Sabah villagers wage 40-year battle over land after ‘trick’ by forestry authority

Harvested acacia trees being loaded onto a barge and pulled onto Telaga River on the way to a paper mill in Sipitang about 350km south of Pitas.

KOTA KINABALU: For four decades now, 69-year old Bihahon Rumindon from Kampung Boluuh, Pitas, about 150km from here, has been battling to get government recognition for his land.

He and 35 others in the village were among the first in the Bengkoka region to resettle in the area following the Sabah government’s effort to develop the land for agriculture in 1971.

The Sabah government’s plan was to persuade Rumindon and his people, the Rungus indigenous people, to give up their nomadic culture and clear the forest for agriculture.

Each of the settler families was allocated 15 acres of land and Rumindon said he got down to work as soon as he could, clearing some of the land he was awarded.

The government even conducted surveys and marked each plot with stones on the ground a few years after they had resettled in the area.

“However, towards the end of the 1970s, an officer from the Sabah Forestry Development Authority (Safoda) came to see us and said the government wished to ‘borrow’ the land for an acacia plantation project.

“There was no black and white. But because they were from the government and said it was only temporary and we could still plant our rice and crops as they would only use the part which we had not used yet, we agreed,” he said.

Bihahon Rumindon says the villagers should have asked for an agreement in black and white.

Little did he expect that due to the failure of the original plan for the land by the agriculture department, Safoda was eventually given charge of the settlement projects, not only in Rumindon’s village but the whole of Bengkoka area.

The area is now part of Safoda’s vast reforestation and resettlement project which, according to the Safoda’s website, was started in early 1979.

Acacia tree plantations were started in 1981 and the project is Safoda’s only large-scale institutional farm dedicated to commercial purposes.

There is no mention of any land agreement with the Sabah agricultural ministry.

FMT tried to contact several Safoda officers but was not entertained.

“In hindsight, it was a mistake to trust the officer. We should have asked for an agreement in black and white. We were tricked and now they are calling us encroachers and they are claiming our land, including our homes, as theirs,” he said.

In total, he said 59 villages similar to his were affected by the Safoda plantation programme.

Despite his age, Rumindon said he would keep fighting even if many of the original 36 settlers in his area, and their families, had given up hope.

“There is no excuse for cheating the people. The government should be serving the people and not corporate companies. We are really hoping the new government will give us justice,” he said.