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Date: Sat, 21 Aug 1999 01:32:00 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: MALAYSIA: Good Capitalists Steal Indigenous Land
Article: 73377
Message-ID: /** ips.english: 432.0 **/
** Topic: MALAYSIA: Good News for Palm Oil Firms, Not for Indigenous People **
** Written 10:33 PM Aug 18, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.
*** 18-Aug-99 ***

Good News for Palm Oil Firms, Not for Indigenous People

By Roshan Lal, IPS
18 August 1999

SIBU, SARAWAK, Malaysia, Aug 18 (IPS) - At the height of the economic crisis which crippled many parts of Asia the past two years, it was the palm oil export business which saved the Malaysian economy from bankruptcy.

With the country now slowly recovering from the recession, the palm oil industry is poised to play a leading role in the country's next economic boom.

This is welcome news for the industry, but not for the indigenous people of this West Malaysian state of Sarawak, who fear a possible loss of their native land to plantation firms.

Palm oil plantations in Sarawak have been targetted for expansion so this early, the indigenous communities here are gearing up for a bitter battle against the government and Malaysian logging and plantations companies.

"They have already been grabbing native land here," says indigenous Iban community activist Johnny Kieh, who runs the non- governmental organisation PUSAT. "Indigenous people are always exploited because of their ignorance. Government and companies take advantage of their ignorance to grab their lands." .

PUSAT is now working with the Iban community in the Selangau region north-east of Sibu to educate them about their legal rights, as well as train them in business skills to help establish and run their own plantation companies on native land.

Out of Sarawak's total land area of 12 million hectares, 1.5 million is categorised as Native Customary Land (NCL). Most of this land is suitable for palm oil plantations and the Sarawak state government has already approved 350,000 hectares of this for such projects.

Known here as the "crop of gold" palm oil is big business in Sarawak and it has become the state's most important agricultural commodity. Last year, Sarawak exported 311,566 tonnes of palm oil products valued at 180 million U.S. dollars.

Under the 1957 Sarawak Land Code (SLC), the indigenous peoples' rights to the land are recognised and protected by law. Some 65 percent of the state's population are recognised as 'Dayaks' (indigenous people) and the Ibans are among them. They number about 550,000 forming 30 percent of Sarawak's population.

The NCL concept recognises the land adjoining their "longhouse" dwellings marked by natural boundaries such as rivers, streams, mountain ridges and landmarks as belonging to the community, not to an individual.

Various laws passed in recent years have tried to waterdown the SLC and currently the state government refuses to recognise any land not continuously cultivated by the Dayaks, as NCL.

The government has also introduced the Joint Venture Companies (JVC) scheme under which a government-appointed trustee forms a JVC with a private company endorsed by the state's Chief Minister, which then takes over the land for 60 years based on an agreed value.

The profits of the JVC are divided 60 percent for the private company, 30 percent for the land owner and 10 percent government. No seat in the Board of Directors of the company is offered the Iban landowner.

"What native people are concerned about is that this development doesn't benefit all our people," Kieh told IPS. "Companies benefit, the tycoons benefit, but not land owners. They can only become low paid labourers."

One Iban community leader who is going against the trend and perhaps setting himself up as a role model for the rest is Mungang Anak Gasing, a chief of a longhouse community in the Mukah district. With advice from PUSAT, he has set about turning their NCL property into a small palm oil plantation.

"I decided to set up my own plantation because we are so close to the mill," he told IPS. "I saw non-Ibans benefitting from our land, so I wanted to change it, try something different."

He gets government subsidies in the form of seedlings, fertiliser and pesticides. He also got a one-off grant of 800 ringgit (210 U.S. dollars) per hectare to build roads and other infrastructure on his property.

Mungang has planted 41 hectares of their property with oil palm. Each family in the longhouse has been allocated one hectare each, while he gets 12 hectares.

He says that many of his own people expressed misgivings about the project at the start, but now they envy him. "Never before has an Iban done it," says Mungang proudly. "Only big companies have done this, so our people didn't have confidence to do it."

He disclosed that many companies have come to him and offered to get into a joint-venture deal, but he has rejected all such proposals. "We are not offered any directorships. We are offered shares, but no power," says the chief.

Kieh says that in earlier days Ibans were cheated high and dry by these companies, who would offer them as little as 50 ringgit (13 dollars) per hectare to form a JVC, merely to take the land away from them.

The government has also often helped big business by declaring NCL as undeveloped land, taking it over for "development" - which means giving it over to the plantation companies.

"If they take over and develop the land, you have no power to plant anything within 60 years. Only the company can make those decisions," says Father Ansor, an Iban pastor of the local Methodist Church.

"If we develop the land, we can do a lot of things, because it has a lot of natural resources. We can use the bamboo, timber. You can cut and produce things from it. We can plant bananas, rice. Under JVC you can't do anything," he adds.

"We are not against development," says Kieh. "What we want is smart development with investors. People must be involved with the development schemes."

For PUSAT, most of its work involves not only helping entrepreneurs like Mungang, but arranging legal aid to Ibans to fight police and government harassment.

Last May, it scored a significant victory in its battle against influential Malaysian plantation and logging companies in Sarawak. Three Ibans who were arrested in February while manning a blockade against a Malaysian multinational at Selangau village, about 25 km from Mungang's property, were acquitted by the high court of unlawful assembly charges.

Now Johnny Kieh is working on another court battle to claim damages from the police and the company. "Companies can't argue that JVCs are a fair deal. So when we refuse (to give the land) they use the police to threaten the people," says Kieh. "Now, we have put them on notice. We are prepared to take the legal path. We can see the police are getting worried." (END/IPS/ap-dv-

Origin: Manila/MALAYSIA/

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