Sarawak - Orang Ulu Fight Logging

In recent weeks, newspaper reports have highlighted the protests of the orang ulu native peoples against logging companies in various areas in Sarawak, Malaysia. The orang ulu peoples belonging to the Penan, Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit communities in the Baram and the Limbang have been staging blockades at various sites on logging roads to prevent logging companies from entering their lands.

Land and Forests: An Important Economic, Social and Cultural Heritage

To the orang ulu peoples, the land and forests are their most important resource. Land is the cornerstone of orang ulu society. Land provides them with food and other materials to satisfy their basic needs. It has deep significance in the spiritual life of the people since it holds their ancestral graves and provides a link between present and past generations. This reverence for land dictates that it cannot be bought or sold. This principle is enshrined in adat, meaning "law," which has legal, moral and religious aspects. Under adat, the concept of private ownership of land does not exist. Customary land tenure provides and entitles anyone who cultivates land with rights to use it.

Under the Sarawak Land Code, this customary right to land practiced by the natives is recognized and enshrined as a basic principle. Customary rights to tenure under Part II Section 5(2) of the Land Code can be created by any of the following six methods:

(1) the felling of virgin jungle and the occupation of the land thereby cleared;

(2) the planting of land with fruit trees;

(3) the occupation or cultivation of the land;

(4) the use of land for a burial ground or shrine;

(5) the use of land of any class for rights of way; or

(6) any other lawful method.

The orang ulu people depend entirely on the forest and its resources for their subsistence. They obtain wood for their homes, boats, farm implements and tools; they obtain food and medicines from the wildlife and plant life in the forests; and they obtain produce from the forest which they exchange with traders for cloth, salt and cash. The viability and sustainability of the forest ecosystem is imperative to their survival and existence.

Destruction of Forest Land by the Timber Industry

In the past 23 years, between 1963 and 1985, a total of 2.8 million ha or 28,217 km² of forests were logged. This is equivalent to 30 percent of the total estimated area in Sarawak. In 1985, 270,000 ha or 2,700 km² of forests were logged; this is equivalent to 2.8 percent of Sarawak's forest area. Should logging continue at this rate, another 20 percent of Sarawak's forests will be logged in the next 10 years responsible for the chronic under nutrition and growth stunting reported in some interior regions of Sarawak.

Road building in the forest has also caused heavy damage. In Sarawak, hundreds of miles of logging roads, snig tracks and spur roads in the forests have caused severe soil erosion. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), logging of hill forests clears about 12 percent of the total forest area for roads, landings and trails.

The most pervasive effects of logging in hilly terrain are the reduced water-holding capacity of the land and increased erosion from rain. As a result, many plant and animal species, at all levels of the food chain, are affected or destroyed. Rural communities are deprived of sources of clean water. Reduced catches of fish and shellfish, the oran ulu's chief source of dietary protein, result from turbid river waters. The quality of rural life suffers.

Another major source of protein for the orang ulu communities is the wildlife that they hunt from the forest. It has been estimated that 1 million wild pigs, 23,000 rusa and 31,000 kijang, in addition to other species of wildlife, are harvested annually by the rural communities in Sarawak. The value of wild pig meat and venison has been estimated at $210 million per year. It would take more than $320 million to replace this source of protein with domestic pork and beef. Medical research has also shown that reduced meat consumption due to the declining supply is partly

Native Appeals to the Authorities Go Unheeded

Since the timber companies began operating in their areas, the orang ulu communities have made repeated appeals to the companies and state authorities to help. They complained that logging activities damaged their farmlands, water resources, sacred ancestral burial grounds, fruit trees and other forest resources. Wildlife has disappeared, fish has become scarce and children become ill from contaminated water.

In many instances, no compensation has been offered for the damages. The orang ulu have written numerous letters to the Chief Minister, the Forest Department, the State Secretary, the Resident, the District Officer and even their elected representatives to intervene on their behalf. They have lodged police reports regarding damages to their property which, in many cases, have been ignored. They have traveled, at great expense, to the Divisional Headquarters in Miri and Limbang to see the Resident, but to no avail.

Under the present land laws, the orang ulu's customary rights to land are recognized and enshrined as a basic right. However, logging activities by timber companies have damaged their lands with impunity. Forest concessions have been given in lands which traditionally fall within their sempadan (village boundary) without their knowledge.

Application for Communal Forests Rejected

Orang ulu communities have applied for Communal Forest Reserves to enable them to obtain their basic necessities from the forest - their only source of survival. These requests have been ignored or turned down. Since 1968, the area under Communal Forest had shrunk from 303 km² to only 56 km² in 1984. Eighteen communities in the Limbang and Baram areas have applied for Communal Forest Reserves and none of them have been approved. Yet, the same forests are often given over to timber companies.

Forest Concessions in Sarawak

As of December 31, 1984, 5,752,996 ha of forested area were under concession. This means that the total area under concession, licensed for logging, was 60 percent of Sarawak's total forest area.

All these concessions, which are worth billions of dollars, are owned by prominent politicians and individuals. Recently, the Chief Minister revealed at a press conference that he had frozen 25 timber concessions worth some $22.5 billion. The total size of these concessions was 3 million acres (1.25 million ha). The Chief Minister said that the concessions were "concentrated in the hands of a few." The newspaper report also revealed that the concessions were given to relatives and friends of the former Chief Minister, Tun Rahman, as political favors. In retaliation. Tun Rahman revealed to the press names of prominent politicians, their relatives and associates connected to timber concessions.

The orang ulu have no one to turn to Surrounded by timber concessions which are encroaching on their forests, they feel trapped. Because of the indifferent official policy toward their plight, they feel abandoned and forgotten.

