Sarawak Natives Fight for Land Rights
Carolyn Hong – Straits Times Indonesia | May 05, 2011
Kuala Lumpur. Along a mountainous logging track on the northern edge of Borneo, a 500 kilometer-long gas pipeline is snaking its way from Sabah to Sarawak.
The RM1.6 billion ($538 million) pipeline is meant to carry gas from Kimanis, Sabah, to the Petronas plant in Bintulu, Sarawak.
But for the natives who live along the pipeline, it is yet another example of their ancestral land being taken from them for development — whether it be for plantations, dams or a pipeline — without compensation.
“They are building in our villages, our farms, padi fields,” said Jameson Taie, 48, from the village of Long Luping, one of at least eight villages affected. Most of the natives here are farmers from the minority Lun Bawang tribe.
The villagers set up a temporary blockade in protest last year, and have since instructed a lawyer to file a case in court. Jameson said very few have received compensation as the government does not recognize their claim to the ancestral land.
The villagers’ lawsuit is the latest to join the 200-plus cases in Sarawak courts. Native land rights have become an increasingly emotive issue with broad political implications. The government and natives disagree over the definition of native land, with the state taking a more restrictive view than the people.
During the recent Sarawak state election, unhappiness over the encroachment of state development projects on native land helped the opposition Pakatan Rakyat make inroads into the non-Muslim native vote for the first time.
While the opposition coalition won only two native seats, it gained a seven percentage point increase in its share of the native vote.
“If not resolved, the land issues will have far-reaching implications for sociopolitical stability,” said Universiti Malaysia Sarawak political analyst Jeniri Amir. “Certainly, it has the potential to hit the Barisan Nasional hard.”
He added: “The opposition successfully capitalized on this issue to the fullest, and you can be sure that it will do so again in the coming general election.”
Lawyer Baru Bian, whose firm is handling about 100 such cases, said he believed this was just the tip of the iceberg. Baru recently won a seat for the opposition in the Sarawak state assembly, campaigning on issues of native land rights.
While similar clashes have occured in the neighbouring state of Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia, the issue is far more widespread in Sarawak where it involves over a million hectares of native land.
Sarawak is Malaysia’s biggest state and almost the size of the peninsula.
Clashes have become more frequent after the government started to turn Sarawak into the largest oil palm producing state by doubling the plantation area to two million hectares in a few years. Sarawak Land Development Minister James Masing said last year that there were 1.5 million hectares of native land that remains unused and without titles.
Natives have won several cases in court, spurring others to take legal action.
“Previously, the people did not know of their right to challenge the government. But after some successes, they are increasingly willing to do so,” said Baru.
In 2009, the country’s highest court, the Federal Court, recognized native rights over communal forests that stretched beyond their cultivated farmland.
But the state has refused to respect this decision, Baru said. He is now handling another case currently in the Federal Court, brought by natives displaced by the building of the mega Bakun Dam, which has flooded an area bigger than Singapore.
The natives assert that their right to the land is protected by the constitutional guarantee of the right to life, because the land is the source of their livelihood.
“If we do not have rights, how do we live?” asked village headman Bato Bagi.
If the Bakun Dam case succeeds, it will have a major impact on the other cases now pending in court.
To resolve the increasingly emotive disputes, Prime Minister Najib Razak last year allocated RM100 million to survey native land. But progress is slow.
John Labo, 51, whose ancestral land is also affected by the gas pipeline, said the natives are not against development or the Petronas project. But they wanted recognition and compensation.
“This is the land of our forefathers,” he said.