SARAWAK, Malaysia, “Respect native rights,” hundreds of protesting indigenous people have sent a clear message to the state government of Sarawak, the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. They have held rallies in towns as well as in rural areas. As the international human rights day was celebrated on December 10, the protesters criticized their government’s land policy and spoke out for the protection of their human and indigenous rights.
The protesting native landowners are no longer tolerating the governments extractive land policy, which has disregarded the right to their ancestral lands and impoverished them.
Sarawak has aggressively exploited its natural richness under its long-standing Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Not only logging has been expanding successively, also plantations and mega-dams have taken large amounts of land. Sarawak’s rate of deforestation is three times faster than in Asia overall.
These extractive policies have repeatedly led to conflicts between the indigenous communities and the government as well as the companies involved. The government only grants land to communities if it has been used for agriculture. This does not give justice to traditional livelihoods, which are based on big communal forests for hunting and food gathering.
The rallies were held in rural areas such as in the dam threatened Baram area as well as in the major towns of Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Bintulu. Even the neighbouring state of Sabah witnessed a protest in its capital Kota Kinabalu.
Mark Bujang, a spokesperson of the rallies, has explained the reason for the rally: “Throughout the years, the customary lands of the Indigenous Peoples have been unjustly grabbed and their resources thereon destroyed deceptively in the name of development and poverty eradication through destructive projects and activities such as loggings, oil palm and tree plantations, mega-dams, quarrying and the establishment of large polluting industries.”
The people demand nothing less than a complete turn in the government’s land policy. Their ancestral lands should finally been acknowledged by the government and not only include land cleared for cultivation but also communal forest areas, which form an integral part of the indigenous communities’ livelihoods.
Furthermore, the indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent has to be respected in all projects and licenses issued by the state. All licenses for logging, plantations and mega-projects such as dams, which have not been given consent to by the affected communities, should immediately be revoked.
Sarawak is currently facing the strongest wave of indigenous protests since the 1990s. At that time, indigenous communities struggled against the intrusion of logging companies onto their lands with blockades. The current rallies as well as the recent blockades against the Murum as well as the Baram dam show that the indigenous movement is gaining momentum in Sarawak.