Sarawak State: Iban Communities Continuing Blockade to Protect their Native Customary Rights Land
- Grassroots Protest Activity against Oil Palm Developments of Big Agribusinesses -
Akira Harada Member of Steering Committee, Japan Tropical Forest Action Network
Three Iban communities of Simunjan District, Samarahan Division, Sarawak, are persistently fighting the battle to recover and protect their ancestral land from being developed into oil palm plantation by companies. At the end of March this year, having heard about NCR blockade activities organized by local residents' I visited the office of Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) and arranged my visit to blockade site with Niloh Ason, SADIA member. The Three Iban communities who are the seventh generations – from Kampung Sekendu, Kampung Sungai Lingkau, and Kampung Melanjuk – have the native customary rights (NCR ) land. It was May 2009 when they erected blockade to stop the invasion of heavy machinery to promote plantation development by oil palm. The current blockade site started on January 20, 2018. Combined the three villages, nearly 100 households are participating the blockade. They keep monitoring for 24 hours every day in rotation by groups to stop further destruction of their native customary right land.
The oil palm plantation company named Tradewinds has destroyed 5,000 ha of indigenous customary land owned by the three villages, clearing 2,000 ha to plant oil palm seedlings. About 900 hectares bordering this plot Tabung Haji Plantations (THP) has obtained the provisional land lease (PL) from the government. The three villages are located along Batang Kiba a tributary of Batang Sadong. They have grown their fruit trees like pineapple, rubber gardens, and others, and also harvested paddy fields. However, now the canal (artificial waterway) which the company drilled around sideways of the fertile soil and the original river is rapidly drying up. When heavy rain falls, their gardens become flooded due to debris of the logs that been cut down by the company. The flood causes severe damage to important agricultural crops of the communities. Residential areas (their long houses) and graveyards of each village remain intact so far. We talked to Sanabung Sampai who is leading the blockade. Sanabung was approached by agent of the company. It is said that he was urged to transfer their land rights in return for a lump-sum payment. It is one of the usual means used by agricultural enterprises to divide the community against development from the inside. He emphatically pointed out, "Once you let go of this land, you will not be able to leave anything for future generations, this is also a fight for the future of our new generation."
TH (Tabung Haji), an oil palm company based in the peninsula, is one of Malaysia's leading huge agribusiness enterprises. In Sarawak State, the company owns a total of 90,000 hectares of farmland ranging from Samarahan Province to Limbang Province through the merger of existing companies that started from 1996 and receiving the entry of provisional leasehold rights. The scale is the largest among the peninsular-based palm oil companies operating in Sarawak state. Most of the plantations are in the peat wetland. Meanwhile, Tabung Haji Plantations was founded in 1972 and is a huge enterprise of Malaysian palm oil production. Most of the 200 thousand hectares of land owned in Riau Province, Indonesia is located in a peat wetland. TH Plantations Berhad (THP) has “a local plantation land bank of about 91,000 ha in 37 estates in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak, as well as operating six palm oil mills In Malaysia. While a member of the RSPO, it is not seeking RSPO certification for any of its oil palm estates”(Cramb, R., & McCarthy, J. F.).
Native customary land is frequently damaged and the communities’ farmland destroyed by a series of corporate invasions and land grabs. Sanabung and his members have submitted reports to the police several times so far. The police come to the scene, without any action taken against the company. On the other hand, there are many cases where they are at risk of being criminalised by police forces based on corporate complaints. In December 2012, a case where three campaign organisers including Sanabung were arrested by the police according to accusations that they stole the fruit of oil palm owned by Tradewinds was brought to court. Despite their denial of the charge the residents lost the court case and appealed to the appellate court the following year. This should be described as a recent example of local communities court struggles to protect their NCR.
In June 2016, Bill Kayong, Miri PKR(Peoples Justice Party) secretary, who was actively involved in fighting for NCR in the state, was shot dead in the city of Sarawak province. Kayong was in charge of fighting against the oil palm plantation company called Tung Huat Plantation Sdn Bhd. He was also a member of NGO Persatuan Dayak Sarawak (PEDAS). Steven Lee Chee Kiang, who is supposed to be the mastermind of the incident, was one of the executives of this plantation company. Three suspects including Lee Chee Kiang who was caught by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) appeared at the trial of the Miri High Court one year after the murder. The human rights activist's trial case had attracted great attention not only in Malaysia but also internationally, but at the Miri High Court, Stephen Lee Chee Kiang and the two others were all discharged and acquitted without having their defence called over the murder of the NCR activist.
Recently, in cases surrounding NCR land destructions by oil palm companies, the Federal Court of Malaysia has ruled out against 'Pemakai Menoa' (territorial domain) and 'Pulau Galau' (communal forest reserve) for hunting and non-timber forest products. Court decisions denying indigenous customs rights are being issued one after another. This is creating a chaotic situation for indigenous people who want to maintain the traditional livelihood on their NCR land. Blockade is the only defensive means they have to take. “I will not stop this non-violent action”, said Mr. Sanabong, who has been arrested several times.
Cramb, Rob, and John F. McCarthy, eds. The oil palm complex: Smallholders, agribusiness and the state in Indonesia and Malaysia. NUS Press, 2016.
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), “MALAYSIAHUMAN RIGHTSREPORT 2016”.
Video Message: Sanabung Sampai and his People Fighting for their NCRs
・Consumers of Oil Palm Products to Know What is Happening on the Ground in Srawak and to Extend your Helping Hands to us
・Native Customary Rights (NCR) Land Precious for Indigenous Peoples like us
・We Keep Fighting not only for the Present Generations but for Future Generations
Blockade Site: NCR Defenders (Kg Sekendu, Kg Melanjok and Kg Sg Lingkau)
《Unified Iban Communities 24hour Protest against Tradewinds and Tabung Haji (provisional lease) 》