Give us back our NCR lands, Sarawak natives tell state

Source: Malay Mail

SCRIPTS chairman Michael Jok (right) and legal adviser Henry Joseph (left) after handing over the Native Customary Rights Land Declaration to the deputy chief minister’s office in Kuching June 22, 2018. — Picture by Sulok Tawie

SCRIPTS chairman Michael Jok (right) and legal adviser Henry Joseph (left) after handing over the Native Customary Rights Land Declaration to the deputy chief minister’s office in Kuching June 22, 2018. — Picture by Sulok Tawie

KUCHING, June 22 — A group of indigenous Sarawakians today handed their demand to Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah’s office, asking the state government to revoke provisional leases (PL) issued to plantation and logging companies involving their native customary rights (NCR) lands.

Sarawak Society for the Protection of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (SCRIPTS) chairman Michael Jok said all of the leases were issued to companies linked to current Governor Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud when he was chief minister for 33 years.

“For example, virtually the whole of Baram interior has been issued with PLs when Taib was the chief minister,” Jok told reporters after handing the Native Customary Rights Land Declaration to Uggah’s office.

“Based on the submissions from 54 communities in Baram interior which we have received thus far, about 2.8 million hectares of their NCR lands have been leased out by the state government to logging and oil palm companies,” Jok said. Read more

Sarawak govt to table comprehensive Land Code changes next May

Source: Malay Mail Online

KUCHING, Nov 17 ― A comprehensive amendments to the Sarawak Land Code relating to territorial domain and communal forest reserves will be ready for tabling in the May 2018 sitting of the State Legislative Assembly, Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas said today.

He urged the indigenous communities, Dayak non-governmental organisations and interested individuals should let the Native Customary Rights (NCR) land task force look at the issues holistically and thereafter work out proposals to amend the Land Code to resolve the current problems.

“In the meantime, I would like to appeal for patience from all parties,” he said in his winding-up speech at the state legislative assembly meeting.

Uggah said the state government is committed to resolving all issues relating to NCR and will table the Bill to amend the Land Code. Read more

Protesters give Sarawak three months to amend land code

Source: The Malay Mail Online

Nicholas Bawin addresss the peaceful assembly at the Old Court House on November 13, 2017. — Picture by Sulok Tawie

KUCHING, Nov 13 — The organisers of a rally here today gave the Sarawak state government three months to respond to calls for amendments to the Sarawak Land Code relating to native customary rights land issues.

They demanded Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah, who is also the NCR land state task force chairman, to be seen doing something concrete within the three months’ period.

“We want action before the next sitting of the state assembly or else more assemblies will be held until our demands are met,” chief organiser Nicholas Bawin told reporters at the Old Court House where the peaceful assembly was held.

In a memorandum submitted to the state government following the peaceful assembly, the organisers want amendments to the land code to include giving recognition to territorial domain (“pemakai menoa”) and communal forest reserves (“pulau galau”), the definition of “pemakai menoa” and “pulau galau” must be based on the definition of the council of Dayak customs and traditions, the court must be empowered to exercise out NCR lands out of the provisional leases or licences of planted forest, and NCR land must be excluded from the definition of state land.

The issuance of document of title should also not be indefeasible against NCR land, they said.

The organisers also want the state government to put a moratorium on all appeals on NCR land cases, with a view to withdraw them upon the amendments of the Sarawak Land Code. Read more

No objection from cops over Dayak’s peaceful assembly over NCR land issues

Source: The Malay Mail Online

KUCHING, Nov 1 ― The police have no problem with the Dayak community’s peaceful assembly here on November 13 to express frustration over many unresolved issues relating to native customary rights (NCR) land, organisers said today.

Deputy chairman of the organising committee Nicholas Bawin said Kuching district police chief ACP Abang Ahmad Abang Julai conveyed the message in a meeting with them on Monday.

“Therefore, we are happy that the police are giving their cooperation for us to hold the assembly at the Kuching Waterfront,” he told reporters.

Bawin, who is a former deputy president of the Council of Customs and Traditions of the Dayak community, invites all the Dayak landowners to come to the assembly and listen to speeches by community leaders and NCR land lawyers. Read more

Federal Court rules native land cannot be restored after lease conversion

Source: The Malay Mail Online

KUCHING, Oct 13 — Native customary rights (NCR) land cannot be returned to the native owners once converted to Lease of State Land, the Federal Court ruled today.

