Indigenous community pushes palm oil plantation out of Malaysian UNESCO site

The government of the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak has revoked a controversial oil palm concession adjacent to the UNESCO-listed Gunung Mulu National Park.

The Pinnacles rock formation at the Gunung Mulu National Park, situated in the Malaysian State of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Image: Paul White, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In a surprise victory for Indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo, the Sarawak state government has revoked a contested palm oil concession in the Mulu region.

This comes after protests against the project and joint legal action by the Penan, Berawan and Tering Indigenous communities. A local court was due to hear the case when the Sarawak government stepped in and cancelled the 4,400-hectare (10,900-acre) concession, which is adjacent to the UNESCO-listed Gunung Mulu National Park.

Activists are counting this as a win for the Penan community in particular, a nomadic, Indigenous group who have been at the forefront of battles with the state government over logging on their lands.

“The Penan are the protectors of the forests and are grateful that the plantation development plan is now history,” Komeok Joe, head of the Penan organisation Keruan, said in a press statement.

The Sarawak government has not yet released information explaining why the concession was suddenly cancelled. But community leaders say the company, Radiant Lagoon, had already begun clearing massive trees in the concession area without a permit. Mongabay could not find listed contact details for Radiant Lagoon to seek comment.

Now we have to stop the next threats to our land and Gunung Mulu National Park. Any negative impact on the Sungai Melinau river and the UNESCO World heritage site must be prevented.

Willie Kajan, activist, Kampung Melinau

Radiant Lagoon has historical ties to the government, with the company previously being linked to Abu Bekir, the son of Sarawak’s former chief minister, Taib Mahmud. As chief minister, Taib had vast latitude to grant concessions and approve environmental impact assessments. Radiant Lagoon was sold to an oil palm tycoon shortly before the 2016 election.

Gunung Mulu National Park is Sarawak’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, and campaigners have consistently protested against logging in the area both to protect the forests and their own way of life.

Radiant Lagoon’s concession was adjacent to the site, and spokespeople for the Penan, Berawan and Tering communities say the development threatened their livelihoods. The Penan in particular, as one of the last nomadic tribes in the world, depend on the abundance and diversity of Sarawak’s forests to survive, forests that have been ravaged by logging in recent decades.

State officials, however, maintained in 2019 that no official claims of native customary rights exist in the concession area, and that planned logging and plantation activities adjacent to Gunung Mulu National Park would not affect ecosystems within the protected area.

Buoyed by the recent win, the Penan have written to Sarawak’s premier, Abang Johari Openg, thanking him for cancelling the palm oil concession and encouraging him to abandon a planned mega infrastructure project, the Mulu-Mini township.

Dating back to the 1990s, the plan calls for developing a Mulu township and building a water treatment plant, an airport expansion, and an access road. Communities were alerted to the revival of the project upon learning their native customary rights, the rights of Indigenous groups to historic land, will not apply to the water treatment plant, which threatens the water cycle of the world-famous Mulu cave system.

In their letter to Abang Johari, the Penan highlighted their concerns that the township will threaten the region’s sustainable development both in terms of traditional land use and ecotourism, a rebranding the state government has been keen to push.

“Now we have to stop the next threats to our land and Gunung Mulu National Park,” Willie Kajan, a Berawan activist from Kampung Melinau in the Mulu region, said in a press statement. “Any negative impact on the Sungai Melinau river and the UNESCO World heritage site must be prevented.”

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