You’ve probably seen it: An animated Greenpeace video that’s gone viral, after it was used as a Christmas advert by a British supermarket chain, depicting a baby orangutan telling a child how his home is being lost as more and more forests get cleared for plantations.

No doubt orangutans in the wild are on the decline – there are now just 15,000 in all of Borneo according to WWF for Nature. But while cute baby orangutans tug at the heart, there’s been a lot less interest in the real people of the forest losing their land.

Imagine waking up to find that your land is not really yours, and that some company has been allowed to log right in your backyard. That’s a reality for the native people of Sarawak.

A central problem is they lack the proper documentation that states their claim to the land, even though their families may have always lived there. In fact, outside of towns, only a small amount of land in the state has been surveyed and titled.

Moreover, what defines land under Native Customary Rights (NCR) can get blurry. It gets more complex over who has actual rights to the land and how it gets transferred. By one definition, cultivating the land gives one ownership of it.

For decades, the state government has issued provisional leases on native land, in licenses to log or set up plantations. But residents may have no idea about it until workers suddenly arrive on their doorsteps.

“We don’t know who gets the licenses,” says Michel Jok, who chairs the Sarawak Society For The Protection Of The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (known as Scripts).

“They just come up the river and say they have a license from the government. They will ask, ‘Where is your proof (to the land)?’ We (can) live here for 100 years but our rights are limited.”

Jok says licenses have been issued covering “millions of hectares” including the whole of the Baram area, from Kuala Baram up to the borders.

So, you can imagine how contentious this is.

There have been hundreds of cases of disputes and protests in recent years between native people and logging or plantation companies. There have been just as many law suits filed.

It has even become violent. Some companies use “officer gangsters”, says Jok. Blood has been shed – activist Bill Kayong was shot dead in 2016 while driving to work.

land

A Penan mother walks her children home to a longhouse in Baram. With increased logging and plantations throughout Sarawak, the natives have lost their forests and traditional way of life, while facing a continuous struggle for survival against timber companies and plantation workers. Photo: The Star/Sia Hong Kiau/2008

And yet the protests continue. People from 20 villages in the Marudi district dissented against a large plantation project in August, which they said infringes on their native land.

Villagers from Ulu Kelawit Tatau staged a road blockade in October, to prevent workers from a plantation company entering their land. Police broke up the barricade and arrested about a dozen village elders.

Recently in Long Tevenga, deep in the interior in the north, Penans built a house to obstruct workers from gaining access to their land. And they managed to do a mapping of the land that led to the state government halting any futher work there.

State leaders say development by companies is necessary to improve livelihoods, but native leaders dispute this and say their lives have not changed for better at all. “This development is not for us but for those who come in,” Jok says.

Meanwhile, the state government has been on an aggressive expansion of plantations in recent years, even though this is in conflict with plans announced by Primary Industries Minister Theresa Kok to stop the expansion of certain plantations.

However, state Deputy Minister Amar Douglas Uggah Embas has affirmed that the Sarawak government would object to “any restriction” on such expansions.

According to one report in The Star, he said this would hinder the state reaching its target of “high income economy status” by 2030, declaring that only state and native land would be used.

The state government also amended the land code in July, promising this would solve problems and enhance recognition of NCR land. But it’s done little to quell the issue. In fact, there was strong opposition from native land rights groups and Pakatan Harapan assemblymen.

A key issue is whether native people really own the land or merely have “usufructuary rights” – meaning they own the fruits of the land but not the land itself.

Jok says the law should be based on the traditional adat or customs of the community. “They want to gazette the land, but if it falls under Section 6 (of the Land Code), it will give powers to ministers to give away parts of our land.

“We are not anti-development or anti-government or anti-logging,” he points out, “but the problem is they are logging underneath our house!”

Some local leaders have begged the federal government to step in, but unfortunately land is a state matter. What is certain is that with such messy and complicated rulings and so much at stake, bitter battles will continue to rage.

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my.