Groups condemn legal threats against indigenous communities by logging giant as floods devastate northern Sarawak

A photo showing how floods have hit Long Tungan and Lio Mato.

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MIRI, June 2: The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) and The Borneo Project have condemned a timber company’s legal threats against indigenous communities in northern Sarawak amidst alleged disputes over logging concessions on the ancestral land while villages are still recovering from devastating floods.

Instead, the groups which are part of a growing international coalition calling for an end to the greenwashing of tropical timber from Sarawak, urged for reconsideration of the multinational’s logging concessions on the communities’ land.

In a joint statement today, BMF executive director Lukas Straumann noted that logging should only take place with the free, prior and informed consent of the local people.

“Communities must be able to voice their concerns without fearing legal consequences. As long as the freedom of expression is not guaranteed, there can be no talk of sustainable logging and certificates must be withdrawn,” he said.

The groups reported that some of the indigenous communities had to deal with another blow when villages were reeling from the devastating impacts of abnormal flooding for the second time in a year.

“For over a year, Kenyah and Penan communities of the Baram and Limbang rivers have been calling for proper consultations and transparency regarding the Gerenai and Ravenscourt logging concessions, run by subsidiaries of a Malaysian timber giant. Instead of fulfilling community requests, the company has instead threatened them with legal action,” The Borneo Project director Jettie Word said.

According to William Tinggang of Long Moh, one of the communities affected by the threatening letters issued by the timber company: “The letters appear to be a blatant attempt to silence communities and human rights defenders voicing concerns about faulty and inadequate certification procedures.”

Jettie explained that both of the involved concessions have been certified under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), whose role is to provide independent assessment for forest management and chain of custody certification to ensure the sustainable management of forests, including proper consultation with local communities.

“In practice, however, communities highlight what seem to be grievous discrepancies between the process of obtaining certification and actual practices on the ground.”

On May 20 this year, the groups said that the communities who have received the threatening letters from the timber company have lodged official complaints with the Malaysian Timber Council.

Suya Ara, assistant headman of Long Ajeng, one of the Penan communities affected by the legal threats, criticised that the timber company seemed to be concerned about profiting from extraction instead of making arrangements for proper consultations.

“If they were remotely concerned with following procedure or obtaining the free prior and informed consent of communities, they would try to arrange for proper consultations instead of sending us threatening letters when we voice our concerns.”

Penan leader Komeok Joe, who is also Keruan chief executive officer (CEO), a Penan support group, pointed out that the communities are suffering from floods and Covid-19 right now but the timber company is threatening legal pressure on top of all this.

“They need to take responsibility for their role in all of this.”

The groups emphasised that while it has long been understood that deforestation exacerbates both flooding and drought, logging in Sarawak continues largely unabated, at the expense of remote communities that rely on forest resources for their survival.

“Remote Indigenous communities are now left dealing with legal threats while they start the cleanup and rebuilding process once again,” they said.

Meanwhile, in several letters attached, the logging company had refuted claims that they had not encroached and destroyed areas of Ampai and Seru’en in Kampung Long Moh as they were unaware of its existence.

The company also stated that they have obtained necessary permits to carry out operations in Bakia area since 2018, while the community affected have been paid ‘logging commission’ for timbers extracted from the areas.

In another letter in respect of objection to logging activity at the communal boundary of Long Ajeng, Long Lamam and Long Murung, the company pressed that they have not harvested timber in the areas since 1995-1996.

Additionally, the company said that they have never harvested timber from any areas identified as high conservation value areas nor on land which native customary rights are recognised under the law.

The company also noted that the Upper Baram forest area remained merely a proposal as certain conditions necessary for its implementation have not been met.

While there were harvesting activities in the area, however the company emphasised that all activities were under valid timber licenses and permits issued by the Forest Department of Sarawak. — DayakDaily