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The Borneo Project

Sabah Tribes Rally Against Corporate Takeover of Land


In January 2004, village headman Wilster L. and approximately 100 other representatives from 30 tribes stood before Sabah’s Deputy Chief Minister of Land, Datuk Lajim Haji Ukin. Wilster had traveled from the remote region of Tongod, traversing northern Borneo’s rutted dirt roads through vast oil palm plantations. He and his group had passed countless trucks laden with rainforest logs and oil palm fruits, many mired hopelessly at the river crossings. Finally, Wilster’s group had reached the capital city of Kota Kinabalu and the Minister’s gleaming office skyscraper. The crowd was dressed in traditional attire. The tan costumes of the Murut, the black and gold of the Kadazandusun, and the bright colors of the Rungus made the office appear oddly festive. But this occasion carried a heavy significance. Wilster surveyed the crowd, took a deep breath, and began a simple, passionate plea for the government to abide by its own laws, recognize native rights to protect and manage their natural resources, and halt reallocation of lands to logging and plantation corporations.

Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Its forests contain some of the most ecologically rich rainforests in the world and provide some of the last refuges for rare species of flora and fauna, including Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, rhinoceros, elephants, orangutans, sun bears, flying foxes, and leopards. Today less than one fifth of those forests remains, in scattered pockets throughout the state. Habitat loss from commercial logging and plantation expansion has reduced the number of Sumatran rhinoceros to 30 and endangered the orangutan, and still the government has not acted sufficiently to restrict logging or land clearing.

The indigenous communities of Sabah have managed forests, wildlife, and fish populations for countless generations. With the establishment of colonial and post-colonial governments, communities across Sabah began petitioning to receive titles for their lands for years, sometimes decades, prior to corporate encroachment. It has been their official right, under both British colonial ordinances and Malaysian laws, to claim native customary tenure for sites of sacred significance, lands that have belonged to the community from time immemorial, or lands cultivated, grazed, built upon, or planted in fruit trees. With more than enough such evidence, communities filed for tenure, but often received no response. Untitled land is claimed by the State and granted to commercial enterprises. Over 12 percent of Sabah’s land area has now been appropriated for oil palm and pulp plantations. Most rural communities continue to depend on forest resources for subsistence and cultural identity. Strong traditions ensure that they avoid taxing ecosystems beyond their limits.

In Tongod and across Sabah, entire villages have been resettled against their will. Vast areas of rainforests and farms have been clearcut, and burial sites and fruit orchards have been destroyed. Replanting in oil palm monocultures is causing massive erosion, landslides, river siltation, and contamination from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Plantation workers use the new roads to hunt wildlife to the point of scarcity. Fish are over-harvested. The loss of wild foods, shelter, building materials, and medicinal plants causes economic hardship unlike anything the indigenous people have faced before. Peaceful protests have resulted in both government silence and police repression.

But Wilster’s speech fell on unsympathetic ears. “We need this kind of development,” the Deputy Minister said, “so that infrastructure such as roads in the area will be more practical.”

Frustration and despair are running high in Tongod. As Naomi, a woman from Wilster’s village reflected, the loss of the forests is also a loss of her home and identity. “How can they come here and take our land and cut the trees my father’s father planted? This must be illegal. They cannot treat us this way.”

With the assistance of community support organizations, Wilster and others from Tongod are now trying a new strategy—they’ve filed a court case against the State and two plantation companies: Hup Seng Consolidated Berhad and Asiatic Development Berhad. The case is the first deliberate test of Sabah’s land tenure laws with regards to indigenous peoples. Similar legal proceedings in other Malaysian states are painfully slow, and there is a risk of losing rights in hostile court decisions. Nevertheless, villagers often choose to pursue every possible peaceful means to protect their heritage.

Residents of Tongod have reason for cautious optimism. Three years ago, in a landmark case in neighboring Sarawak, a Malaysian judge ruled that indigenous people from the village of Rumah Nor held customary rights that trumped government concession-granting. This decision stopped Borneo Pulp and Paper company bulldozers in their tracks.

In his historic decision, Judge Ian Chan expanded the definition of native customary lands to include streams, forests, and traditional hunting grounds used by the community. Prior to the ruling, only farmlands actively cultivated by villagers could be considered native customary lands. Oral testimony and maps made by the Rumah Nor community documenting traditional land use and historic sites were instrumental in validating the community’s claims.

Since the legal victory at Rumah Nor, dozens of indigenous communities in Sarawak have flooded the courts with similar cases against encroaching plantation developers. In Sabah, where land laws are slightly different, native communities are following the Rumah Nor model, creating maps of their traditonal lands, and pressing the courts for land rights. As the Tongod case moves forward, communities are watching carefully to see if it will provide a new tool for defending their lands in the years ahead.

— Borneo Project, PACOS Trust, and Barnaby Hall.


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