Since the timber companies entered their lands, their material existence has greatly deteriorated. There are no more forest materials with which to build homes, and their protein consumption has dropped because wild game and edible plants have disappeared. Malnutrition rates are very high among the children.

The orang ulu communities reel betrayed and disillusioned with a government that has not given sufficient attention to their problems. They also reel a deep sense of insecurity for their own future and their children's future survival.

Native Rights Frustrated

Government apathy toward their problems is compounded by the legal backlog in the courts. Natives have taken four land disputes against the logging companies to the high court in Miri. However, with the backlog of cases pending, it will take the native litigants some 12 years before their cases will finally be heard. By then, no more forests, waters and farmlands will be left.

Orang ulu have taken to blockading the logging roads as a last resort. However, when natives block the roads, whole platoons of the paramilitary, heavily armed police, appear on the scene. In the case of the Penan, heavily-armed troops enter the settlements to frighten innocent women and children with their intimidating presence. The law recognizes the right of orang ulu communities to defend their property. But, policemen don't. In negotiations between the natives and the timber companies, the paramilitary and senior police officers always take the side of the companies.

Native Demands to the Government

The orang ulu are very loyal, law-abiding citizens. They have always considered the government as a benevolent father who looks after the needs of his children. However, the government has shattered this trust and confidence. Orang ulu see that the only hope is to help themselves. They do not want to confront the "law," get arrested or go to jail. It is through sheer desperation to protect their property and defend their rights that they have resorted to blockades. They want their rights and concerns to be respected and taken into account. Their demands are that:

(1) The forest ecosystem, its resources and watersheds should be protected and preserved. The forest has been regarded mainly in terms of its commercial value as an abundant supplier of raw materials for export. This thinking should change. The forest is and should be regarded as a renewable resource, which is held in perpetuity by the government for the good and welfare of its people.

(2) If the current rate of logging continues, less than half of the forest of Sarawak will be left 10 years from now. Logging operations in and around their areas should be stopped.

(3) All timber concessions that have not begun operation should be cancelled. The Chief Minister has recently frozen 25 timber concessions worth some $22.5 billion, covering some 3 million acres of land. This is a laudable move. The Chief Minister should now revoke or withdraw all timber licenses covering their areas. The state's resources should be equitably and fairly shared by the peoples of Sarawak. In this respect, orang ulu should be given back the forests and their lands-their only means of survival and livelihood.

(4) Orang ulu want legal protection of their rights to land, forest, water and resources. These rights must be recognized and guaranteed by the government. Due protection to natives to prevent further erosion of their communal and customary lands from timber exploitation must be provided immediately. Timber concessionaires should be prosecuted for the wanton destruction of lands, water catchment areas, river systems, forest environment, farmlands and communal property, and for causing hardship to natives with their roads, bridges and timber camps. Existing laws and constitutional remedies should be enforced against the misdeeds of loggers, to give ample protection to swidden cultivators and forest dwellers.

(5) Customary land tenure should be recognized. Under the present land laws, native customary lands can be extinguished without the inhabitants' knowledge. Adequate compensation for the loss of their lands is often denied. No real security of tenure exists for natives who practice customary rights. Adat law should not be integrated or unified with municipal law; it should instead be given constitutional protection. Those sections of the land (and forest) laws that deny natives the right of control and ownership of their property should be reviewed and removed.

(6) The welfare and interests of natives who depend on the forests and its resources for their survival must be safeguarded. In this regard, the area of Communal Forests should be increased. Recognition of the natives' rights to their lands and reserves must be given.

(7) Prompt investigations must be conducted by the authorities of the natives' complaints concerning damage to their lands, burial grounds, crops, forests and water resources, and fruit trees by logging companies. Just compensation must be given to natives whose lands and resources have been destroyed by logging activities.

(8) Penan communities want a review of the laws to determine their constitutional rights to their customary hunting grounds and forest lands, to determine these rights and to protect them. Penan traditional areas must be protected against the encroachment of other groups and outsiders who may hunt and fish in their territories, thus threatening their resource base.

(9) Laws, decisions and policies which directly affect natives should not be drafted and implemented without prior consultation with these peoples. Consultation is part of the democratic process, and peoples whose interests are affected by any government policy have a right to be consulted.

Protection of Native Rights Is the Responsibility of the State

Malaysia is blessed with a rich diversity of peoples and cultural traditions. When these cultures and traditions are fully protected, it will truly be a source of great pride and strength for the nation.

Sarawak alone contains some 27 ethnic groups. Indeed, the greatest strength and wealth of our nation lies in this rich cultural diversity. The Rukan Negara is dedicated to ensuring a liberal approach to the nation's rich and diverse cultural traditions, creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation shall be equitably shared, maintaining a democratic way of life and achieving a greater unity of all her peoples.

The natives of Sabah and Sarawak are given special protection under the Federal Constitution as far as alienation of land is concerned. Although Article 8 states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection by the law. Article 161A(5) qualifies this by providing that Article 8 shall not invalidate or prohibit any provision of State Law in the State of Sabah or Sarawak for the reservation of land for natives of the State or for alienation to them or for giving them preferential treatment as regards the alienation of land by the State.

The Sarawak State authorities have, therefore, abrogated their constitutional obligations to the natives of Sarawak by ignoring their rights to customary land and instead, awarding large forest concessions to timber companies over their lands. Furthermore, the protection of ethnic minorities in Sarawak was a 1987 election promise of Barisan Nasional, the winning party.

We, therefore, appeal to you to seriously consider the demands of the orang ulu communities and ensure their right not only to live but to live in peace with dignity.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: