KOTA KINABALU: The Sabah Forestry Department took drastric actions on the settlers at the Sungai Pinangah Forest Reserve in Tongod district after exhausting all means to bring encroachments under control.
Its director, Datuk Sam Mannan, said yesterday that from the outset, the Forestry Department had directed the settlers to leave the area due to its forest reserve status but this was totally ignored.
“Notices were issued and signboards put up. The Forestry Department did not receive support on its actions at most levels at that time. If anything, the department was directed to stop its enforcement activities, and to acquiesce,” he said in a statement yesterday following allegation that the Forestry Department had violated human rights by destroying illegal huts/sulaps inside the forest reserve on March 16.
Mannan disclosed that the forest reserve which is part of the large Sg Pinangah Forest Reserve that was gazetted on March 15,1965, which was in pristine (virgin) condition at that time. The major part of the reserve had earlier on been licenced to Yayasan Sabah.
Large scale logging commenced in the 1970s by various licensees and was gradually phased out except for the Yayasan area, much of the remaining of which, is for reforestation, mosaic planting and total protection.
Encroachments were by settlers from outside Tongod (non-natives to the area)
He said in 1980-90 or thereabouts, settlers came into the Tongod area from far away places of the interior/west coast. It was alleged that it was a strategy to acquire lands amongst other reasons.
“The focus was forest reserve land that had roads built by previous logging licensees. The non-native settlers started to fell trees, burn forests, clear lands etc. for rubber cultivation, upon arrival,” he added.
Mannan further revealed that the illegal settlers included retired and serving government servants – people with means.
“The central area was near a water catchment called Sg Bobotong.
“No natives of Tongod were part of the illegal settlers. 1,000 ha are estimated to have been cleared and cultivated,” added the chief conservator of forests.
Due to the absence of a central office, Mannan said the Forestry Department had earlier on planned to build its Tongod office at Sg Bobotong.
A sum of RM2 million or s, was allocated by the State Government for this purpose, with implementation to commence in the early 1990s.
But the project could not start as the Forestry Department site had been taken over/grabbed by the illegal settlers and became the promise land. This forced the department to look for an alternative site on stateland. “This was a bizarre situation since illegal squatters were empowered to evict the government (Forestry Department) from its own land. This illegal action was nevertheless, ignored by people who could have made a difference,” he pointed out.
He also said in 2004 or earlier, an attempt was made by Forestry Department to make compromises with the settlers by offering occupation permits (OPS) to regularize (no usage of riparians, steep areas etc.) the illegal usage of forest reserve land and to ensure no further expansion and planting of approved crops only (e.g. rubber – a timber tree). Various dialogues were conducted but to no avail.
“Some settlers did nevertheless agree and this helped to reduce the confrontation. Late or staggered payments of OPS were also accepted as part of the compromise. The rate is RM250/ha/annum (or part thereof) – RM120/acre/year (33 sens/day). This is a reasonable sum given the extensive rubber already planted and in mature stage.
“However, the majority refused the OP system and insisted on excision for various reasons: NCR, burial grounds, landed there earlier, mostly on false premises, false pretenses and lies.
“To make matters worse, forest encroachments expanded and more settlers (usually absentee land lords with land holdings elsewhere) came,” he said.
As the Forestry Department had exhausted all means to bring the encroachments under control, he said it decided that drastic actions must be taken now.
“Notice after notice was issued to every hut/sulap/dwelling on the need to apply for the OP or else eviction will be enforced.
“The notices were ignored repeatedly and instead, they referred the matter to Suhakam, local political leaders, made false face book reports etc,” he said.
According to Mannan, most of the settlers refused the OP offer because they do not want to recognize the forest reserve system – the reserve was established in 1965 and they only came in the 1990s from elsewhere.
“They want to force excisions; they may have been promised land titles in the reserve; they could be instigated for whatever reasons and had ‘help’,” he said.
Mannan said the Forestry Department’s major operation on March 16 was carried bout by a team of 140 personnel or so, including the police for protection.
Most uninhabited huts/sulaps/dwellings were demolished physically (no fire used). Illegal settlers still in their dwellings were adviced to apply for an OP, or the Forestry Department will enforce the law. Buildings with people inside were left alone, he said.
“Some have expressed agreement to follow the law and to obtain the OPS, during the encounter. Others are still contemplating about accepting the concept.
“The ground swell feeling is that, the majority will follow the Forestry Department’s directive. But further instigation by those with motives only known to themselves, may change their minds through threats, fear and intimidation,” he said.
According to the director further, these settlers are not Tongod people but aggressive land encroachers who have spread all over Sabah – Mt. Mandalom, Sook Plains, Keningau – Kimanis Highway, Andrassy (Tawau), Silam (Lahad Datu), Lipaso/Tawai (Telupid) etc.
Some are known to be anti-establishment in their sentiments and are against policies on lands and forests of the government, regardless of their merits.
“Many are people with means, some with pensions, land elsewhere, sitting on forest lands for free, illegally felling forest reserve trees for house building, perpetual poachers, forest arsonists etc. Sg. Bobotong is a green desert today – vegetation but with little wildlife. But an abundance of E.coli in its rivers,” he said.
By refusing to follow the law, he said they are victimizing other settlers who follow the regulations through OPS etc. They are known to instill fear on those willing to have the occupation regularized. One apparent leader, at one time, even assaulted the District Forestry Officer, Tongod in the late 2000’s.
“The have deprived rightful native people (original people) of their legitimate right to have good protected forests for environmental services – e.g. clean water, sustainable game food for own use etc.
“Injustice and human rights violations will be inflicted on the native people of Tongod if their lands are instead alienated to non-natives of Tongod. By right if the occupied lands are to be alienated at all, they should be given to Tongod people only,” he said.
Mannan said some of these same people are now a threat to Yayasan’s concession in Pinangah through their clandestine operations – illegal logging, poaching, land clearing etc. For example, Pangolins, that hide in bush/debris heaps, are burnt and caught when they try to escape the fires.
He also disclosed that in 2009, eight people from the group of encroachers sued the Forestry Department for RM1 million for loss of crops etc. They lost the court case and had their arguments thrown out.
Many court cases have since ruled in favour of the government in matters of NCR (native customary rights) claims in gazetted forest reserves, amongst other issues. Those who sue in court appear to have the means and support to pursue claims.
“The State Government since 2004, excised not less than 128,534.19 hectares (320,000 acres) for the needs of the people of Sabah, the major part of which has been allocated for communal titles.
“On top of this, is the issuance of communal titles (on state lands) that must be in the thousands of acres to accommodate those in need of land.
“This reflects a balanced approach to development: giving weight to both economic development and conservation,” he said.
Mannan added the Forestry Department shall continue to engage with the settlers for an amicable solution earlier successfully implemented in places such as Kelawat Forest Reserve, Mangkuwagu Forest Reserve, Lungmanis Forest Reserve and elsewhere. In these other places, permits are issued to accommodate usage but not to extend forest encroachments any further.
“New settlers/new encroachments surely cannot be tolerated as it will send the wrong signals that appeasement is tolerated and those who follow the law will be punished instead and culprits can get away. The situation if not contained, will be a ‘free for all’ scenario.
“The misrepresentation and fake news on this matter is regretted and those who have spread them are not motivated for the good of society, but for other objectives only known to themselves,” he said.