“The effect of this conversion is that the disputed lands are no longer provisional leases but a lease proper and are entitled to the protection of Section 132 of the Sarawak Land Code, which title stands good against the whole world,” Chief Justice Tun Md Raus Shariff said his written judgment.

The judgment read out by Federal Court deputy registrar Edwin Paramjothy  Michael Muniandy here was on a case brought by headman Nyutan Jami, Ganga Guma and Langga Kama representing 183 villagers who sued the Land Custody and Development Board, Nirwana Muhibbah Sdn Bhd and state government.

The board and Nirwana are the registered co-proprietors of Lot 2 Block 6, Lot 166 Block 5 and Lot 7 Block 3, all of Melikin Land District, under the provisional leases issued by the state government that were later converted to Lease of State land.

This decision overrules the previous High Court and Court of Appeal rulings in favour of the native owners. Read more

How protecting native forests cost a Malaysian activist his life

Source: Aliran

Pic from Aliran

Pic from Aliran

Bill Kayong fought to save native forest lands from logging and oil palm development. Like a troubling number of environmental campaigners around the world, he paid for it with his life, notes Fred Pearce.

It was 8.20am on 21 June 2016. Bill Kayong, an up-and-coming political activist in Miri, a coastal oil town in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, was 15 minutes into his morning commute, waiting in his pickup truck at a traffic light across from a shopping mall. Suddenly, two bullets shattered the side window and struck him in the head, killing him instantly.

Full story: Yale Environment 360 website — Fred Pearce

It was 8:20 a.m. on June 21, 2016. Bill Kayong, an up-and-coming political activist in Miri, a coastal oil town in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, was 15 minutes into his morning commute, waiting in his pickup truck at a traffic light across from a shopping mall. Suddenly, two bullets shattered the side window and struck him in the head, killing him instantly.

Kayong was one of dozens of people killed while defending environmental and human rights causes in 2016. His life was taken just one day after a report from the human rights group Global Witness revealed that the previous year had been “the worst on record for killings of land and environmental defenders,” with 185 people around the world killed while taking a stand against development projects ranging from dams, to mines, to logging, to agricultural plantations.

Five months later, in November 2016, three Miri men were in the city’s magistrates’ court charged with Kayong’s murder: a nightclub bouncer, a karaoke bar operator, and a man described as the personal assistant of Stephen Lee, the head of a Malaysian palm oil company called Tung Huat.

Kayong had come into increasing conflict with the company, owned by Lee and his father, who are members of the large, ethnically Chinese business community in the city. By the time of the court hearing, Lee was on the run himself in connection with Kayong’s murder, the subject of a global manhunt that began in Singapore, moved to Melbourne, and finally tracked him down in January in the Chinese province of Fujian.

A photo memorializing Bill Kayong by the road where he was killed. BINSAR BAKKARA FOR YALE E360.

A photo memorializing Bill Kayong by the road where he was killed. BINSAR BAKKARA FOR YALE E360.

Lee and the three others have all pleaded not guilty. Their trial was scheduled to begin later this month. Police believe Lee and his assistant hired the other two to carry out the killing, and the authorities have proudly boasted that with Lee behind bars, they have caught the “mastermind.” Company representatives at Tung Huat have not replied to a request for comment.

Kayong, age 43, had left his family that morning in the fetid tropical heat to go and work for his boss, the energetic local parliamentarian and medical doctor Michael Teo, a leader of the main Sarawak opposition party, the Peoples Justice Party (PKR).

Bill Kayong was no political visionary with a radical manifesto. But he was a political activist dedicated to protecting native communities in Sarawak, known as Dayak, from growing incursions on their traditional lands by logging and palm oil companies.

Increasingly, Kayong’s work had been concentrated on helping one community about 60 kilometers south of Miri, at Sungai Bekelit, a traditional longhouse. Longhouses are large wooden buildings raised on stilts and often up to 100 meters in length that have a line of apartments off a wide, covered communal area. They are also social units with a chief and communal lands controlled under customary law that dates back many centuries. The people of Sungai Bekelit had for eight years been fighting Lee’s state-supported takeover of their land to grow oil palm.

The dispute had become increasingly confrontational and, on the company’s part, violent. Lee and his father said they had duly issued licenses to farm the land; the community said their customary rights were paramount.

Environmentalists see Sarawak’s longhouse communities and their defenders as the last hope for the state’s dwindling forests.

