By Keruah Usit
Kelabit, Penan and Lun Bawang villagers from Upper Limbang were joined by Penan from Baram this morning, accompanying their lawyer Baru Bian to file an historic Native Customary Rights (NCR) land claim at the Miri High Court against four private companies and the Sarawak Government.
The 50 native landowners, all in good spirits, carried a banner announcing their unity in defending their land rights. Six plaintiffs, two from each of the three ethnic groups, were representing themselves and fellow natives from a total of 14 villages in Upper Limbang in the lawsuit.
This is the first time in Sarawak’s history that three communities have come together to defend their NCR claim over their land.
They say logging and plantation activities have reached a critical stage in threatening their very survival. The villagers proudly proclaimed their roots in the area, established over 200 years ago.
“We are against the destruction of our land by logging and plantation companies since the 1980s. This has taken away the sources of food of the people and has caused us poverty and hardship. Even our ancestors’ graves and our other traditional sites had not been spared,” said Jalung Jok, a Penan plaintiff.
Uniting against ‘well-connected’ companies
The first defendant in the suit, Ravenscourt Sdn Bhd, is a company wholly owned by the Miri-based Samling conglomerate. Samling is a corporate leviathan which has been listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and is no stranger to NCR protests.
Several Baram Penan communities have sued this logging conglomerate for intruding on NCR land. The Ba Jawi Penans filed a NCR land civil suit against Samling in the Miri High Court in December 2010.
The Penans of Long Lamai recently won an important victory in the Appeals Court, and had their NCR claim returned to the Miri High Court for trial.
The community had appealed successfully against the Miri High Court’s previous decision to strike out their NCR claim, on the grounds that the claim had been filed years after intrusion had taken place.
Another four Penan communities – Long Kerong, Long Sait, Long Spigen and Long Ajeng – initiated their legal battle for their land in 1998, but their lawsuit had been bogged down at the Native Court, after a neighbouring community had lodged a counterclaim to the same land. The Penan say Samling bankrolled the counterclaim.
The second defendant in the suit is Billion Venture Sdn Bhd, whose director is timber tycoon Hii Yii Peng. Shareholders of the company are family members known in Kuching as the wealthy owners of Kingwood Hotel.
The villagers claim the company has begun logging and plantation activities on their ancestral lands. Hii is known to be associated with plantation giant Rinwood Pelita, proud masters of a total plantation area of 24,000 hectares, according to a last April Bernama report.
The third defendant is Limba Jaya Timber Sdn Bhd, a company owned by the Tiang family of Quality Concrete Holdings, whose shareholders include the Sarawak Chief Minister’s sister, Raziah @ Rodiah Mahmud.
In 2004, Limba Jaya was issued a licence to establish a tree plantation, valid for 60 years, by the chief minister, in his capacity as minister for natural resources and planning. Quality Concrete is locked in a bitter court battle over its logging activities on NCR land claimed by the Sebangan Ibans.
The fourth private company named as defendant is Kubang Sri Jaya Sdn Bhd, the holder of a timber licence in an area claimed under NCR.
Kubang Sri Jaya was listed as a “non-trading” company in a Companies Commission print-out in January this year, with a miniscule RM100 paid-up capital.
Its last income statement submitted to the Companies Commission for 2006 listed a revenue of almost RM2 million, but an after-tax loss of almost RM30,000.
The three directors and shareholders in this company may not be household names, but the secretary of the company is Idris Buang, currently a Senator, and former chief political secretary to the Taib Mahmud.
Campaign moves into courtroom
The recently deceased Penan chief from Ulu Limbang, Along Sega (right), did not live to see his campaign to protect the forests move into the courtroom. He had led his people tirelessly, blockading against logging since the 1980s.
The people of Upper Limbang have been appealing to the authorities and the companies to respect their land rights for more than three decades, but to no avail.
The local communities even sent an appeal letter dated as far back as April 15, 1987 to the Agong, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Ghafar Baba, Chief Minister Taib, elected BN representatives at Parliamentary and State levels and the Police, only to be ignored by all.
Such peaceful attempts to protect the people’s rights have continued until late 2010. Local people’s blockades have been dismantled by company representatives.
Lead Kelabit plaintiff, Peter Racha Urud, a Kelabit originating from Long Napir had lodged a police report on last Nov 23 in Limbang, after he said he had been threatened over the telephone the previous day by the camp manager of a logging company. The manager, he says had used the words “saya pun dapat bunuh orang (I can kill people, too).”
The police have taken no action against the influential companies. The villagers are now turning to the courts to protect them. – Mkini