At the 2019 National Orang Asli Convention at the Putrajaya International Convention Centre, the prime minister recommended enhancing education and ecotourism as a way of contributing to the economic development of the Orang Asli community.
He said the ecotourism sector will create job opportunities and encourage the youth in the community to become entrepreneurs including making handicraft items as well as manufacturing forest-based products.
Education is definitely all important and so is the motivation to make creative handicrafts. What was missing from the PM’s speech was the central problem all indigenous peoples face in West and East Malaysia, namely the loss of their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land to logging and plantation interests (oil palm and now, durian) as well as state governments’ so-called “development”.
Moratorium on all logging and plantations
Indigenous peoples’ NCR land is protected under the Land Codes of each of the states. Nevertheless, these rights are constantly violated by the government and private companies through land grabbing or illegal encroachment.
These actions continue to displace the rightful indigenous stewards of the land from access to traditional hunting and cultivation areas and too often from their ancestral burial grounds as in the Bakun Dam and Sungai Selangor dam projects.
This was corroborated by the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) in 2017 in a statement which criticised “the slow progress in the undertaking of actions by the Cabinet Committee (set up by the government in 2015, for the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples) which has resulted in continuous human rights violations of the indigenous peoples, especially the encroachment into their native land by developers”.
Suaram calls for a moratorium on all logging and plantations on indigenous peoples’ NCR land.
Ensure laws recognise all NCR categories
Communities affected have filed suits against companies and the state governments for encroachment of their native land but they face serious obstacles as a result of controversial Federal Court judgments.
A new Pakatan Harapan government that is prepared to restore the NCR land to the indigenous peoples of Malaysia would ensure that our laws recognise two land categories that the indigenous peoples consider to be part of their NCR land, namely, “Pemakai Menoa” (territorial domain) and “Pulau Galau” (communal forest reserve).
Daniel Tajem, former deputy chief minister of Sarawak, said on Dec 5, 2017: “Pemakai Menoa and Pulau Galau are areas for the Dayak to find wood to make houses, hunt wild boar and other animals, and collect wild plants for their livelihood. The land that has been taken must be given back to the natives.”
In 2016, the Federal Court ruled that native customs have no force of law to allow indigenous peoples to own communal land and forest next to their cultivated farmland and cited that the Sarawak Land Code, for example, only recognised cultivated land called “temuda” as NCR land.
The PM should visit Sungai Asap resettlement scheme
The indigenous peoples in Sarawak are further threatened by the state government’s proposal to construct 12 mega hydroelectric dams by 2020 and an estimated 51 dams by 2037. The disastrous effects of mega dams such as the Batang Ai and the Bakun dams on the forests and displaced indigenous peoples are already plain to see.
The Bakun dam project was given its go-ahead after Dr Mahathir Mohamad came into power in 1981. Environmentalists and NGOs opposed this monstrous project because it would have a generating capacity of 2,400MW when the energy need for the whole of Sarawak was less than 200MW at the time.
There were protests against this project throughout much of the ’80s by NGOs and indigenous peoples whose ancestral lands were to be drowned by the dam. They also protested against the proposed highly polluting aluminium smelting plant to be built in Bintulu to consume energy from the Bakun hydroelectric power dam.
Although the project had to be abandoned during the recession of the mid-’80s, at least two NGO activists were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during Operation Lalang in 1987.
Eventually in 1998, 10,000 indigenous people belonging to 15 different ethnic groups were forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes to the Sungai Asap resettlement scheme, a fate described as “ethnocide” by a local anthropologist.
When we visited Sungai Asap just six months later, it had already become a depressing slum. Among other social and economic effects, we could see that the displaced indigenous peoples had lost their morale and motivation to create their traditional handicrafts.
Alcoholism and the trappings of semi-urban commercialism had also crept in to disrupt their traditional societies.
At the very least, Mahathir owes the indigenous peoples at Sungai Asap a visit to see for himself the effects of the Bakun dam project. Only then will he understand the problems faced by indigenous peoples in East and West Malaysia, problems that handicrafts and agritourism alone cannot solve.
Indigenous peoples have deep spiritual, cultural, social and economic connections with their lands, territories and resources, which are basic to their identity and existence itself.
Their tradition of collective rights to land and resources – through the community, the region or the state – contrasts with dominant models of individual ownership, privatisation and development.
There is growing recognition that advancing indigenous peoples’ collective rights to land, territories and resources not only contributes to their well-being but also to the greater good, by tackling problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity.
Indigenous land makes up around 20% of the earth’s territory, containing 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity – a clear sign that indigenous peoples are the most effective stewards of the environment.
Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.