Sunday, October 17, 2010

Malaysian Plantation Robbing Natives' Land

A short-lived joy in Baram, Sarawak

IN March 2010, indigenous peoples from Long Teran Kanan, Baram in Sarawak were overjoyed when they won a 13-year legal battle against IOI Pelita Plantation. The Miri High Court recognised the Kayan and Kenyah communities’ native customary rights over the disputed land.

However, their joy was short-lived. IOI Pelita Plantation filed an appeal against the High Court ruling in April 2010. A date has yet to be fixed.

The Nut Graph visited the village in August 2010 and found that despite the ongoing legal battle, the oil palm corporation continues to encroach upon the villagers’ native customary land, threatening their livelihoods as well as their last clean water source.

IOI Pelita Plantation

IOI Pelita Plantation estate office

Embattled community

After the High Court ruling, IOI did not stop its operations on the disputed land. It explained this in its press release soon after the High Court judgment. The corporation said the court had not granted any injunctions sought by the natives to restrain the company from continuing its operations on the disputed land.

However, the villagers’ lawyer, Harrison Ngau Laing, points out that the Miri High Court had declared the two provisional leases issued by the state to the company “null and void”. This means that the disputed land still belongs to the villagers. On their lawyer’s advice, the villagers have lodged a police report against the company for continuing to trespass on their land.

“Until today, IOI (Pelita Plantation) has not applied for a stay of execution of the High Court’s decision. Note that an appeal does not operate as a stay of execution,” Harrison tells The Nut Graph during the visit.

In a response to The Nut Graph’s photo gallery piece on the land dispute, IOI Corporation Bhd justified its continued operations on the basis that the High Court had disallowed the indigenous peoples’ claim for a declaratory order to cancel the leases and for vacant possession of the lands to be returned to the natives.

IOI further stated that it was willing to compensate the villagers in accordance with the High Court’s ruling. The company said it was still waiting to for Harrison to provide them with information on the assessment of damages.

Harrison, however, believes that IOI should first stop its activities on the disputed land “if it is serious and sincere in resolving its conflict with the villagers”.

Right to livelihood violated

In the meantime, the Kayan and Kenyah peoples have to put up with their paradise lost. It’s not a question of compensation; it was never their intention to give up their ancestral land to begin with.

Villager Anyi Jau, 57, recalls the day in 1996 when the land of his ancestors was ravaged. Returning from work at a logging camp, he was shocked to find that everything on his ancestral land – crops he planted and structures he had built – was gone.

Anyi Jau (right) and couple Kalang Anyi, 53, and Payajok, 50

Anyi Jau (right) and couple Kalang Anyi, 53, and Payajok, 50

“Pokok buah-buahan, padi dan pondok-pondok [saya] semua habis ditolak. Mereka bagi saya RM400 sehektar sebagai sagu hati … Tapi jika ikut hati, saya memang tak mau jual kerana tanah tu tanah warisan,” Anyi tells The Nut Graph.

Bulldozers sent in by then Rinwood Pelita Plantation (IOI Group only took over the plantation in 2006 and inherited the court case) had destroyed everything. The villagers were outraged and many suffered significant loss of income.

Unlike Anyi, some did not receive any compensation for their lost land and destroyed crops and properties from the company. This led to the suit, filed in 1997, by four Kayans representing 92 families from Long Teran Kanan against Rinwood Pelita Plantation. Among the four is the current acting Tuai Rumah (village chief), Lah Anyie, 46.

“[Apart from each villager’s individual lands], Rinwood also destroyed our pemakai menua (communal land).

“That was [like] our mini supermarket; we could get fish, meat, vegetables, medicine, wood, rotan … everything there. Now we’ve to buy everything from outside,” Lah Anyie says.

He adds that IOI Pelita Plantation has offered to hire the villagers to work as estate labourers for RM12 to RM15 per day. But few villagers are willing due to the low pay. Even Lah Anyie pays more to villagers who work in his orchard, at RM25 to RM40 per day.

