Sabah (Malaysia) - The High Court of Sabah just settled a landmark agreement between the indigenous Dusun and Sungai peoples of Tongod District and Genting Plantations. The case, which has dragged on since 1997 and been in the courts since 2002, concerns a large-scale palm oil development on community lands in central Sabah (North Borneo). The palm oil companies secured their permits over the Dusun and Sungai peoples lands without recognising their land rights and without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Overriding community objections, the companies bulldozed the communities forests’ and farmlands and gradually expanded their operations, squeezing communities into a narrow settlement strip along the roadsides.
With the support of pro bono lawyers from Kota Kinabalu, the community support group PACOS and the Malaysian national indigenous peoples’ organisation, JOAS, and thanks to strong social mobilisation among the communities themselves, the indigenous peoples challenged the companies, the State Government and the lands office for the illegal take-over of their customary lands. Although Genting Plantations originally tried to get the case thrown out claiming the people had no right to plead, the courts found in favour of the communities and, eventually, upheld their native customary rights (NCR) to the disputed land. The judge urged and then mediated a settlement of the case between the communities and Genting Plantations. He also denied either party the right to appeal or claim costs. The details of the final settlement are confidential to the parties.
‘Today is a significant victory for Orang Asal [indigenous peoples] in Malaysia. This Settlement Agreement acknowledges by law, yet again, the Orang Asal's right to their NCR,’ Jannie Lasimbang, Secretary General of Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) said. ‘Companies and governments should take note of this landmark case and respect NCR to land to avoid the long and costly court process.’
While the case was marooned in the courts, during 2012 and 2013, Forest Peoples Programme worked with the communities, PACOS and JOAS to file the case with the RSPO Complaints Panel. The RSPO Complaints Panel upheld the complaint and called on Genting Plantations to bring itself into compliance with the RSPO standard. The complainants had drawn attention to multiple violations of the social and environmental requirements of RSPO which go far beyond the issues addressed by the court. It remains to be seen what action the RSPO Complaints Panel will now take to sanction Genting Plantations and ensure compliance with these wider requirements.