How a poor Iban longhouse took on Big Timber and won; sort of
RUMAH NOR, Sarawak, Malaysia
“There is no greater sadness on earth than the loss of one’s native land.”
We park the car along the side of a rutted dirt road in the middle of an acacia tree plantation five times as large as Singapore. Lani anak Taneh points out a metal sign, the size of a paperback book, pounded into the ground at ankle height, which announces that the land we are about to enter belongs to his longhouse, Rumah Nor. We start walking through a desolate landscape that is all too common in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo – what once had been rainforest owned by a local community has been grabbed by government-supported big business and destroyed in the name of development.
Rumah Nor, some 60 kilometers southeast of Bintulu, site of the world’s largest natural gas complex, is Ground Zero in one of many land-rights battle in which Sarawak’s indigenous people are fighting, and about the only one they are winning against powerful government and industrial powers that previously had been considered invincible.
Lani, 33, was one of four plaintiffs in a legal battle that one conservationist has called “a major victory for the indigenous tribal people of Borneo –as important as the 1954 anti-segregation decision Brown vs Board of Education was in the United States.”
Lani’s Iban tribal longhouse community of some 70 families successfully sued to regain 672 hectares of land that the court decided had been illegally acquired by Borneo Pulp and Paper (BPP) and the Sarawak State Government.
The Rumah Nor case resembled a David vs. Goliath battle. BPP is owned by two powerful shareholders. New York Stock Exchange-listed Asia Pulp and Paper, the largest pulp and paper company in Asia outside of Japan (corporate slogan: “Caring today for a better tomorrow”), owns 60% of BPP, while the state-owned Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation holds the remaining 40% and plans to increase its shareholdings to a majority position. Datuk J.C. Fong, the Sarawak state attorney general, sits on the BPP board.
“This case will open the floodgate to other suits,” predicts Baru Bian, Rumah Nor’s lawyer. “Anyone can now sue the government based on this precedent.” He estimates there are more than 20 similar cases now pending in Sarawak against companies involved in oil palm, logging, pulp and paper and mining.
Nevertheless, Len T. Salleh, acting general manager of Borneo Pulp and Paper claims that the Rumah Nor case “will not have a major impact” on their operations. “We take it as part and parcel of doing business,” Mr Salleh said. “We have acquired land based on our normal process and have no plans to change the process. It’s business as usual.”
Like mad dogs and Englishmen, Lani and I walk on dirt tracks under the mid-day sun. When the forest was cleared the thin layer of topsoil washed away, leaving sand and clay that eroded into curious cream-colored spires. We walk for an hour, with no protection from the equatorial sun. “This is our pulau menoa, our home rainforest,” Lani explains, gesturing to the barren landscape. “This is what we won back.”
I first lived in Sarawak in 1969, when it was largely covered in forests and people traveled to isolated longhouses by boat.
Today logging roads criss-cross much of the state, three times as large as Switzerland, making it all too easy to see that much of the natural forest – up to 70% according to one observer – has been destroyed or damaged.
When I meet Sarawak government officials to ask about the situation they bridle at outside criticism, and argue that the timber business brings in needed revenue and that development will benefit local people.
Lani counters, “we are not against progress, only against injustice.”
Sarawak government officials tell me that the United States built its wealth by using its natural resources, so why shouldn’t they do the same? They point out, to my chagrin, that my president is actively expanding this policy of economics above environment. If the big boys can rape and pillage the environment, they argue, then they can too.
* * * * *
The Rumah Nor case was important for several reasons.
According to lawyer Baru Bian, “we’ve challenged section 5 of the land code, which says that native customary rights can be extinguished at any time.”
Sarawak High Court Judge Ian Chin, perhaps recognizing the historical importance of his decision, took pains in his 96 page verdict to document the history of native customary land rights, ruling that indigenous land rights were in existence before any external power controlled Sarawak, and therefore such rights were natural rights and “not dependent for its existence on any legislation, executive or judicial declaration.”
Another key point is that in his decision Justice Chin significantly expanded the interpretation of “ownership” of traditional land to include not only land that is cultivated but also land that is left intact.
“One of the most important aspects of the case,” according to Baru Bian, “is that Justice Ian Chin recognized the importance of virgin rainforest.”
