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Sarawak communities gather data to challenge claims made by logging company

Indigenous communities in Sarawak have been monitoring their forests for the past year, gathering data to counter a logging company's assumptions about the value of their traditional lands.

Last month, Indigenous Penan and Kenyah communities of the Baram and Limbang rivers lodged official complaints to the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) outlining alleged breaches of its scheme by timber giant Samling. Included in the complaints were a lack of consultation prior to timber certificates being issued, alleged logging outside of permitted areas and a failure to respond when these issues were raised with the company.

Crucially, communities have a hard time accessing the environmental and social impact assessments on which certificates for logging are based. This is unique to Sarawak environmental impact assessment (EIA) law, under which there is no mandatory public participation process required for detailed EIA reports. Furthermore, the public is not entitled to a copy of EIA reports in Sarawak, making it the weakest and least accountable system of any state in Malaysia.

Sometimes EIAs will be available to read at one government or company office, but making copies of these technical, jargonistic documents is generally not allowed. Because of repeated Covid-19 movement control orders, no one from Baram or Limbang has been able to travel to offices to view these documents, if they are even still available. Yet logging continues unabated.

Without these assessments, communities don’t know which activities are outside the scope of the project and what is permitted. But they can guess that when they see tractor marks running across river banks, or waterways turned muddy from pollution and debris, that so-called sustainable logging is not what is taking place on their lands.

They can guess that when logging activities come dangerously close to their sacred sites (as in Long Moh), or loggers enter their reserve forest where no community member is allowed to hunt or harvest trees (as they did in Long Tungan) that this is not what MTCC has in mind when issuing certificates.

It’s certainly not what buyers in the West picture when they purchase timber products labelled with all the reassuring stamps of sustainability, such as from the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), a Swiss-based certification scheme that supposedly guarantees Indigenous rights are upheld.

Communities continue to document what seem to be violations, in the absence of official documents confirming what is or is not permitted. They are reporting these incidents as they happen, sending WhatsApp messages and photos to local civil society groups such as SAVE Rivers and Keruan Organization in the hopes that Samling can be stopped.

With some digging, these civil society organisations have found that Samling’s understanding of community reliance on forest resources is chronically flawed. In its public summary of the Gerenai concession — a logging concession with a footprint 10 times the area of San Francisco with an estimated 11,000 Indigenous residents — Samling refers to the social impact assessment, which says:

those with family members in the larger towns “… purchase their household needs and transport them back to the villagers. Hence, the impact of the reduced forest area would not be a significant impact on their livelihood…”[1]

and

“…forest management operations have provided impacts to the communities. These are through job employment which eventually improves household income and economic status”

They also write that ‘fishing is not an important activity’ and that ‘the importance of hunting has diminished in recent years’. The High Conservation Value report, which is also withheld from public scrutiny, says that communities are “adapting to modern lifestyle… most of the local communities are getting into stable means of earnings… however some households still depend very much on the forest resources for their livelihood…”

The assertions that fishing, hunting, and forest resources are diminishing or unimportant are preposterous to communities, however countering these ideas was mostly hearsay until recently. For the past year three Baram communities have been documenting community forest reliance through the Baram Heritage Survey, collecting hunting, fishing, livelihood and nutrition statistics. These communities now have the data to back up what they already know: that a healthy forest is absolutely essential to the physical and cultural survival of their village.

The data demonstrate that every single resident community member relies on hunting for their protein supply. While 100 per cent of people interviewed eat locally sourced fish, all but three participate in fishing themselves. Communities also plant and grow their own rice, forage for fresh greens and collect fruit from cultivated and wild trees. When asked what fruit from the forest is their favourite, one person interviewed could only narrow it down to 13 types, such is the abundance and variety of wild fruit.

All but one person interviewed listed traditional forest-reliant livelihoods as their main source of income, such as farming, hunting, fishing, rice paddy and tapioca cultivation. The only person not relying on the forest for their income is the person who owns the only grocery store, a small shop supplying sugar, salt, coffee, tea, cooking oil and other essentials to the area. The nearest substantial grocery store is a 3-hour drive down a bumpy, winding logging road, and many people don’t own vehicles. Not one person interviewed across three village clusters was employed by any logging company.

Yes, many young people have moved away to town and travel back and forth during holiday breaks. But those who live permanently in remote communities rely heavily on forest resources for their survival, and understand logging to be a direct threat to that survival, not a boon to the local economy as Samling might have you believe. The idea that these community members wait for a visitor from town for their next meal, or travel into town every week to buy groceries, is simply absurd. As one person interviewed put it:

‘The forest is the source of our life. City people get everything they need by simply pressing a button on an ATM machine. We survive through sweat and heavy efforts. This land is our life.’

Whether Samling is being willfully ignorant or blatantly untruthful in its public summary is unclear. What is clear, is that communities need full access to the impact assessments on which these logging certificates rely so that they can ensure they’re based on facts.

In a public statement in May 2021, Samling reports that no formal request for environmental or social impact assessments have been made. On June 22nd 2020, the Gerenai Community Rights Action Collective sent a formal letter requesting these documents from the authority in charge — the Natural Resources and Environment Board (NREB). A year has now lapsed with no response.

A full report titled ‘Complaints from the ground regarding the implementation of the MTCS in Sarawak, Malaysia’ followed up on this request in October 2020. This complaint was sent to the concession auditors SIRIM, and the Malaysia Timber Certification Council. Communities welcome advice from Samling on how to lodge a formal request for these documents, if not through these channels. However, implying that they have not asked for these documents is misleading and disingenuous.

We don’t know what is buried in hidden-away assessments or other concession documents, but we do know that the results of the Baram Heritage Survey are undeniable. While Samling continues to operate with relative impunity, communities here will continue to organize, gathering the evidence needed to protect their resources. While the checks and balances that give Samling’s exports its sustainability stamp come under increased scrutiny, the work of these communities is gaining international attention, as a campaign aimed at holding Samling to account builds momentum.

Fiona McAlpine is Communications and Project Manager for The Borneo Project, a non-profit working with indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo. The Borneo Project is part of a coalition calling for an end to the greenwashing of tropical timber from Sarawak. To receive #StopTheChop updates from the ground, click here.

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