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Malaysia’s Indigenous Penan block roads to end logging in Borneo

Penan activists allege Samling is encroaching on tribal land without their consent, and say they only put up the blockades after authorities failed to respond to their complaints.

Indigenous Penan tribespeople have set up road blocks to stop a timber company from logging on land in Malaysian Borneo that they consider part of their ancestral heritage.

The Penan erected their first blockade at Long Ajeng in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak state on Sept. 9, and their second in Long Pakan in the Middle Baram region on Sept. 22.

Both the Long Ajeng and Long Pakan villagers claim that timber giant Samling illegally encroached on Penan land, logging trees without their consent. The headmen of these villages say they immediately filed police reports after discovering the encroachment, and only established the blockades after authorities failed to take action to stop Samling.

Following the Long Ajeng blockade, 12 community leaders from around Sarawak sent a joint letter to Chief Minister Abang Johari Tun Openg, the equivalent of the state governor. They called on the government to intervene and stop Samling from logging the last primeval forests in the Upper Baram region, which is designated as a protected area. However, the state government has been slow to respond.

“The government and loggers control the forests,” Penan leader and activist Balang Nalan told Mongabay.

Disputed land tenure

The logging problem faced by Sarawak’s Indigenous communities stems from land surveys carried out following the enactment of Sarawak’s 1958 Land Code. Activists say the state government often chose to demarcate land as “native communal reserves” based on Section 6 of the code, which only recognises the perimeters of farmland. This was disastrous for the Penans, who are a nomadic people.

“The government deliberately wanted to do their perimeter surveys under Section Six,” Nalan said. “The Penans lost so much land under Section 6, but when we took it to court, the court ruled that the people lost their rights and lands forever because they agreed to the Section Six survey.”

To combat further losses, the Penan carried out their own surveys under Section 18, which recognises a community’s entire territory. A group of Penan leaders approached the state government in 2017 and handed over community maps of 70 villages demarcating each community’s territory. “We did the mapping for all the Penan,” Nalan said. “We are still waiting for government approval.”

According to the Penan community maps, the blockades are constructed on their land under Section 18. The land in question has not been officially surveyed by the government, leaving space for ambiguity over its legal ownership.

Rising tensions

While Samling and the Long Ajeng villagers are at a quiet standoff at the first blockade, tensions are rising in Long Pakan.

The villagers allege the company encroached on their land and felled 109 trees at Ba Byepangah. The headman, Pada Jutang, filed a police report immediately in Long Lama, and the village erected the blockade weeks later to prevent Samling building a bridge over a river, the Sungai Patah, into their land. Pada Jutang filed a second police report on Oct. 5 against Samling.

Samling’s license to log in Long Pakan was renewed on Aug. 27, but the company says it has not started working in the area, and, according to a company statement “has only begun to transport logs from outside of the area for the purpose of building a bridge over Sungai Patah.”

The villagers say that a Samling manager came to the village to ask for consent only after the initial police report was filed, and say the community did not grant consent.

“We request Samling leave immediately and not to be given any timber certification in our area,” Pada Jutang told the NGO Bruno Manser Fund. “We erected a blockade to prevent Samling from further encroaching into the NCR [native customary rights] land of Long Pakan. We are not happy when the company continues to work because the forest will vanish, forest products are difficult to find such as sago, rattan, medicines, game is also difficult to hunt and the polluted water and soil erosion cause the fish to die.”

Samling says the accusations it has encroached on NCR lands are “malicious and without any truth or basis.”

The company says it has received the consent of the majority of the villagers, in line with the requirement under Sarawak laws to obtain prior informed consent of landowners. “We have thus far obtained the consent of 56 Ketua Bilik [heads of households] of Long Pakan,” the company said. “Unfortunately, the Ketua Kampung [headman], Pada Jutang, was not one of the 56 who gave their consent.”

Pada Jutong’s granddaughter, Puan Julia Michael Singa, told Radio Free Sarawak it’s not true that 56 villagers gave their consent.

The company also says a group of villagers who support logging, led by one Joshua Gabeng, filed a police report against their neighbors and asked the police to dismantle the blockade.

Penan activists confirm that some young Penan have taken action against the blockade, but question the group’s motivation. Nalan notes that around 30 village youths are employed by Samling, and says that resorting to the police in this way is not in keeping with tribal traditions. According to Nalan, this is the first time in the tribe’s history that a group of youths have gone against the village’s elders.

The Penan have a long history of erecting blockades against logging operations and dam construction in Sarawak. Over the past year, Indigenous communities who live in areas where timber licenses have been granted to Samling have spoken out against the company for allegedly ignoring the requirement to obtain prior informed consent. Samling has rebutted all complaints, and filed a defamation suit against Sarawak-based NGO Save Rivers.

In its press release, Samling blamed NGOs for perpetuating “a romantic notion” that “cast Samling in a most negative light and have given the impression of a boorish company trampling over the rights of native communities.”

The Penan and other Indigenous communities find themselves fighting one of the world’s biggest timber companies with little help from state authorities, who have been accused of enabling illegal logging in Sarawak. “The government approves timber concessions without community consent, which is illegal,” Nalan told Mongabay.

The Sarawak state government has yet to make a statement about the blockade at Long Pakan, which has been dismantled and reinstalled multiple times, although headman Pada Jutang has secured an appointment to meet with a government official. The villagers say they haven’t seen a company manager since the blockade was erected. “They don’t want to meet with the people,” Nalan said. “They let their workers confront the villagers. It was the workers who dismantled the blockade.”

Asked why it has yet to send managers to the blockade to speak with the community, Samling said in its press release that it believes “this matter is an issue that has arisen among the villagers, and needs to be resolved between the villagers themselves.”

Under the requirement for prior informed consent, Nalan says the installation of a blockade proves no consent was given to the loggers, and that the authorities should stop the loggers immediately. “The community has the right to protect their lands and say no,” he said. “But, according to our government, once the company gets the license they have the right to log. This is illegal.”

Nalan called for international attention to be given to the plight of Sarawak’s Indigenous communities to save their forests.

“We need the support of communities around the world to highlight these issues. This is about climate change. Logging causes climate disturbance, and it’s becoming worse and worse,” he said. “The Penans want to solve the problem, and the problem does not only affect the Penans. With help, I hope one day we will win the fight.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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