Penan customary territory in Batu Bungan, Mulu, Sarawak threatened by plantation project

LETTER TO EDITOR                                14 February 2019

SAM has recently received reports from the Penan community of Kampung Batu Bungan in Mulu, Sarawak that in January this year, road construction for an oil palm plantation began to encroach on their customary territory, which is adjacent to the Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Area. In response, the community had set up a blockade and lodged a police report in Marudi to halt the encroachment. However, the blockade was then reportedly dismantled by the road construction workers.

In September last year, the federal Minister of Plantation Industries announced that the new government will not allow any more expansion of oil palm plantations in the country in its effort to ensure that Malaysia maintains a 50 per cent forest cover. By December, Sarawak was also reported to be committed to this. Although we applaud this move, as the Kampung Batu Bungan case shows, there are still many unresolved issues surrounding the matter.

According to the Sarawak Forests Department, under its Licence for Planted Forests (LPF) system, 43 timber tree plantation licences have been issued over 2.8 million hectares. These licences are located on both the reserved permanent forest estates as well as non-reserved stateland forests. Some of the licences are also allowed to devote not more than 20 per cent of their concession areas for the cultivation of oil palm. Plantable areas are estimated to be at 1.3 million hectares and 285,520 hectares for timber trees and oil palm, respectively. As of December 2013, 325,314 hectares and 146,578 hectares have been planted with timber trees and oil palm, respectively.

In addition, the Sarawak Department of Land and Survey also issues permits to develop plantations on land not under the authority of the Forests Department. Some of these developments are implemented by state agencies such as the Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA). Based on the data on the websites of various state and federal agencies, we estimate that the total size of land targeted for plantations here may be close to 800,000 hectares, although we are unable to find data on the total size of the licences that have actually been issued and to what extent they involve the cultivation of oil palm. Meanwhile, data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) shows that in 2017, oil palm cultivation areas in Sarawak has reached 1.5 million hectares.

Therefore, we need to be clear that oil palm per se is not the only problem here. In Malaysia, the development of monoculture plantations of timber trees and oil palm is in fact allowed on reserved production forests. In Sarawak, such forest conversions also take place on non-reserved stateland forests. The central problems here are thus deforestation and the violations of the indigenous customary land rights, as the case is in Batu Bungan. Oil palm is only but one of the commodities of choice.

Therefore from the late 1990s onwards, more than 3 million hectares in Sarawak have been licensed to monoculture plantations, where the total area specified for timber plantations is larger than that for oil palm. These take up a quarter of the land size of Sarawak, larger than Perak. Additionally, our research has shown that by 2013, forested areas as large as 324,417 hectares in Peninsular Malaysia and 271,110 hectares in Sabah have also been set aside for timber tree and oil palm plantation development, respectively. Altogether in Malaysia, the size of the areas targeted for these new monoculture plantation development involving forest conversions is at least 3.4 million hectares, almost the size of Pahang. Many of these areas also fall within indigenous customary territories.

Therefore, the ambition of the new federal government to maintain a 50 per cent national forest cover does appear to rest on unscientific forestry statistics which quantify monoculture plantations, along with the adjacent fragments of forests, as ‘forest cover’.

According to the Kampung Batu Bungan community, considerable destruction to the forest, river and natural resources has already taken place as a result of the road building alone. Although the community had first heard of the arrival of the oil palm plantation in 2018, they have never consented to the project. The absence of meaningful consultation also means that the people are left without much information. They did not receive documents that can verify the identities of the project proponent and its agents, the boundary and size of the project operations and other important details. They also wonder if profits are derived from the timber trees felled for the road construction. The community therefore demand that the encroachment is immediately halted.

The new federal government needs to take stock of the real issue at hand – this situation is not an isolated case in Sarawak, or even Malaysia. It is not just about oil palm. As the Report of the National Inquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples published by SUHAKAM in 2013 has stated, the violations of the indigenous customary land rights in Malaysia is a systemic issue and the lack of their tenure security must first be addressed.

Therefore, in line with the federal and state governments’ commitment to halt deforestation, there is need to review and revoke large monoculture licences which affect indigenous customary territories and reserved production forests and non-reserved forests, regardless of the commodity involved.

Further, the federal cabinet also needs to provide an update on the status of the SUHAKAM national inquiry report. It is time for the federal and state governments to take heed of the recommendations of the SUHAKAM report and protect the rights of indigenous peoples in the country.

We also urge the federal and state governments to respect the call of the Penan community of Kampung Batu Bungan. The proximity of their territory to the internationally renowned Gunung Mulu National Park must also be greatly appreciated.

As have been shown here, not all new large monoculture licensed areas have been developed. There is still opportunity to protect many indigenous customary territories and a sizeable quantity of actual natural forest cover, including that of Kampung Batu Bungan in Mulu, Sarawak.

The federal government was quick to help support the Orang Asli community in Gua Musang, Kelantan to ensure that state governments fulfil their fiduciary duties under the Federal Constitution to respect the rights of indigenous peoples. We urge the federal government to take a similar approach in Sarawak and help protect the Penan community in Kampung Batu Bungan and other native communities who are fighting to defend their customary rights to land and the remaining forests from encroachments and destruction.


S.M. Mohamed Idris


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