The Sarawak government’s unpopular ‘Konsep Baru’ or ‘New Concept’ of land development, which encourages private companies to set up vast oil palm plantations on native people’s lands, has been dealt a blow by a landmark High Court decision today.
The High Court of Sabah and Sarawak declared victory to rural Iban farmers from Rumah Madel, in Sebauh, 30km from Bintulu, in a land rights suit filed against Ladang Sawit Bintulu Sdn Bhd Tabung Haji (a major share-owner in the oil palm plantation) and the Sarawak government.
The Rumah Madel plaintiffs were represented by land rights advocates Baru Bian and See Chee How.
“This is a victory for all Sarawakians, and for future generations of Malaysians,” said See, outside the High Court. The government has 30 days to appeal the decision.
The state government now faces increased pressure to curb its enthusiastic support of big business – in this case wealthy oil palm companies – taking over the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land of indigenous communities across this vast state.
Tabung Haji, a federal investment fund, will also face questions over its involvement in the Sebauh plantation. Local people say the plantation has destroyed their land, rubber and other crops, fruit trees and water supplies. The adverse publicity has made it tricky, to say the least, for the fund to argue that it supports ethical investments.
Old concept, new packaging
The Sarawak government’s ‘Konsep Baru’ promises NCR landowners a 30 percent share in ‘joint development’ of a given oil palm plantation, with a 60 percent going to a private company and 10% going to the state. The state says the land will be returned to the NCR owners after 60 years. The government argues this brings development to what it calls ‘idle land’.
It has been well documented that these private oil palm companies are closely associated with high-ranking state officials. Many NCR landowners who signed up to these schemes have bitterly condemned the private investors for failing to pay dividends, or handing out only a pittance.
Worse still, private companies have frequently established plantations without even consulting local communities. The first the locals hear of the ‘development’ is often the sound of bulldozers uprooting their fruit trees and farms.
Many native communities have shown great courage in taking the government to court. Over a hundred court cases filed by natives, alleging infringement of NCR rights by logging and oil palm plantations, are trundling their way through the bowels of the judicial system.
This latest judgment supports the legal rights of natives to their NCR land, as affirmed by the Madeli Salleh Federal Court and Nor Nyawai decisions.
These pivotal cases emphasise that customary rights precede the existence of the state of Sarawak, and cannot be extinguished by the government.
Yet the state government considers all NCR land which has not been surveyed as ‘state land’. The Land and Survey Department has failed to survey more than 90% of the state’s NCR land, in 46 years of independence.
The state administration has ridden roughshod over the landmark court NCR decisions. It ignores long-established legal and constitutional guarantees of NCR land, as well as the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Malaysia has signed.
Rumah Madel’s bruising fight
Rumah Madel had sent a string of protests to the police and other government agencies against intrusions by the oil palm company onto their ancestral NCR land since 2004. But the community’s appeals were brushed aside.
“This company, Tabung Haji, doesn’t even have any agreement or a promise of sharing with us. So, we are not happy with the way the government deals with our land. They said that our land does not belong to us,” an elderly man from Rumah Madel recalled. “They told us it’s state land. But we didn’t move here illegally. We didn’t move here yesterday. We have lived here since the British colony was established, since the time of Rajah Brooke.”
The Iban villagers resorted to erecting blockades across the companies’ access roads. The police finally sprang into action, but in support of the oil palm company. Police arrested peaceful protestors, including three defiant women, Siah anak Laga, Meliah anak Enjup and Sadah anak Julau, in December 2004.
When the villagers in Rumah Madel were asked whether the company had paid any compensation for their land or crops, the village elder replied: “No. They told us ‘If we pay you compensation that means we acknowledge it is your land. But this is state land and therefore it’s not your land!’ So they just went ahead and destroyed our land without paying us anything.”
“They don’t care,” said the village head, Tuai Rumah Madel anak Kandau. “Even several of my own plots of land have been destroyed by the lorries. They even destroyed my own oil palm saplings but I planted them again. I told them ‘Please don’t kill my oil palm saplings. Just leave them alone.’ ”
The villagers are angry that the rivers and water catchments supplying their drinking water have also been polluted by the oil palm plantation company.
“Look at our streams now…the water looks like it came from a pig-sty. None of us wants to bathe there, let alone drink the water. They’re making life difficult for us in the village,” Madel said.
Anger over empty promises
One villager said the company had promised surrounding villages good jobs if only they would participate in the oil palm ‘joint project’.
Several headmen signed up. He recounted the promises. “They told us, you will earn a lot of money, no problem with your expenses because you will have a permanent job there.
“Also, once you work in the oil palm plantation, you will have a 30 percent share in the plantation. 70 percent will go to the government and its ‘friends’.
“But they did not give us the letter of agreement…and also, the certificate to show that we have a share in the plantation was not given to us. The company kept it for themselves.
“Now you see…none of us are working there. All the workers in the plantation are foreigners. None of us here want to work for RM10 or RM15 per day. With RM10 per day, my wife and I can eat. But what about our children? Their schooling?” he asked..
“If we follow those who are educated, they will mess up our minds, suck our blood. It’s better that we’re uneducated,” Tuai Rumah Madel said with a wry smile, “so we can discuss together what is good or bad.
“Look at the YBs (elected representatives). Who voted for them to become our YBs? It’s the YBs who are messing with our minds. They only pretend to try to help us by saying all kinds of things.
“I think about my grandchildren in the future. When I die, will my grandchildren say ‘Our grandfather was very stupid – without land, how are we going to live?’ That is why I don’t want my land to be taken away.”