Some in the media described Kayong after his death as a “dedicated environmentalist.” That’s not quite right. Above all, he was defending the rights of Sungai Bekelit, rather than nature. But after his death, Sarawak’s environmentalists joined land-rights campaigners to voice their outrage. Environmentalists see longhouse communities and their defenders as the last hope for the state’s dwindling forests, as loggers complete their destruction and trees are replaced by oil palm, one of the world’s most ubiquitous – and profitable – plantation crops.

“In the last few years, we have seen a spate of killings [of activists] throughout Sarawak, with the same modus operandi: drive-by shooting by criminals,” a group of local environmental activists headed by Peter Kallang of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network said in a joint statement. The group blamed the deaths on “companies that employ thugs in the guide of security personnel to look after the plantation estates.”

There were no international headlines when Kayong was shot. He was buried in a modest Muslim cemetery outside Miri. There are no public shrines to his life, and the tiny commemorative photograph of him, shrouded in plastic and pinned to a pole on the roadside where died, is now frayed, overgrown with grass, and largely forgotten.

But at the preliminary court appearances in November – beginning a process that could lead to a mandatory death penalty for the alleged shooter, nightclub bouncer Mohamed Fitri Pauzi, 29 – the new Dayak grassroots membership organization Kayong helped found had turned out. PEDAS, the Sarawak Dayak Association, alerts the police to attacks on their members, pays hospital bills for those who are assaulted, and gives rural longhouse people a political presence they have lacked.

A dozen or so of its young members sat on benches in the court wearing black t-shirts in Kayong’s memory. They included his three brothers. And outside in the corridor, his wife was comforted by their two teenage children. “I didn’t know about any threat to him,” she told me. “He kept it to himself. He didn’t want us to be worried.”

That afternoon, by chance, another related court case got under way. The nightclub bouncer Fitri was back in the dock, this time accused with two others of an attack several months earlier on Sungai Bekelit longhouse headman Jambai anak Jali, who had been working with Kayong.

To the hushed court, Jambai, a mild-mannered, neatly dressed man in late middle age, described in painstaking detail how in November 2015, his car was followed, rammed, forced off the road, and turned over by two assailants. As he and his wife and niece lay stranded inside, the men beat their windshield with baseball bats and slashed him in the arm with a samurai sword.

It was the latest in a string of assaults since 2008, when Jambai went to court to contest a provisional license granted to Tung Huat by the state government to cultivate 3,361 hectares of forestland around five longhouses. Jambai had also had his house set on fire with a Molotov cocktail and his car torched. As in the morning hearing, the shaven-headed Fitri and his compatriots looked on impassively from the dock and pleaded not guilty. “We can prove it is our land. We have been there since 1934,” Jambai told me outside the courtroom. “But the company hired security guards to prevent us going to our land.” Tung Huat even took over the community’s own fields of oil palm. “They just harvest our ripe fruit,” he said. “Now all we have left is 380 hectares. Bill came to help us in 2014.”

Sarawak has an odd history, separated from the rest of Malaysia by the South China Sea. Dominated historically by the sultan of neighboring Brunei, it was run for decades by the Brookes, a family of British adventurers also known as the “white rajahs.” After World War II, it was briefly incorporated into the British Empire before being bundled up into independent Malaysia when the British finally left in 1957.

In recent times, Malaysia has been one of the booming “tiger economies” of Southeast Asia. But the province of Sarawak has for decades been a byword for the corrupt plunder of its rich rainforests – first for timber, and now for conversion to oil palm.

Some people have gotten very rich in this process. “And government politicians made millions selling the land,” Teo, the PKR leader, told me. Some who tried to protect the forests have been killed – most notoriously, the Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser, who disappeared in the jungle in 2000 and was never seen again. But now, with most of the rich pickings of land taken by large companies, small-time racketeers, with more guns than sense, scrap for what remains.

Teo’s medical degrees and business and political connections have not protected him from the violence. In mid-2015, yards from where we sipped coffee at a café outside his clinic in November, someone assaulted him from behind with a baseball bat, breaking his collar bone in three places, before speeding off in a car without plates. “I was told I would be killed because I was involved with Bill. And then one morning someone phoned me and said Bill had been killed.”

Many in Sarawak have always wanted to be a separate state, and some still do. Many people in the longhouses say they yearn for the days of the white rajahs, who established village boundaries that included most of the areas that communities claim today as their traditional land. Many have ancient pictures of the Brookes on their walls.

