Sarawak is again in the news as the relentless pressure on the 'native peoples' intensifies. Logging operations continue to push into the Dayak peoples' ancestral territories, extending deep into the lands of the Penan people, up into the Kelabit highlands and right up to the sources of the Rajang river. Logging tracks even extend over the border into Indonesia. Meanwhile on the coast and in the lower-lying parts of the State, extensive tracts of Dayak land are being converted to oil palm plantations.
Despite a number of progressive legal rulings in Malaysia's highest courts, which have recognised that native land rights derive from custom, the government of the State of Sarawak continues to use colonial laws which restrict 'Native Customary Rights' to small areas cultivated prior to 1958 or since recognised by official permit. Contrary to the repeated findings of the courts, the government claims that the majority of the interior is 'State land'.
The vulnerability of the native peoples to expropriation was further highlighted in January when secretive plans were uncovered of a US$11 billion deal between Malaysia and China to build a series of mega-dams in Sarawak, which reportedly threaten to displace 608,000 Dayak. The mega-project includes plans to open coal mines and natural gas deposits.
Resistance Dayaks have been far from passive in the face of this pressure. Blockades of logging company roads continue. In November 2009, some Penan declared their hunting and gathering grounds to be 'Peace Park', where such developments should cease. The government rejected the idea, claiming the whole area as State-controlled forest reserves, set aside for logging.
With the help of local lawyers, other Penan entered new suits against the State and the logging company, Samling, for illegal encroachment on their customary lands. At the same time land disputes between the Kayan and Berawan peoples of the Tinjar river and the world's second largest palm company the IOI Group, came to the boil. IOI seeks certification of its estates elsewhere in Malaysia, through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, but the unresolved land disputes in Sarawak are holding this up.
In fact, the courts in Sarawak are backed up with hundreds of unresolved land disputes, some of which have been pending for nearly 20 years. In January, however, the High Court in Kuching again ruled in favour of customary rights, finding that the lands of two Iban and Malay communities had been taken over by oil palm plantations without respect for their rights.
Backlash Government indignation against this new surge of native protests and legal victories has not been limited to the press. In January, a team from the government Lands and Surveys Department, backed up by Malaysian army personnel and police demolished 25 Iban houses in Sungai Sekabai near Bintulu. The action led to an international outcry and is seen as vindictive: one of those affected is Nor anak Nyaway who won a historic case in the High Court in 2001 which acknowledged that his community's rights to both farmlands and forests, and which derive from custom, had been infringed by a plantation company. The community managed to secure an injunction temporarily halting further demolition of their houses and their lawyer, Harrison Ngau launched a new Native Rights Action Front "in view of the continued and persistent atrocities, barbarious and inhuman action of the Sarawak State Government against the marginalised groups, particularly the natives or indigenous people."
This note summarises information made available by the Bruno Manser Fonds.