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Sabah land tussle: Villagers hear chainsaws again

 | May 16, 2012

Federal Minister and Kota Marudu MP Maximum Ongkili is yet to keep his promise to 150 Dusun families who are again being victimised by the forestry department.

BELURAN: Villagers at a remote settlement near here are again being squeezed by Sabah Forestry Department officers who want the Dusun farmers to clear out of a ‘forest’ or risk arrest and being hauled to court for encroaching into government land.

The leader of some 150 affected families, Jaipin Mohigal, said the villagers were warned by two forestry officials who came to their settlement at Kg Koiboton Darat, Tangkarason on May 3 to leave the place as it is forest reserve land.

“I was not there at the time but those who were there tending to their kebun (orchard) told me they (the two forestry officers) came armed with a shotgun and one named Pius Primus warned them ‘Kalau kamu tidak lari dari kawasan ini, besok kami datang tangkap kamu’ (if you don’t leave this place, tomorrow we will arrest you),” he told FMT.

Jaipin, 62, lodged a police report in Beluran the next day on May 4 against the two, fearing that something similar to what happened to them in 2006 and 2007 would take place again.

In the first incident on Oct 3, 2006, forestry officers came to the kampung while most of the villagers were in Kota Marudu buying food stocks, torched 33 houses and poisoned their young rubber trees.

In 2007, the officers allegedly used chainsaws and then again last year their houses were again razed by the same method.

Following a hue and cry after the first incident, Sabah Conservator of Forest, Sam Mannan, claimed the no houses were set on fire by his officers, only huts and this was despite evidence to the contrary by the villagers.

Though no further action was taken by the authorities after the incident, no compensation was ever made or an apology tended to the villagers.

Chief Minister Musa Aman at the time also praised the forestry department officers for decisive action to protect the state’s forest reserves and refused to address accusations that the state government and the authorities were merely posturing having granted large tracts of forested land to timber companies.

Mohigal questioned why the department was suddenly again making a move to take over their land six year’s later.

“We are constantly under threat of extinction here on our forefathers’ NCR lands. I don’t understand why the authorities do not have a heart for our predicament. It seems our culture and tradition is meaningless to them,” he said today.

Helpless Ongkili

The village elder also said that one of the officers was part of the last raiding team that burnt down their houses and should pay “sogit” (compensation) for torching down the 33 houses.

“Under a Dusun tradition it is a serious offence to even make a small mark on someone’s house pillar. What more to torch down a whole house,” said Mohigal.

The status of the land in dispute, like all rural land in Sabah, is contentious given the unique position of natives and their natural rights to the land.

The villagers claim that apart from their native customary rights, there was never a forest reserve established when they started farming in the area 20 years ago.

They claim that the Paitan Forest Reserve issue only surfaced after a huge tract of land encompassing Beluran, Pitas and Kota Marudu districts was parcelled out as a forestry management unit (FMU) to a company by the name of Begaraya Sdn Bhd.

Barisan Nasional leaders were drawn into the controversy when it was found that dozens of kampungs in this area had suddenly been included within and trapped within the company’s land area.

Kota Marudu MP, federal minister Maximus Ongkili has been unable to untangle the thorny issue.

The villagers, mostly from Kota Marudu, opened up the land for farming in the Tangkarason in 1989 and in Koiboton soon after and later applied for land titles.

But with the massive backlog in land title registration and the demand for land by large plantation companies operating out of Peninsular Malaysia, their applications were recorded but never approved.

“We went there in 1989, but around 2000 an FMU was said to have been approved for a large area that included where we are. But who came first? Us or the company?” asked Mohigal, who claimed he heard land surveying, sometimes by helicopter, is still being carried out in the area.

“Our grown rubber trees should have helped many families out of poverty by now. Is this not what the government wants?

“What has happened now is that some of the rubber trees we planted are now being tapped by foreigners backed by powerful people,” said Mohigal who blames his MP for failing them.

Waiting for court hearing

The father of nine said that soon after the first incident the villagers rebuilt their houses and during the 2008 general election Ongkili promised to make their case was his utmost priority.

“In fact he said please vote for me, your problem is my goal to resolve. But after he won, he never cared to meet and hear us anymore until early this year when he promised to resolve our problem after the last Chinese New Year.

“Nothing came out of that except the assurance that our kampungs and NCR lands would be protected and excluded from company land or forest reserve. In fact before that the people around him were telling us not to bother their boss as our case was not under Ongkili’s jurisdiction.

As the incident happened in nearby Beluran district and the MP is Ronald Kiandee, Ongkili should not be blamed, they argued, but according to Mohigal, after the 2007 chainsaw incident the villagers went to Ongkili for help and he told them to make sure he won in 2008 and he would help them.

Last year when the forestry officers came with the chainsaws “even the house of a son of the state assemblywoman of Tandek, Anita Baranting, who is a strong supporter of Maximus (Ongkili), was among destroyed,” said Mohigal who fears a repeat of last year’s incident.

What irks him most is the duality of the status of the land. While the villagers have been told that the land in Koiboton is forest reserve, the Beluran district office on the other hand marks it as state land for agriculture purpose.

The villagers took the matter to the High Court last year and they are now waiting for a hearing to be fixed.

“I am astonished at how things are happening… it seems we the villagers are fighting to move a mountain, but for the big companies they have smooth-sailing. No government leaders dare to stand for us in this fight. I will not give up and we shall see how our appeal fare,” Mohigal said.

If the previous incidents are any indication, Mohigal, who ironically is Ongkili’s neighbour in Kg Bunsadan, Kota Marudu, and the other farmers in Koiboton will rebuild their houses on the disputed land as they have done in the past.


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