Prior to the ruling, only farmlands actively cultivated by forest-dependent communities were considered native customary lands. Other “non-productive” lands, such as forests, rivers and burial sites, were de facto property of the state.
The forest in question is a pulau menoa, a term that describes a “community life reserve” – a rainforest that is left untouched so it can provide hunting food, materials for shelter.
Peter Kedit, an Iban who was curator of the acclaimed Sarawak Museum, describes a pulau menoa as “land bank, hardware store, nature reserve.”
Mr. Kedit sees the Rumah Nor case as a clash pitting an old system that “values land as a reserve bank that is essential for survival,” against outsiders in a new system who “view land as a surplus that provides monetary return.”
He suggests that one way to safeguard the interests of native customary land owners and prevent clashes of the two value systems would be to codify native customary rights, or NCR, through the use of modern surveying methods, such as GPS, that would transfer the ’mental map’ of the NCR owners into a modern mapping system.
The Rumah Nor legal case depended partly on just such a mapping the community’s traditional lands, an activity supported by the Borneo Project.
* * * * *
When Lani and I arrive at Rumah Nor, drenched from a downpour that signals the beginning of one of the two annual rainy seasons, we find that Rumah Nor is largely deserted, occupied by only a handful of old people. The lives of the people here are simple; they resemble neither Rousseau’s “noble savage” nor comfortable middle class, but something in-between, a kind of rural discomfort, people with their feet firmly planted in the centuries-old traditions of their culture but with full recognition that they want access to the goodies of the global marketplace.
Where have the people of Rumah Nor gone?
Many people have built second homes on tribal lands that are closer to the timber roads, providing easier access to both their farms and to town.
Still others have moved away completely.
In Bintulu I saw the shantytowns where many young Iban men have emigrated. For whatever reasons these young men seek the excitement of the small city, no matter how rough life might be, to the boredom of the longhouse. It is a modern form of the Iban warrior’s journey, berjalai, explains Peter Kedit. In the past young men would go off on a coming-of-age adventure and return to their home village with a human head. Today they come back with a TV.
While the people of Rumah Nor are skilled at living in a rural environment – they grow hill paddy, fish for small shrimp in the tiny Sekabai river that flows through their property, weave mats and hunt wild pigs — they are hopelessly naïve when it comes to the arcane politics of a sophisticated courtroom in Kuching, the state’s capital.
Few of Rumah Nor’s 200 inhabitants have had much formal education. “It’s so easy for the government to cheat rural communities like ours because we don’t go to school,” Lani, who completed secondary school, observes. “Our problem is that we trusted the government too much.”
* * * * *
The hero of the Rumah Nor victory is Baru Bian, a seemingly unobtrusive Kuching-based lawyer who explains that he got involved in NCR issues because “in 1988 my own native customary rights [he’s from the Lum Bawan tribe which lives in the northern part of Sarawak] were encroached on. The Samlin [timber] group from Miri took over our community’s land. I took that as a call to action.”
The contemporary fight for land, which has moved from the forest to the courthouse, could be said to have begun in 1981 when natives on the Apoh River created a blockade to protest what they viewed as illegal logging on their lands. Dozens of subsequent blockades took place, many easily broken by authorities who arrested the protestors.
The stakes were raised, however, when government-supported timber companies started to take not just trees, but the land itself, observes Harrison Ngau, a lawyer and native rights activist.
I asked Baru Bian why there weren’t more lawyers taking up similar battles. He explained that most lawyers are afraid to rock the boat and jeopardize their commercial business. “One lawyer told me,” Baru Bian explains, “that if he took on cases like mine it would be ‘like putting sand in my food.’”
* * * * *
Along the Tatau River, some several hours from Rumah Nor, a barricade blocks access to a construction site that was to have been the base for a major BPP pulp factory.
The barrier is more a symbolic deterrent than a physical barrier. A pickup truck could easily drive through the simple wire and wood gate that has been erected across the dirt road. A rough hand-painted sign on the blockade says that anyone who opens the gate will be subject to a Malaysian ringgit two million (approximately USD 526,000) fine, which is jungle hyperbole since the people manning the blockade have no authorization to fine anyone.
