A new forest and land management initiative is emerging that will demand collaboration between Sarawak’s Native Customary Rights landowners, who have been largely left out of any development schemes, and plantation companies chosen by these landowners, with social and environmental NGOs acting as a liaison. To be piloted in an Iban village outside of Kuching, this new plan aims for community participation in management, transparency in funds, and skills development for villagers. Overall, the project hopes to regenerate the environment as well.
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Sarawak’s maverick land rights lawyers, state PKR chief Baru Bian and his vice-chairperson See Chee How, have proposed a new model of land development for long-suffering native customary rights (NCR) landowners.
The NCR defence team, assisted by younger lawyers such as Simon Siah, Desmond Kho and Chua Kuan Ching, have won an increasing number of court cases filed by disenfranchised indigenous communities.
There are more than 200 such cases awaiting disposal in the High Court, some pending for a decade. The plaintiffs challenging the Abdul Taib Mahmud state administration are diverse: Malays in Sempadi, Bidayuh in Bengoh, Iban in Saratok, Kenyah in Long Geng, Penan in Long Lamai, Kelabit in Ulu Limbang, Berawan in Mulu and Lun Bawang in Ba’kelalan.
The Sarawak government has been dishing out NCR lands belonging to impoverished communities to corporate entities for “development” under Taib’s ‘Konsep Baru’ policy. Taib has personally controlled these land licences for over three decades.
These land deals make instant multi-millionaires of land concessionaires. Lucky recipients of these windfalls include top politicians and civil servants, their wives, siblings, and even their teenage children.
“These companies are Taib’s proxies, cronies and political allies,” Muhim Urip, a land rights activist, told Malaysiakini.
“This so-called development includes logging on NCR lands, Provisional Leases distributed for oil palm or for fast-growth trees planted for timber, and colossal dams, built as hydroelectric electricity generators or water reservoirs. These have resulted in diminishing forests, and stolen NCR lands.”
The state government has been scornful of court rulings – even by the apex Federal Court – recognising NCR claims, in much the same way as Taib sneers at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Human Rights Commission has stated, in a leaked copy of its report made available to whistleblower website Sarawak Report, that the state’s “non-recognition of indigenous people’s rights to land has … deprived them of their livelihood”.
“Economic self-reliance has been progressively reduced, making indigenous communities dependent on government subsidies and handouts and vulnerable to exploitation, forcing them to become coolies on their own land,” the report states.
BN lawmakers insist simply that NCR land is state land. BN cronies have called native landowners “squatters”.
NCR landowners see lawsuits as the only option available, and have won numerous landmark court judgments against the state government. The villagers have reclaimed ownership over the contested lands, as well as the crops on the lands.
“Almost overnight, these NCR landowners found themselves the owners of mature oil palm trees, awaiting harvesting. There is a large immediate profit from the harvest,” Muhim pointed out.
“We urgently need to ensure that the rightful landowners can benefit. This urgency has been heightened by cases of unscrupulous parties with links to the underworld, moving in to seal deals with landowners that are unfavourable to the communities.”
New land management model
Lawyers and NGO strategists are aware that the landowners look forward to immediate rewards from their prolonged judicial struggles. But the land rights lawyers are looking to the horizon as well.
“We’re bringing together villagers – women and men, young and old – to discuss and exchange ideas and share tools for education, training, capacity-building,” Muhim said.
“This is significant – building up the abilities of a new generation of NCR landowners, for the long term protection of their rights. The goal is development in all spheres, in accordance with adat, or customary law and practices.”
The ‘Community-Company Estate Management Scheme’ is envisaged to be a groundbreaking joint project. The new scheme demands genuine collaboration between three parties: the NCR landowners, a plantation management company appointed by the landowners, and Liaison Social and Environmental NGOs.
“This will establish a socially just, an economically and environmentally sustainable model, for NCR land development. We’re community-based, in partnership with environmental NGOs. The benefits will be secured for future generations,” See explained.
This approach is poles apart from Taib’s current ‘Konsep Baru’ land policy, launched in 1996.
Taib’s concept allows private oil palm corporations with political influence (often family members of the BN elite) to enter a lopsided joint venture (JV) to plant oil palm on NCR land. The company forms a JV with the state government, and a few signatories chosen from among the NCR landowners, typically village chiefs who have been paid off.
The village chiefs, cajoled by the state to sign up to a Memorandum of Understanding or MOU for the JV, usually have no legal advice. They subsequently receive a pittance, or even no dividends at all, from the JV, even after many years. Most local NCR landowners are excluded from the deal, and know nothing about the loss of their land until the bulldozers move in.
Entering into a true partnership
Baru Bian has promised a Land Commission to register and protect all NCR lands, if Pakatan Rakyat unseats BN.
Under the new model, the NCR landowners will sign a 5-10 year, legally binding contract with a private plantation company – unlike the flimsy MOUs arranged under ‘Konsep Baru’. The private partner will be chosen and scrutinised by the community, via an open tender process. Proceeds will be divided equally between the company and the community.
A trust fund will be generated from palm oil sales, to be used for capacity building, and business and management training for villagers. Once the villagers are adept at the business, they will take over day-to-day operations and full ownership.
The seed fund will also cover environmental regeneration and revitalisation, health, education, and care for the elderly within the communities.
“Transparency in the fund’s management will be the critical factor in the success or failure of this pilot project,” See added.
Industry experts will train villagers in the establishment of nurseries, palm oil technology, occupational safety, marketing, financing, workers’ rights and land laws, and the best practices of sustainable development.
Villagers will learn book-keeping, documentation, audits, Internet use, conflict resolution, critical analysis, advocacy work, as well as gender and other human rights-based issues.
The model will advocate diversification of cash crops such as rubber, sandalwood, and pepper, and replanting with indigenous species, including fruit trees, rattan and handicraft materials.
The partnership will encourage composting, aiming for ‘zero’ waste. The villagers’ own indigenous knowledge and wisdom will be applied to the conservation of their natural resources.
The pilot project will be launched shortly in Kampung Lebor, an Iban village about 90 minutes from Kuching, that reclaimed its NCR land last February.
PKR lawyers had helped 183 residents win a court action against Nirwana Muhibbah, an oil palm company with close links to the state cabinet.
“The target is that within a few years, these committed Kampung Lebor people will be agents of change in NCR communities throughout Sarawak,” See concluded.
“It holds up real excitement – the prospect of seeing real development among the most marginalised communities in Sarawak.”