Saturday, 24 November 2007

Natives: Are we the problem, Mr. Minister?

Natives: Are we the problem, Mr Minister?

Fauwaz Abdul AzizNov 23, 07 5:52pm

Sarawak’s Dayak Ibans are wondering whether their cultivation of small plots of oil palm is the problem hindering the cultivation and production of certified sustainable palm oil.

As they see it, they are not the ones ‘displacing indigenous communities from their land, committing violence against and persecuting them and trampling on their customary rights’.

Therefore, it was to their wonder when Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Peter Chin Fah Kui reportedly expressed concern yesterday that small farmers would not meet the standards required by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) criteria for sustainable palm oil production.

“These farmers must be enabled and be provided with the skills and knowledge to comply with the criteria,” he said in his keynote address at the closing ceremony of the Fifth Roundtable Meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil in Kuala Lumpur.

To qualify for the RSPO certification label, palm oil companies must fulfill standards and requirements pertaining to environmental conservation, social development, labour practices, land tenure and human rights. 'Dashed our hopes' Noting the irony of Chin singling out rural small holders while large palm oil companies - backed by the Sarawak government - violated all legal, environmental and social norms, the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) said the Sarawak-born minister had dashed their hopes.

“We had high hopes for him that he will try to solve the issue of local communities in Sarawak,” said Sadia secretary-general Nicholas Mujah at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur today.

“I don’t think his statement was pleasant for us,” he added. Mujah said the expansion of the palm oil industry in recent years, particularly in Sarawak, had seen a growing number of conflicts between the large palm oil industry players and the Dayak people who make up 60 percent of the state’s 2.2 million indigenous peoples.

Among those experiencing this, Kampung Wawasan village chief Rajang Sangalang said he himself had taken up the state government’s call for indigenous communities to plant oil palm trees instead of leaving their lands idle.

However, his small village - consisting of about 100 people and located about 50 km from Miri - soon found that it was up against a large company that had suddenly claimed ownership of their land and was seeking to set up a 2,145-hectare oil palm plantation.

Despite evidence that Sangalang and his fellow villagers had lived and worked on the land for generations, the state government had leased the company to set up its plantation for 60 years. Graves desecrated Meanwhile, Sangalang said contractors for the company have not only torn up the palm trees previously planted by the villagers but also dug up the graves of their forefathers and desecrated other places considered sacred by the community.

Out of the 50 longhouse villages on the land coveted by the company, three of the villages - including Sangalang’s - have taken the company to court. For this, Sangalang claimed that the local police are persecuting him and his family. On Sept 12, 2007, notices were served on the villagers of Kampung Wawasan for their eviction and the demolition of their houses.

On Nov 6, Sangalang was arrested and detained overnight at the local police station. To this day, neither he nor the officers at the police station know why exactly orders were issued for his arrest. “The police officers asked me, ‘What did you do wrong?’ So I told them, ‘I don’t know. What did I do?” said Sangalang. Following his arrest, another letter arrived from Kuching warning him against his refusal to abide by a court injunction to vacate the land.

“He did not even know there was an injunction from the court. We had to rush to find him a lawyer to help him on the matter,” Mujah explained. Mujah also pointed out that from the 163 disputes currently pending in Sarawak courts over native customary rights, more than 40 involve large oil palm developers. C

ommenting on this, rights group Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez said Sarawak was becoming a “low-intensity conflict zone” due to the rising number of such disputes and the rising stakes involved caused by the boom in prices for crude palm oil in the international markets. “The state is in collusion with the palm oil industry and they are acting with impunity... If matters escalate, it will lead to a considerable rise in the state of tensions,” said Fernandez, who was instrumental in the formulation of the RSPO criteria for sustainable palm oil certification.

Fernandez said a monitoring and auditing mechanism will be set up to ensure adherence to the RSPO certification. Those companies that fail the audits will not qualify for the RSPO certification, she added.