“The British colonial authorities recognized the Dayak land rights,” said Nicholas Mujah, a former senior civil servant who now gives evidence in court for communities making land claims, emphasizing the long-standing nature of their customary land rights. But after independence, the new government began to claim that all forestland belonged to the state. Natives were left only with the land on which they grew crops close to their longhouses.

The result has been rampant corporate takeover of the country’s forestlands and endless disputes with native communities. International norms that give indigenous communities the right to give or withhold their “free, prior, and informed consent” for economic activities on their traditional lands fall on deaf ears in Sarawak. “When I raised this right to consent with the forest director here, he said he had never heard of it,” said Kallang, of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network.

The Sarawak government cares little for the land rights of its citizens, says lawyer and parliamentarian Baru Bian, and ignores its role in creating and failing to resolve land disputes. According to the government, any conflicts between the “provisional” licenses it grants to companies and the customary land rights of communities should be resolved by the companies themselves. That is a breach of responsibility, says Baru, who maintains that the government “should establish the customary rights before issuing licenses to companies.”

In theory, there are native land dispute courts to settle such matters. But, says Teo, in practice these courts rarely sit. “Cases go on for 20 years or more,” he notes, “so even if the communities do eventually get their land back, it has been destroyed.”

Instead, when communities refuse to concede to the wishes of companies arriving in their midst, the result is conflict. At Sungai Bekelit, the three longhouses that held out against Tung Huat blockaded roads onto their land. The police moved in to break the blockades, says Teo, “and when Bill complained to the police department, the company started getting violent.”

Longhouse living is hardly idyllic. In remote upcountry regions reachable only by boat, life is still primitive. But nearer to roads, the residents may have pickup trucks parked outside, satellite TV dishes on the roofs, and cell phones in their hands. Some people with jobs in the cities only come home on weekends.

But the longhouses are a remnant of communal living, and they retain fierce loyalty among those who live or were raised there, especially when the government tries to sell off their traditional lands.

At Sungai Bekelit, the touchstone for Kayong’s slaying, the longhouse held 300 people in 63 families. When I visited, Jambai was still in court in Miri, but his mother-in-law, greeted us. Down a dirt track, we visited the blockade that the longhouse residents manned 24 hours a day to prevent the company from annexing more of their land.

“They were very scared of Bill,” said one of the women manning the wooden platform beside the barricade. “Everyone knew him. He was becoming powerful, and they wanted to silence him.” She passed around tea and biscuits. “They offered to pay him to control us,” said a man from a neighboring longhouse. “And when he recorded the conversation and played it to us, they accused him of treachery, and it got ugly.”

I asked about the company’s operation. “We never see them,” the woman said. “We think they have about ten Indonesian workers picking the fruit.”

The woman, Kudut Anak Tunku, was a palm oil entrepreneur herself, selling roughly 40 tons of fruit a month, worth $5,000 – half of it clear profit, she told me – and determined to defend her patch from takeover. She too employed Indonesians to harvest her crop. Out of the profits, she was building her own big new concrete house next to the longhouse.

An oil palm plantation that replaced a forest in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. BINSAR BAKKARA FOR YALE E360.

An oil palm plantation that replaced a forest in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. BINSAR BAKKARA FOR YALE E360.

Twenty-five years before, on a previous visit to Sarawak, I had flown from Miri to Marudi, a tiny inland town 20 minutes away by 20-seater plane that had been the front line of deforestation.

I took the flight again. There I met Jok Jau Evong, long-standing boss of the local environmental NGO called Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM). The local chapter of Friends of the Earth, it has been helping communities fight deforestation here for decades by mapping and documenting their lands and going to court to secure their rights. “To win, they have to prove they have been there for many generations,” Jok said, “that their land rights extend far beyond the areas they directly cultivate.”

It has been a long, losing battle. On that first visit, the flight was still largely over forests. Now, the forests are gone. The deforested hillsides are covered in oil palm plantations. On the roads around Marudi, we drove through a landscape of plantations, smashed-up forest fragments and abandoned logging equipment.

During most of that time, Sarawak was run as a fiefdom by one man, chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Under his rule, most of its rainforests were turned into logs by a handful of giant timber companies; much of the cleared land was converted to oil palm; and several rivers were dammed in an abortive effort to kick-start industrialization with cheap hydroelectricity.

