people not to stop logging in or around their longhouses.

The state continues with its usual accusation - that it is the native communities, through their practice of swidden agriculture, who are causing the fast depletion of the state forest and its resources.

Clearly, the state authorities are not in any way going to halt the present logging situation in Sarawak, let alone review the present controversial forestry policy. This attitude is obviously manifested from the fact that state authorities have not solicited in views of the public at large on its review of the present policies, instead hastily passing new laws such as the Forest (Amendment) Bill, 1987, to protect the interests of the timber companies. Instead, the state arrests those who speak up about the legitimate problems causes by the logging activities.

Present Logging Situation

The present logging situation in Sarawak remains the same as it was before the native communities were forced to put up blockades last year, except in the Ulu Limbang area in the Fifth Division, where the native communities (Penans and Kelabits) have put up a blockade since June 1988. In all the other areas throughout Sarawak, logging proceeds at full capacity.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth, Malaysia) has received many complaints from the native communities on the problems caused by logging: polluted rivers and water supplies; refusal on the part of timber companies to compensate for damages done to farmlands, crops and burial grounds; and refusal to recognize the rights of the native people to their land as a whole. Forest areas that local communities proposed and demarcated as their Communal Forest Reserves were also logged by the companies. Local applications to the state for such a reserve, a right upheld by the Sarawak Forest Ordinance, were also not considered until June 1988. If the reserve continues to be logged, the applications will have no meaning.

Except for the few already constituted or gazetted National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, if the present trend continues unabated, Sarawak will have very little virgin or undisturbed forest left in five years.

The winners in this battle will become millionaires; the native people, the ultimate losers, will have to bear the brunt of the whiplash and permanent environmental damages.

The national and state economy would also suffer from the loss of an important source of revenue, particularly in having to pay more to maintain and sustain the livelihood of the rural communities who have greatly depended on the forest for their survival. Basic facilities and services, such as health, education and the supply of food for these communities, would be seriously affected with the drop in the state's revenue.

Response of the State Government

Since the forcible dismantling of the native blockades by the police, on recommendation of the State Security Committee under the chairmanship of the state secretary - who himself sits on the Board of Directors of such timber licensing companies as Forescom and Sarawak Plywood - the state government's responses toward the plights and appeals of the native communities have mainly been negative and Harsh.

Minister of the Environment James Wong, who owned the Limbang Trading Company, has dismissed views by concerned environmental and other citizens' groups and individuals as rubbish. He claims that the selective logging policies and practice in Sarawak do not deplete the forest and that the adverse environmental impacts caused by logging are temporary. He blames, instead, the age-old swidden agriculture system practiced by Sarawak's indigenous groups as being responsible for forest destruction. Furthermore, the minister alleges that his logging interests in the Limbang area began in 1949. The native communities reply that, when the Limbang area was ceded to the Brooke, the ruler of Sarawak, in 1883, they had already lived in the Limbang area for many generations. Being the rightful claimants to the land and the people who have lived there for generations, they claim that the minister himself is trespassing on their land.

The authorities in Sarawak have also refused to recognize the claim by virtue of native customary rights of the native communities to their land, although these rights are clearly upheld by the Sarawak Land Code and Articles 8 and 161A(5) of the Federal Constitution.

The state has condemned the native peoples, saying that they are trying to hold the timber companies ransom by claiming rights to all the land around their longhouses, which the authorities say belongs to the state.

During the period of the blockades, several timber companies took the native peoples to court, claiming that the companies have rights to the land by virtue of their timber licenses issued by the state, to construct logging roads and to log the timer on the peoples' customary lands. The court, however, upheld the rights of the native communities to their land and to put up blockades to prevent logging. Even Limbang Trading Company, which had instituted a civil suit against the Kelabits and Penans of Ulu Limbang, hastily withdrew their suit in the High Court in Kuching.

Defeated in the court of law, the state instead resorted to the use of the police force to dismantle the blockades. Forty-two Kayans from Uma Bawang were arrested; the Internal Security Act was used to detain a Sahabat Alam Malaysia official for two months. That official was placed under Restricted Residence Order for two years by the police after he was released from detention.

State Penan Committee

Following the widespread national and international outcry over forest depletion in Sarawak, the adverse environmental impacts of logging and the blockades last year, the state government formed the State Penan Committee. The majority of committee members are owners of timber concessions or timber licenses. According to the Penans of the Ulu Limbang, Ulu Tutoh and Sungai Layun areas, a few of the committee members recently asked the Penans not to demand their land rights or to prevent logging. Instead, they said the groups should try to negotiate for some goodwill payments or commission with the timber companies. The Penans said that the committee members even told them not to continue to hunt, but to rear pigs and chickens, and not to depend on fishing but to construct fish ponds.

Official sources also said that the State Planning Unit was asked to revive the Penan Research Committee, which was discontinued in 1978. And early last year, the Planning Unit undertook research to identify the problems and needs of the Penans and to make recommendations for resolving the problems and needs of the community. After the study was completed and submitted to the government, however, it was reportedly rejected.

The State Penan Committee's only notable action of late has been their press statements saying that the state is going to build schools, clinics and village shops and provide agricultural advice to the Penans. But, as the Penans view it, what good are these things if they have no land to live on?

Whenever the Penans asked questions or tried to convey their views, the committee accused them of being used by outsiders. If the committee is truly interested in helping the Penans, why should they refuse to hear their views? Why should the committee simply dismiss the Penans as being misled or used by outsiders whenever their views conflict with those of the committee?

In a recent television documentary on the Penans, the chairman of the Penan State Committee suggested that if the nomadic group of Penans wanted to remain nomadic, the state would allow them to roam and live in the state's National Parks. In Sarawak's National Parks, however, all land rights have been extinguished. And the Penans, after all, are not wild animals.

The Penans, like the Kayans, Kenyahs, Ibans and other native peoples living within the communal territory (sampadan) of their respective longhouses, have always occupied a territory of their own particular group or settlement. The Sarawak Land Code served to uphold occupation of land as one of the lawful methods in establishing native customary rights. Why should the committee suggest to transfer the Penans to National Parks when they already have rights to their own customary land? The most sensible move for the committee would be to protect the Penans' rights to their land and to stop logging, a request the Penans have repeatedly and legitimately made.

The formation of the Penan State Committee is a good step and deserves support. However, the proposals, functions and actions it has exercised up until now are far from resolving the dilemmas and predicament of the Penan community. In light of these present realities, the committee is not yet likely to assist the Penans successfully in the near future.

Forest (Amendment) Bill, 1987

After the forcible dismantling of the wooden barricades last year, the state government passed the Forest (Amendment) Bill, 1987. The bill consisted mainly of two parts: the first provided the state with the power to revoke timber licenses if the licensees were to contravene any conditions imposed by the state in their licenses, including if such revocation was in the "interests of the public." The second made in an offense for anyone to put up a barricade or any other obstruction that would prevent or deter logging activities. This part was clearly targeted at the native groups, whose blockades were perfectly legal and upheld by the courts.

Of significance was the fact that just a few days before the police dismantled the blockades and arrested the protesters, all the pending court cases by the timber companies against the native peoples were suddenly and hastily withdrawn. It was immediately after the crackdown on native communities that this new bill was passed, in order to prevent rebuilding of the blockades and to facilitate the arrest and prosecution of those who disobeyed.

With the passing of this new law, the intention to make the exercise of a person's legitimate right to private of self-defense against any mischief and criminal trespass on his property an offense is now being challenged. Indeed, the new law will make it a crime for anyone to attempt to stop a thief from entering his or her house.

Instead of acting as a positive force, to protect native land rights, this law allows the state government to protect the vested interests of those in the logging industry, while stifling any attempt by the native communities to protect themselves and their property.

Reactions of Timber Companies

The timber companies have, naturally, been delighted with the dismantling of the blockade. Reports received from local communities and the Penans claim that the companies are now taking a very hard stand against them. They have brought in more logging equipment such as big trucks and Caterpillar tractors, and Japanese engineers, surveyors and camp managers to construct bridges, logging roads and improve production capacity.

Recently, at a Syarikat Samling Timber Camp in Ulu Baram, a Japanese manager was attacked by a longhouse youth who was refused employment. The company's reason for refusing employment was that it did not want to employ those from nearby longhouses because they always return home to go to church on Sundays, which affects their production capacity. According to workers in the timber camps, many companies have begun practicing this policy to increase their production rate. During dry weather, workers - especially truck drivers - are expected to work late into the night and early the next morning. Accident statistics in the timber industry have shown an alarming increase in accidents in recent months, undoubtedly reflecting the renewed intensity of logging activities since the dismantling of the blockades.

