Forest people 'disillusioned' in battle to protect land

by Jake Lucas | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 10:13 GMT

A worker carries palm fruit at a local palm plantation in Shah Alam outside Kuala Lumpur on November 21, 2013. REUTERS/Samsul Said

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Finding their way through legal systems can be frustratingly difficult for indigenous communities in Malaysia - and elsewhere

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For 15 years, the indigenous people of the Long Teran Kanan community, in north Malaysian Borneo, battled with Malaysian business conglomerate IOI-Pelita over land the group had long occupied and cultivated.

The palm oil company had been granted the use of the land by the government, and sought to prove the community did not own it – which would mean the company owned the community nothing, apart from the already-paid compensation for one season’s crops.

But the Kayan and Kenyah people who make up the Long Teran Kanan community wanted to show the land, which they used for small-scale farming of cash crops along the Tinjar River, had traditionally been theirs.

After a protracted 12-year battle, the court finally issued its first decision in 2010, and much to the community’s amazement, it was in their favor. They had rights to the land, and the oil palm company was trespassing on it, the court said.

But the company appealed the decision, and this time, the court stood behind it. Recently, one last appeal from the community members of Long Teran Kanan was rejected, leaving them devastated after an exhausting 15-year battle for their rights.

“They’ve been completely disillusioned,” said Eric Wakker, who since 2008 acted as a consultant to the community and their lawyer. Wakker is a senior consultant for the Southeast Asian Pacific region for Aidenvironment, a not-for-profit sustainability consultancy group.

The Long Teran Kanan community’s case highlights how frustratingly difficult it can be for indigenous communities in countries like Malaysia to find their way through complex legal systems and come up with successes.

Their case was included in a collection of reports released by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), which supports the rights of people who live in and depend on forests.

The work suggests many key member companies of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which runs a certification scheme for sustainable palm oil, are failing to meet that organisation’s standards on how to interact fairly with indigenous people.

The report also detailed the complex legal system that makes it so hard for groups like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to manage land conflicts.

A series of Malaysian land laws dating to the late 1950s have made it nearly impossible for native people to make traditional claims to land, the report said. Some laws give the state government the ability to designate chunks of forest as partially or totally off limits to traditional users.

These “forest reserves” are often contracted out to logging and palm oil companies, some of which are partially government owned, the report said.

According to the Forest Peoples Programme report, since the current chief minister of Sarawak state, Abdul Taib Mahmud, came to power in 1981, he has made changes to further increase his government’s powers over land.

One of those was the creation the Land Custody and Development Authority, which the report said “was explicitly designed to bring Native Customary Land into the sphere of commercial land development.”

In the legal dispute between the Long Teran Kanan community and palm oil firm IOI-Pelita, when the company appealed the initial court decision against it, the government of the state of Sarawak and the Land Custody and Development Authority also filed appeals. The Land Custody and Development Authority owns a 30 percent share of IOI-Pelita.

The Long Teran Kanan community and the company, throughout the conflict, expressed their desire to settle the dispute out of court, the Forest Peoples Programme report said.

However, neither could be sure that if the company withdrew their appeal, the Sarawak government and the land authority would follow suit

The report notes that this kind of system is by no means unique to Malaysia, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil complaints system has been inundated with more cases than it can handle.

But other problems with the complaint system and the way the palm oil organisation handles conflicts between indigenous people and companies should not be ignored, the report said.

Most notably, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s executive board includes representatives of palm oil companies, including IOI-Pelita, even though the complaints panel is made up of four members of that board and only one independent member.

“There’s no objectivity there. It’s all one and the same,” said Wakker, the sustainability consultant.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil reacted this year to the criticism by adopting a resolution to make the complaints system more objective and transparent.

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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