Kota Kinabalu: Suhakam’s justification to excise 1,000 hectares of Kg Bobotong for squatters who are battling eviction on grounds that they had settled there by 1979 before it was gazetted as a forest reserve is based on a serious historical blunder, said Datuk Sam Mannan.
“The fact is Sungai Pinangah Forest Reserve was gazetted on Dec 4, 1965 under the Forest Ordinance Cap 169 and this includes the Sungai Bobotong portion,” said the Conservator of Forest Sabah, in a statement, Saturday.
“And so believing in an unverified story as Suhakam Sabah Office Case Investigation Officer cum Assistant Secretary Helflin Dino did on village JKKK Chairman Jimmy Iban, who told him that he and fellow villagers’ parents first settled in the area in 1979 when it was not yet gazetted as a forest reserve, is clearly false,” Mannan said “The truth is that the encroachers came in the late 1980s/early 1990s, knowing full well of its status.
The land was already forest reserve long before the encroachment,” Mannan pointed out.
On Helflin’s proposal to review land laws and policies by incorporating human rights to address the problems faced by indigenous peoples on land claims after his ground investigation at Kg Bobotong where he said 16 out of 60 village structures were demolished on the basis of squatting on a gazette forest reserve, Mannan said: “The buildings demolished were assessed first on the basis of occupancy and dwellers being there.
“Only buildings that were abandoned were removed, after endless notices. If they had stopped expanding forest clearance, no actions need to be taken. But this did not stop!”
He also said Heflin Dino’s claim that the authorities did not inform the intruders early that they had encroached a forest reserve, is also untrue.
“The truth is when the encroachments first started, notices were given to the settlers to stop the land clearing and forest reserve plates/notices were put up. The intruders knew full well of the land status but chose to ignore and defied all pleadings and persuasion by the Forestry Department and so they cannot claim ignorance of the law,” Mannan said.
“Native privileges, specific for the original natives, to the area in dispute, are enshrined in the Government gazette 19/1966 (03 January 1966) under the Forest Ordinance Cap 169 covering the following native inhabitants: those residing in kampong Tamoi, Kuala Karamuak, Entilibon, Imbak, Sinarupah, Sinua, Kuala Tongod, Para Tawoi, Tampasak, Sagwon, Diwara, Kuala Pinangah, Langgah, Inarad, Dumiru, Kuala Mangkuwagu, Pinagas, Lapok, Namakon and Kalaratikon,” Mannan pointed out.
“In dealing on all issues in the reserve, these are the only communities that are recognised, by law, for the Department to engage with,” he said.
“Therefore, those who have now taken over the Bobotong lands of over 1,000 hectares do not belong to these communities. From a legal point of view, they, by encroaching Sg Pinangah Forest Reserve, have violated the rights and privileges of the original natives, whose rights are enshrined in law,” Mannan noted.
“By taking away resources that belong to others, the encroachers have violated the human rights of the original people of Tongod. So, whose human rights have been violated and who have dispossessed whose lands, territories and resources?” Mannan queried in his rebuttal statement.
“On houses, sulaps or huts, by and large, they are made of forest produce, timber or palms, etc.
Those people that are able to access good timber trees, such as belian, they build good wooden houses.
Others take the nearest available building materials such as bamboos, rotan, etc.”
“But the fact remains, most of the timber used was illegally felled inside a forest reserve. Should this be ignored? ”
On alleged non-receipt of paid permits, Mannan said the Tongod Forestry Office does not have banking facilities.
“Payments for the permits by settlers who agreed to the OP system, are paid in cash and the cash is kept in a strong box for delivery to banks in Sandakan in accordance with financial procedures,” he said.
“In the interim, the payee signs on a record book on their payments. Once banking requirements are met, a receipt on the payment record will then be issued and given to the recipients. If they have not received the original receipts, they can always enquire from the District Forestry Office. This is a Red Herring excuse.”
“On the rights to land ownership, proper procedures and regulations are to be adhered to first.
No one is Sabah, regardless of status, has divine rights to land as a matter of course and want.
This is not the Wild West of the 19th Century. We are now in the 21st Century,” Mannan opined.
“The Forestry Department is of the opinion that the crux of the whole matter is: The refusal of a majority of the settlers to recognise the forest reserve status of Sg Bototong. Regardless of the facts, they choose to think otherwise. We cannot accept land applications inside forest reserves. It is illegal,” he concluded.
“However, the Forestry Department shall continue to engage with them to resolve the matter,” he added.
“On the opinions of Suhakam, as reported, regrettably, they should have enquired from the department first to seek clarification and an explanation from our side of the story. By jumping the gun, their statements are soiled by misfacts and distorted by unverified third party opinions.
“They should also enquire from the rightful owners (Tongod people) and decide if their privileges on the area, enshrined in law, is of lesser significance and of no consequence, compared with the complainants,” Mannan continued in his statement.
“Suhakam should also try to be objective and neutral instead, at the same time.
For example, when the Tongod lands started to be invaded, were the original people given the opportunity of FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent), a UN concept on indigenous people’s rights, as explained by Suhakam?”
“It appears, FPIC applies to invaders only in the case of Sg Bobotong.”
“And lastly, Suhakam was reported as recommending excision of the 1,000 hectares, presumably for the intruders,” Mannan said.
“This is tantamount to breaching the law under Gazette 19/1966,” he argued.
“As we have mentioned earlier, if excision is to be decided, the Tongod people should have the land and we shall support them.”
“Otherwise, mob rule will dictate public policy and might become right,” Mannan said.