During the period of the blockades, when it was unable to challenge the land rights of the native communities in court, the Timber Association of Sarawak resorted to all kinds of tactics to harass the protesters. It tried to portray the native blockades to the press as an attempt to sabotage the economy of the Sarawak state. It pointed out that many employees had lost their jobs and that the state had lost revenues, as a result of which the government would not be able to provide development for the people.

Another story the association concocted was that the blockades were the result of interethnic strife - an attempt to bring a racial element into the problem. The association could have been advised by certain people of the impending arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act in West Malaysia, which was purportedly done to diffuse racial tension.

Ever-anxious to get their hands on hard cash staked in the timber of the state forest licensed out to them, the timber companies are to expected to call the fight off easily. With the full support of state politicians, who are often licensees of the timber concessions, the companies have full confidence in taking any measures necessary to stop the native communities. For instance, when native landowners sought the help of a District Office to write on their behalf to a timber company to pay compensation for damages done to their farmland, the company ignored the request, even denying that the said farmland belonged to the landowners concerned.

Fearing adverse publicity, the timber companies, with the cooperation of local authorities, have also imposed almost total restriction on members of the public who wish to visit the interior since the blockade period. The Penans have complained that they are not allowed to travel freely to town because the companies fear that they will tell outsiders of what is happening in the interior. A company manager recently prevented a group of journalists from returning after a visit to a Penan settlement in Sungai Apoh. The manager questioned the group on their identity and the purpose of visit, initially suspecting that they were from Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

Some timber companies have also employed private security guards to check on visitors or outsiders entering their concession area. In a few cases, especially during the blockade period, the companies have even paid people to harass the Penans at the blockade sites and sometimes in their settlements. Sahabat Alam Malaysia also received a number of complaints from Sungai Layun areas, stating that these guards have prevented the Penans from travelling to town or clinics to seek medical treatment.

Reaction of the Native Communities

The native communities at present are disappointed and frustrated with the state authorities. They expected the government to act positively and seriously on their problems and appeals; instead, they have not only been ignored, but some of their leaders and representatives have been arrested.

Today, they are still waiting, appealing to the government for help. When they put up the blockades last year, the government visited them and promised a lot of assistance - promises that have yet to be realized. Logging on their land continues unabated, resulting in damages to the land, properties and the environment. Visits by government officials to their longhouses and settlements also stopped immediately after the dismantling of their blockades.

The native communities have started a petition against the Forest (Amendment) Bill, 1987. The Penans have undertaken a signature campaign among their community to protest the new law. They continually send protest letters to the authorities and bring up their problems in their meetings with government officials. But these efforts have yet to produce any positive response.

Frustrated with the continued neglect and indifferent attitude of the authorities on their plights, the Kelabits and Penans of Ulu Limbang in the Fifth Division of Sarawak have already set up a new blockade near the site of their previous blockade in November 1987. The Forest Department immediately served an order under the new law directing the protesters to remove their blockade. The protesters, however, remained unuttered. This order reportedly has a defect in that it was signed by a Section Forest Officer, while the law requires the signature of at least a Deputy Director. A new order has been served; again, to date, the protesters continue with their blockade.

During a meeting of native representatives, the Resident of Limbang Division told them that the government would not grant their land rights, but that the timber companies might consider a "commission." This show the government's determination to evade the problems and to avoid meeting the native community's demands.

Since at this stage the government has not acted positively and sincerely toward the plights and appeals of the native communities, it is very likely that they will once again be forced to set up another blockade to protect and defend themselves and their properties. The present blockade set up by the Penan and Kelabit communities in the Ulu Limbang area is clear testimony to their frustration and disappointment with the present logging situation and their determination to assert their legitimate rights to their land.

There is a growing awareness among the native communities that, unless their rights to their customary land are protected, the environmental problems caused by logging will continue, and the state authorities will continue to ignore heir problems. Protecting their rights would mean enabling them to control and make a collective decision on development on their own land, at their own pace and according to their own needs.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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