|Behind the Baram blockades |
Over the past week, there have been numerous reports about the blockades by several Penan communities in Tutoh-Apoh, Patah, and Baram, Sarawak. The blockades were to halt the transportation of logs by several logging business groups.
These groups have been harvesting timber within the traditional territories of the surrounding villages in the above-mentioned places.
According to community representatives, the blockades were set up for several interrelated reasons. Firstly, with the advent of large monoculture plantations, the people's forest resources are in a state of acute decline.
If logging had devastating impact on affected communities, plantations would be worst off. Clear-felling operations entail the total destruction of the people's land and forest resources, including their communal water catchments.
Secondly, this impending deforestation disaster is certainly linked to the lack of land rights of the native communities to their traditional territories. For years, the communities' numerous applications for their village forest reserves to be gazetted into Communal Forest Reserves have never been approved by the state.
The people maintain that logging has failed to produce meaningful benefits to local communities and has instead, over the years severely compromised their quality of life. They point out that local people even miss out on employment opportunities, as companies seem to prefer to hire Indonesian labour.
The people also stress that their efforts to negotiate with the companies and their agents have often been futile. The protestors are determined not to give in into any intimidations or threats to dismantle the barricades unless their demands are met.
Foremost, they call for all logging and plantation operations to be halted on their land, a call, that if left unheeded, may lead to significant food deprivation and widespread malnutrition among the people.
Equally important, the people also want their Native Customary Rights (NCR) to be fully recognised, and that they be allowed to exercise self-determination with regards to any development plans that may affect them.
In our view, all the demands above certainly require an urgent comprehensive response at a policy level from the Sarawak state government.
We find the statement attributed to Sarawak's Rural Development Minister James Masing in an AFP news article published on Aug 23, which describes the Penan communities as "good storytellers" and that their land rights disputes "were often aimed at wringing more compensation from companies" as most regretful.
Similarly, we find the insinuations about the communities' blockades by state assemblyperson Lihan Jok equally unacceptable. Lihan was quoted by Utusan Borneo on Aug 30, suggesting that the blockades appear to show the Penan communities are uncivilised, this despite the fact that many are highly educated.
In fact, the latest blockades leads to questions about the sustainability claims of the Sarawak timber and plantation industries. Many Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports of the projects in the area seem to suggest that plantation development is necessary in Sarawak due to the depletion in timber resources in the state.
However, timber harvesting for Dipterocarp forests within the Sarawak PFE supposedly operates under a 25-year cutting cycle. If it is indeed true that timber has been largely depleted in just 30 years since large-scale logging commenced in the state, Sarawak should no longer claim to be practising sustainable forestry management.
We believe that the Sarawak state government has also failed to take full cognisance of our judicial decisions on native rights. The Federal Court in 2007 has ruled that native rights owes its existence to native customary laws and not to any modern statute or legislation, while affirming that individual and communal native rights have equal legal force. Our Appeals Court has affirmed that such rights cover both cultivated and forested areas.
SAM is of the view that the continuous occurrence of land rights protests in Sarawak is a result of the absence of a participatory and consultative demarcation process of native territorial boundaries in Sarawak.
Such a process should incorporate the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) mechanism and a set of substantiation procedures designed to yield corroborative evidence to support each native land rights claim.
Given all the facts above, we call on the Sarawak state government to fulfil all the demands made by the blockading communities and exercise restraint in dealing with the protest.
In our view, unless Sarawak halts further forest conversions in the state and subsequently establishes a consultative demarcation process which takes cognisance of the full stature, nature and extent of the NCR as ruled by our judiciary, any sustainability claims made on both the timber and plantation industries in Sarawak must be treated with great caution.
S M Mohamed Idris is the president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)