Thursday, 28 January 2010

Sarawak gov't humbled by Iban villagers

Sarawak gov't humbled by Iban villagers


Keruah Usit
Jan 21, 10

The Sarawak government's unpopular 'Konsep Baru' or 'New Concept' of land development, which encourages private companies to set up vast oil palm plantations on native people's lands, has been dealt a blow by a landmark High Court decision today.

The High Court of Sabah and Sarawak declared victory to rural Iban farmers from Rumah Madel, in Sebauh, 30km from Bintulu, in a land rights suit filed against Ladang Sawit Bintulu Sdn Bhd Tabung Haji (a major share-owner in the oil palm plantation) and the Sarawak government.

The Rumah Madel plaintiffs were represented by land rights advocates Baru Bian and See Chee How.

"This is a victory for all Sarawakians, and for future generations of Malaysians,” said See, outside the High Court. The government has 30 days to appeal the decision.

The state government now faces increased pressure to curb its enthusiastic support of big business - in this case wealthy oil palm companies - taking over the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land of indigenous communities across this vast state.

Tabung Haji, a federal investment fund, will also face questions over its involvement in the Sebauh plantation. Local people say the plantation has destroyed their land, rubber and other crops, fruit trees and water supplies. The adverse publicity has made it tricky, to say the least, for the fund to argue that it supports ethical investments.

Old concept, new packaging

The Sarawak government's 'Konsep Baru' promises NCR landowners a 30 percent share in 'joint development' of a given oil palm plantation, with a 60 percent going to a private company and 10% going to the state. The state says the land will be returned to the NCR owners after 60 years. The government argues this brings development to what it calls 'idle land'.

It has been well documented that these private oil palm companies are closely associated with high-ranking state officials. Many NCR landowners who signed up to these schemes have bitterly condemned the private investors for failing to pay dividends, or handing out only a pittance.

Worse still, private companies have frequently established plantations without even consulting local communities. The first the locals hear of the 'development' is often the sound of
bulldozers uprooting their fruit trees and farms.

Many native communities have shown great courage in taking the government to court. Over a hundred court cases filed by natives, alleging infringement of NCR rights by logging and oil palm plantations, are trundling their way through the bowels of the judicial system.

This latest judgment
supports the legal rights of natives to their NCR land, as affirmed by the Madeli Salleh Federal Court and Nor Nyawai decisions.

These pivotal cases emphasise that customary rights precede the existence of the state of Sarawak, and cannot be extinguished by the government.

Yet the state government considers all NCR land which has not been surveyed as 'state land'. The Land and Survey Department has failed to survey more than 90% of the state's NCR land, in 46 years of independence.

The state administration has ridden roughshod over the landmark court NCR decisions. It ignores long-established legal and constitutional guarantees of NCR land, as well as the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Malaysia has signed.

Rumah Madel's bruising fight

Rumah Madel had sent a string of protests to the police and other government agencies against intrusions by the oil palm company onto their ancestral NCR land since 2004. But the community's appeals were brushed aside.

"This company, Tabung Haji, doesn't even have any agreement or a promise of sharing with us. So, we are not happy with the way the government deals with our land. They said that our land does not belong to us,” an elderly man from Rumah Madel recalled. "They told us it's state land. But we didn't move here illegally. We didn't move here yesterday. We have lived here since the British colony was established, since the time of Rajah Brooke.”

The Iban villagers resorted to erecting blockades across the companies' access roads. The police finally sprang into action, but in support of the oil palm company. Police
arrested peaceful protestors, including three defiant women, Siah anak Laga, Meliah anak Enjup and Sadah anak Julau, in December 2004.

When the villagers in Rumah Madel were asked whether the company had paid any compensation for their land or crops, the village elder replied: "No. They told us 'If we pay you compensation that means we acknowledge it is your land. But this is state land and therefore it's not your land!' So they just went ahead and destroyed our land without paying us anything.”

"They don't care,” said the village head, Tuai Rumah Madel anak Kandau. "Even several of my own plots of land have been destroyed by the lorries. They even destroyed my own oil palm saplings but I planted them again. I told them 'Please don't kill my oil palm saplings. Just leave them alone.' ”

The villagers are angry that the rivers and water catchments supplying their drinking water have also been
polluted by the oil palm plantation company.

"Look at our streams now…the water looks like it came from a pig-sty. None of us wants to bathe there, let alone drink the water. They're making life difficult for us in the village,” Madel said.

Anger over empty promises

One villager said the company had promised surrounding villages good jobs if only they would participate in the oil palm 'joint project'.

Several headmen signed up. He recounted the promises. "They told us, you will earn a lot of money, no problem with your expenses because you will have a permanent job there.

"Also, once you work in the oil palm plantation, you will have a 30 percent share in the plantation. 70 percent will go to the government and its 'friends'.

"But they did not give us the letter of agreement…and also, the certificate to show that we have a share in the plantation was not given to us. The company kept it for themselves.

"Now you see…none of us are working there. All the workers in the plantation are foreigners. None of us here want to work for RM10 or RM15 per day. With RM10 per day, my wife and I can eat. But what about our children? Their schooling?” he asked..

"If we follow those who are educated, they will mess up our minds, suck our blood. It's better that we're uneducated," Tuai Rumah Madel said with a wry smile, "so we can discuss together what is good or bad.

"Look at the YBs (elected representatives). Who voted for them to become our YBs? It's the YBs who are messing with our minds. They only pretend to try to help us by saying all kinds of things.

