About 45 minutes from Kuching are two Bidayuh settlements whose stories reflect how critical the growing land rights movement is towards securing a better future for Sarawak’s tribes.
The tale of how the villagers of Upper Bengoh stood up for their land rights is being repeated across Sarawak and could challenge a key promise made by new Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem as he tries to get his first electoral mandate in state elections due early next year.
Adenan has promised to do more to protect ancestral land claims, or Native Customary Rights (NCR) land, a key issue among the Dayak community who are the biggest bloc of voters in Sarawak.
But as seen in the story of two settlements – one that chose to stay put on their land and another that accepted the state government’s compensation – this promise is being tested.
In 2008, four Bidayuh villages were told that they had to leave their houses and land along the banks of the Sarawak Kiri river to make way for the Bengoh dam.
Gracey Kibik, a resident of Kampung Muk Ayun, claimed the Sarawak government kept changing its promises to the villagers.
They were first told they could move and set up a settlement in the hills surrounding the dam and that they could continue to farm their ancestral lands, Kibik (pic, left) said.
The government also said they would pay compensation for land and properties submerged by the dam.
Then in 2008, the Sarawak government told them they had to move out from their new dwelling in the hills, give up all their ancestral lands and go live in a new settlement called the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme (BRS), according to Kibik, who is now a community activist.
Some 37 households agreed to this and went to live in the BRS. They were given new three-bedroom concrete houses and three acres of land each.
The BRS houses have all the features of a typical suburban Malaysian home: running water, round-the-clock electricity, paved roads and cell phone coverage. The settlement is 20 minutes away from the nearest banks, clinics and supermarkets.
About 46 households who snubbed the government’s offer decided to stay put on their own lands in the forested hills surrounding the dam. They comprised three villages, namely Muk Ayun, Sting and Nyogol.
Their houses are built of wood just like those of their ancestors. At first, they had no running water, telephone coverage or roads. Electricity was from diesel generators which are switched on for only four hours a day.
Land is livelihood
Yet, Mupug Tawet (pic, left) insists that he is far happier staying in the forests surrounding Muk Ayun, despite the fact that he suffers from bouts of gout.
“I feel comfortable because I get to pass on my lands to my children,” said the 47-year-old who still farms his 50 acres that are spread throughout the land around the village.
This bond to their inheritance and the thought of passing it on is basically why the 46 villagers decided to stay in their sylvan settlement and reject the concrete neighbourhood of the BRS.
But this is not some romantic sentiment, because for villagers like Mosie Meh, giving up their lands is like cutting the ties to their livelihoods and gambling with their families’ futures.
“I lost half my lands to the dam, but I still have about 28 acres left that I can farm,” said the 49-year-old.
Mosie said he is able to care and feed his wife and two kids with the income from planting pepper and the rice and vegetables he grows.
“If I had gone to the BRS I would have been much worse off. Here, I am 100% okay, over there I would only be 50-50.”
It’s a sentiment that is grudgingly shared by residents of the BRS, who gave up all their lands for only three acres.
A resident, who only wanted to be known as Pak Jo, said he was grateful for all the modern comforts and the fact that Kuching was just 30 minutes away.
But he said the residents were hoping the Sarawak government would have granted them more land.
“We still plant pepper and vegetables. Three acres is only enough to get by, we still need more,” said the resident, who said BRS residents had asked the government for at least six hectares (14.8 acres) per household.
Standing up for rights and livelihoods
The reason for that demand, said Taser Kunnut, one of the villagers who also did not move, was that at heart, they were still farmers who needed land to thrive.
For instance, the ones who live in the hills have enough land to plant “padi huma”, a type of hill rice. The rice from one harvest a year from three acres of huma can last a household two years.
“It’s like getting two years worth of salary for one year of work,” said Taser, 50, who is the defacto chief for Kampung Muk Ayun.
Muk Ayun also has a gravity-feed water system that was installed by Impian Sarawak, a DAP initiative to help provide remote villages with much-needed infrastructure.
After the Sarawak government ignored their pleas for a road, the villagers and Impian Sarawak collected enough money to build an 8-kilometre dirt road to the village.
Impian Sarawak is organising a run on October 18 to collect more funds to finish the project.
The experiences of these two settlements has also been shared with other villages and longhouses in the interior, who are also facing eviction and the loss of NCR land due to Sarawak’s 12 dam projects, Kibik said.
These projects are being continued under Adenan, who has previously promised to protect NCR land.
The chief minister, however, in July called for a moratorium on the construction of the Baram hydroelectric dam to gather information on the affected tribespeople’s grouses.
According to Kibik, the Sarawak’s government’s promises of resettlement are similar in every case, that is, one house per household and three acres in exchange for vast tracts of ancestral land.
“It’s the same story. The government promises all sorts of things to get you to move. Then when you do, they change the terms of the promise.
“In the past, villagers believed that they could not stand up to the government even though they were demanding their land rights and their livelihoods,” Kibik said.
Muk Ayun, Sting and Nyogol have shown that this is now possible. – October 6, 2015.