Communities remain hunkered down amid the flattened remains of their old forests. But the economic whirlwind that has rushed through their forests does not seem to have left them any richer. The jobs are few, and the profits are all long gone.

Jok took me to see the longhouse at Sungai Buri, a 200-year-old village that has recently been reforesting part of its lands with saplings provided by SAM. On a short tour of the new forest, I saw some 500 different trees. It is a small gesture of defiance for a community that has lost most of its forests and most of its source of livelihoods.

“Before the logging company came, life was easy because we had the forest,” Gasah Anak Tadong, the longhouse headman, told me proudly. “We used to hunt wild animals; the water was completely clean. But it’s more difficult to feed our families now.”

Going back to a remembered past is clearly impossible. But there is a growing movement in Sarawak for independence, stirred by other independence movements in the region, such as in East Timor, but also by the belief that the state has never felt truly part of Malaysia, and never properly consented to join.

More and more opposition politicians, feeding on the discontent over land rights and the environmental destruction, discuss independence. “We say we are a nation, but we are not allowed to discuss it,” Mujah told me. “We need a referendum to leave. Like Scotland, or East Timor.”

One morning in Miri, I found myself accompanying Teo and others on a walk through the business district as they handed out leaflets for a meeting on democracy to be held in the state capital Kuching that weekend.

“We are like strangers in our own land,” Dennis Along, a secretary of the PKR party said as we walked. “The government doesn’t recognize our rights. They chase us away like dogs on our own land. We want to give back autonomy to traditional rural communities.”

In this claustrophobic political atmosphere, disputes over land are long-standing, toxic, and unresolved, and the environmental devastation continues. Bill Kayong may not be the last Malaysian activist to pay with his life.


The politics of native titles in Sarawak — James Chin

Source: New Mandala



Political malaise and self-serving leaders have left the indigenous Dayak people on shaky ground when it comes to land claims, writes James Chin.

On 7 January, Dayak “intellectuals” gathered in Pending, on the outskirts of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state in Malaysia, to discuss the issue of Native Customary Rights (NCR) land, more commonly called native titles.

The meeting was hastily organised because Malaysia’s Federal Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled that ‘pulau galau’ (communal forest reserve) and ‘pemakai menoa’ (territorial domain) do not have the force of law. The ruling, in practice, meant most of the native title claims in Sarawak will not win their court challenge against the state for recognition of their NCR title.

What is NCR in Sarawak?
NCR, culturally, is widely understood in Sarawak as land belonging to the indigenous peoples of where there is no title issued. Under the Adat (customary law), NCR land has three components; ‘temuda’, ‘pulau galau’ (PG) and ‘pemakai menoa’ (PM). ‘Termuda’ refers to cultivated or farmed areas. PM and PG lie beyond the ‘Termuda’.

PG is usually understood to be a reserved area kept for communal use while PM is an area used for hunting and foraging by the Dayak community, and hence is usually much larger than the PG and Termuda. Read more

Sarawak will defend native customary land rights

Source: FMT News

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg - Pic taken from FMT News

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg – Pic taken from FMT News

LUNDU: Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg has given his assurance that the state government will continue to defend native customary rights (NCR) land.

He said this when reading the Sarawak Barisan Nasional (BN) manifesto for the Tanjong Datu state by-election at its launch here today.

At a media conference later, Abang Johari, who replaced the late Adenan Satem as the new chief minister 28 days ago, said the state government would study in depth the land issues related to pemakai menoa (territorial domain) and pulau galau (communal forest reserve).

Asked to comment on Ba’kelalan state assemblyman Baru Bian’s statement that the Pemakai Menoa and Pulau Galau Committee should also comprise representatives of NGOs, Abang Johari said he was open to views on the issue.

Read more

Reinstate deleted land code clause to end NCR dilemma, Sarawak CM told

Source: The Malay Mail Online

KUCHING, Jan 4 — Tan Sri Adenan Satem can appease Dayak concern over their native customary rights (NCR) by bringing back Section 5(2)(f) of the Sarawak Land Code that was removed 17 years ago, a local party said today.

Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS Baru) president Cobbold John Lusoi suggested for the Sarawak chief minister to table a new Bill in the state legislative assembly to reinstate the clause deleted in 2000 when the Land Code was amended.

“If Adenan is serious about finding a solution, he should table a Bill to reinstate the section in the coming session of the state assembly,” he told Malay Mail Online. Read more