"I think about my grandchildren in the future. When I die, will my grandchildren say 'Our grandfather was very stupid – without land, how are we going to live?' That is why I don't want my land to be taken away.”

Sarawak dams: Boon or bane?

Baradan Kuppusamy
Jan 21, 10

Tribal leader Kelak Ubin worries over plans to build a dozen dams in the pristine, interconnected river ecology of Sarawak, home to many ethnic tribes located north-west of Borneo Island.

Considered the third largest island in the world, Borneo occupies an area the size of Singapore and lies at the centre of Maritime South-east Asia. It is divided among three countries, namely, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. At its north lies the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

The proposed Sarawak complex of hydroelectric dams is expected to lead to a forced resettlement of the affected tribal communities to unfriendly places as well as to inundation of the state's vast tracts of rainforest, said to be the earth's oldest tropical rainforest.

"Our life ... our tradition is all connected to the land. Our way of life is inherited from our ancestors," Ubin told IPS.

"We don't know any other way of life. Our very existence is under threat. They (government officials and private entrepreneurs) have promised to resettle us and pay us some money, but I fear our traditional way of life will die with the forest."

The proposed massive dams are intended to generate cheap electricity and feed China's rapidly expanding economy on top of Malaysia's energy- consuming manufacturing industries that are intended to be relocated to the state. The complex is expected to have a combined power-generating capacity of 7,000 megawatts (MW) by 2020, or at least 600 percent more than the current capacity of the island.

Why it makes economic sense

A state official, speaking to IPS on condition of anonymity, explained why exploitation of Sarawak's rivers makes economic sense and moving industries to the island is a better option.

“Sarawak's interconnected river system is unique and unlike any in the world. The system is the state's greatest wealth and, if tapped intelligently, will feed industries that need cheap power like aluminum smelters,” he said.

On Jan 11, the government announced plans between China and Malaysia to pursue joint venture energy projects amounting to US$11 billion in Sarawak.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak unveiled the plans involving the government-owned development and investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and China's leading power grid operator, the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC).

“In a short period of time 1MDB and SGCC, which is China's leading power and distribution company, will be collaborating to identify and plan a number of multi-billion-dollar projects,” Najib said in his speech during the announcement. He did not identify, however, the projects that would be undertaken under the joint venture.

But government officials, who also declined to be named, said dams and power plant constructions were among the huge joint projects of the two firms.

“Sarawak is slated for huge growth and will be transformed within 20 years,” a senior official involved in financial development and planning told IPS. “The focus is on the energy sector.”

English daily, The Star, has reported that 1MDB and SGCC will establish hydropower plants similar to the controversial Bakun Dam located on Balui River in Sarawak and a massive aluminum smelter in the same state.

The Bakun facility is the forerunner of this huge and ambitious plan to tap Sarawak's power for power-intensive industries, state officials also admitted to IPS.

Indigenous people uprooted

Anti-dam groups said the US$2 billion Bakun Dam, scheduled to come online later this year, would engulf a huge tract of the Borneo jungle in water. Approved by the government in 1986, the project is nearing completion after more than two decades of controversy, opposition and financial constraints triggered by the 1997 Asian crisis.

During the intermittent construction of the hydroelectric dam, thousands of indigenous people were uprooted and moved out of the construction and immediate catchment area. Large tracts of rainforests, where natives of the several tribes lived, were cleared to make way for the dam.

When completed, Bakun's reservoir will cover 695 sq km and power eight turbines. But for the displaced indigenous people of Sarawak, Bakun is nothing but endless misery. Used to a life of farming, fishing and limited hunting, the tribal people have great difficulty adapting to a cash economy.

“The government must clarify the development plans for Sarawak and give all details, especially their impact on the indigenous people,” said Meenakshi Raman, a senior official of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, a member of an international grassroots environmental network from which it derives its name.

“Our primary fear is that these projects involve hugely dirty industries like aluminum smelters and dams and coal power plants, which all degrade the environment in Sarawak and threaten the economy and livelihood of the indigenous people,” she said.

The dam has an estimated generation capacity of 2,400 MW, considered ambitious for Sarawak's small, agriculture-based economy, which has no use for such huge generated power.

The original Bakun plan was to ship the generated power through undersea cables across the South China Sea to Peninsular Malaysia. But those opposed to the project said it did not make sense because Peninsular Malaysia was already experiencing a power glut, with numerous independent power producers queuing up to sell power.

Peninsular or West Malaysia, accounts for the majority of the South-east Asian country's estimated 28 million population and economy.

Alarm bells sounded

Environment activists also argued that the option to lay cables would be expensive, was fraught with technical uncertainties, and could raise sovereignty issues if they passed through Indonesian waters.

This ambitious and, in the words of some experts, 'foolhardy plan' to use undersea cables across 1,000km of open sea appears to have been abandoned for an equally ambitious plan to bring power-hungry industries to Sarawak.

Senior government officials, who also declined to be named, said the undersea cable plan is 'all but abandoned.'

But even before the turbines of the Bakun hydroelectric facility begin to turn later this year, environmentalists and activists continue to sounding the alarm bells on plans to build 12 more mega dams in Sarawak, which the government sees as a major injection into the sluggish economy and an investment that will deliver political capital as well.

Foreign investment in Malaysia plummeted in 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis. The 1MDB, which was created in 2008, is aimed at forming global partnerships to drive Malaysia's economic growth. - IPS