IOI, however, insists that its “wage rate is quite attractive in the industry”, a representative from its headquarters in Putrajaya tells The Nut Graph in a meeting on 4 Oct 2010. This representative has declined to be named due to company policy that only permits on-the-record statements by senior management.

Right to clean water

The representative also refutes claims by the villagers that chemicals used in the plantation have polluted one of their rivers.

Sungai Tegai, which villagers used for drinking and bathing when they were out working in their orchards, is now polluted, the villagers say. They blame company workers, whom they have seen mixing weedkiller next to the riverbank using water from the river.

“We found dead fish in the river, so we thought something must be wrong and stopped using it,” Lah Anyie claims.

Acting Tuai Rumah Lah Anyie at the dam at Sungai Nunok, explaining how plantation activities are affecting their water catchment area

Acting Tuai Rumah Lah Anyie at the dam at Sungai Nunok, explaining how plantation activities are affecting their water catchment area

The IOI representative says water samples are collected from rivers in the estate every three months, and the results so far show no contamination. But on the ground, plantation assistant manager Ellevenson William Dueed does not appear surprised when The Nut Graph inquires about the contamination. “[Workers] may have cut corners [in this case]; I will need to check,” he says.

Another river, Sungai Tinjar, is located just beside the village but has been contaminated due to logging activities upstream. The last available water source for Long Teran Kanan villagers is also threatened by plantation activities.

“Our pipes are often blocked because of the gravel and sand that has entered and contaminated the river. It’s revolting because we use this water to cook and drink,” Lah Anyie says.

The community raised the matter with IOI Pelita Plantation in a November 2009 meeting. However, the company has not halted its activities at the river’s water catchment area.

Wrong development concept?

Rinwood Pelita Plantation was a joint-venture company set up in 1996 between Rinwood and Sarawak’s Land Custody and Development Authority (Pelita). In 2006, IOI acquired 70% of Rinwood’s shares, while Pelita held the remaining 30%.

Despite the fact that the Kayan and Kenyah community settled there in the 1960s, Pelita considered their land state land. Pelita issued two provisional leases to Rinwood to develop the areas into oil palm plantation without consulting the community.

Harrison points out that the state has been arbitrary in recognising native customary rights over land. “When Petronas wanted to build a pipeline across this same land, the community was compensated accordingly. So why the double standard?” he asks.

Additionally, Long Teran Kanan’s case bears many resemblances to other land conflicts that have arisen out of Konsep Baru. Introduced by the state in the 1990s, Konsep Baru was supposed to promote commercial development of “idle” native customary lands. Under this scheme, companies would engage in joint ventures with native landowners and the state.

However, in practice, native landowners are rarely consulted or informed before the state leases out their native customary land to the companies. Hence, most native landowners only find out when the bulldozers roll in.

Longhouse in Long Teran Kanan

Longhouse in Long Teran Kanan

For the native landowners, the only recourse for justice is the courts, as many feel it is pointless to turn to politicians or government agencies for help. “We have complained to our YBs and [they] would say, ‘Okay, I’ll do something’, but nothing [ever] happens,” Lah Anyie says.


IOI is distancing itself from any past violations by Rinwood. As far as the corporation is concerned, it has adhered to the principles and criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to respect native customary rights and acquire land only with “free, prior and informed consent of local communities”.

The IOI representative from Putrajaya tells The Nut Graph that they have always left alone the land already cultivated by the community. Many of the alleged violations, including the bulldozing of crops and structures belonging to the Kayan and Kenyah peoples, may have been committed by IOI’s predecessor, the representative claims.

But this difference may mean little to the people of Long Teran Kanan, whose lives are tied to their land – the loss of which is irreplaceable.

Disclosure: Gan Pei Ling visited Long Teran Kanan from 21 to 24 Aug 2010 with representatives from the Palm Oil Monitoring Initiative, which includes Tenaganita, Grassroots Consulting, the Sarawak Indigenous Lawyers’ Alliance, and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association. Trip expenses were borne by The Nut Graph in the interest of editorial independence.

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