A greater deterrent, perhaps, can be inferred by the offerings made of woven pandanus leaves that are attached to the gate. This blockade has been blessed by an Iban miring ceremony. Entika anak Abus, 43, the headman of one of the 12 longhouses taking part in the blockade, explains that when the barrier was erected, rice, salt, tobacco, and betel nut were offered, and a pig and chicken were slaughtered. “We cursed BPP [Borneo Pulp and Paper] and the state government,” one man taking his turn guarding the blockade site, explained. “And we asked the god of the land to hear our prayer.” The implication for outsiders is that the Iban, who, in a previous generation were famed headhunters, would not look kindly on anyone breaching their barrier. It seems to work – so far no BPP officials have been brave enough to challenge the Iban tulah invocation that “devils should devour BPP staff.” As a result, a hundred meters beyond the barricade, a visitor can see two large land clearing bulldozers rusting in the rain and sun, next to a vast half-built building that was to have been BPP’s project headquarters. BPP’s proposed 750,000 tonne per year pulp plant and headquarters, has never been constructed.
The stakes are high. The communities have significantly slowed a Malaysian ringgit 3.8 billion (about US$ 1 billion) project that includes 6,200 hectares of disputed native land.
Jaili bin Sulaiman, whose longhouse is one of 12 affected by the BPP project, says, “we want our case exposed to the world. If we win we’ll either drive them away or put the price they pay us as compensation higher. Nobody should take people’s land without following the law, and without appropriate compensation.”
Jaili, who was arrested in 1997 and charged with causing obstruction to the project, adds “The Sarawak Land and Survey department urged us to sign documents that they said ‘will benefit you.’ They said ‘with employment and the compensation you’ll become rich, you won’t have to work.’ This is a lie,” he sneers.
The people of Rumah Entika and other longhouses faced a Catch-22 type of land grab – damned if they signed, damned if they didn’t.
Entika anak Abus, 43, showed me a copy of a letter that Rumah Entika resident Lunta anak Janting signed with his thumbprint on 28 July 1997.
Basically, it said, “you have no rights to this land but we will pay you some money anyway.”
The person was asked to tick a box that indicated he agreed. If he ticked the “do not agree” box it was implied that he would get nothing and lose his land in any case.
To add salt to the wound Lunta anak Janting and others signed blank contracts that did not indicate the amount of financial compensation – later set at about US$ 1,315 per hectare.
“We didn’t think the government would cheat us,” Entika said, echoing sentiments heard at Rumah Nor.
* * * * *
At the end of my visit to Rumah Nor, Lani’s father, Taneh anak Liman, decides to walk back to the car with us. On the way he stops to set a fish net in the limpid, dark stream. In the rainy season the river is navigable – virtually all of Sarawak’s longhouses were initially built on rivers and up to the last 30 years or so boats were the primary form of transport. But on our visit, at the end of the dry season, the shallow river is so narrow that it could be leapt by long-jumper Carl Lewis; it seems more suited to breeding mosquitoes than as a lifeline to the outside world.
We scurry over numerous slick, lichen-covered logs that had been felled to create bridges over the stream. To be more accurate, Taneh walks across nonchalantly, Lani, now more a city boy than a country lad, has to pay a bit of attention, and I take a deep breath and trust the God of Foreigners and Fools to get me safely across.
After walking about three hours we reach the car. Lani gives his father some supplies and the three of us drive about a kilometer up the main logging road and then turn off. Lani drives another kilometer down an even smaller road, to the point where the acacia plantation gives way to a natural forest. All this land is Rumah Nor’s pulau menoa. The demarcation from fast-growing acacia, where few animals live, to a natural forest that has one of the great biological diversities on earth, is startling. The temperature lowers dramatically. I hear birds, such a sign of life compared to the biological desolation of the land cleared for acacia . We see tracks of wild boar and deer. This forest, which used to cover a wide swathe of habitat that served people and wildlife, has been reduced to an oasis, a micro-forest, an anachronism in a desolate landscape where wretchedness has become the norm. The one thing to be thankful for is that at least this bit of forest had been saved by the court order.
Without saying much (Iban are not big on hellos and goodbyes), Lani’s father takes his pack and shotgun and walks into the forest.
“Is it faster for your father to walk back to the longhouse this way?” I ask.
Lani sees I have a questioning look. “He wants to hunt.”