Recognition of warrior grave site marks small victory for Berawan

Salhan K. Ahmad

There are only two ways to reach the disputed area of Mulu: by boat or by plane. A road is being planned but a great cost, locals say. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Salhan K Ahmad, June 1, 2019.

AFTER months of seemingly fruitless negotiations, the Berawan people of Kuala Sungai Melinau in Mulu, Sarawak, marked their first small victory in the fight to protect their land against plantation companies.

Oil palm plantation giant Radiant Lagoon Sdn Bhd has acknowledged the significance of ancestral burial grounds, making the first ever ceremony to honour Berawan warriors at the Long Gak cemetery on May 9 extra meaningful, said Glenn Baya, a member of the local Berawan community.

“It was a success. The company had trespassed onto our ancestors’ burial site,” Glenn said.

“We held the celebration after the company agreed to our terms,” he told The Malaysian Insight at his village in Mulu.

Among those buried at the cemetery was his ancestor Orang Kaya Temenggong Lawai Melayong – the 19th century Orang Ulu leader who fought against James Brooke, Sarawak’s first White Rajah, in Hulu Baram.

However, the celebration will just be a small victory if the local Orang Ulu are unable to stand up against what they claim are larger “destructions” of their home and forests.

The Berawan, Penan and Tering tribes in Mulu have been concerned that their livelihoods and ancestral land will become things of the past, ever since the Sarawak Report broke a story that Radiant Lagoon was going to make more than RM40 million from logging in the area.

The Penan people still rely heavily on the jungle to survive, Majo Din, a local man said.

Majo was among the first Penan people to be relocated from the jungle to Kampung Batu Bungan in the 1970s, during the communist insurgency.

His village is home to almost 90 families, some of whom work in tourism at Mulu National Park.

Village action committee leader Nyaru Beti, who works as a tourist guide, is also against Radiant Lagoon opening an oil palm estate in the area.

“We will never agree. It will take away our jungle resources,” he said, adding that such plans would also harm the environment.

The Penan say they will have to rely on tourism, because they can no longer hunt and gather in the forest area claimed by Radiant Lagoon. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Salhan K Ahmad.

There are ongoing efforts to stop the logging there via the “Save Mulu” petition by the Bruno Manser Fund. The campaign is also active in London to counter the government’s “Love My Palm Oil” campaign.

Not Orang Ulu land, company claims

The local Penans, Berawans and Terings have erected blockades to stop vehicles and machines from entering the jungle for logging.

However, Radiant Lagoon lawyer Arthur Lee from the firm Arthur Lee Lin & Co said the natives have no actual claim to the area.

“They are only allowed to hunt and forage on national park land, not in this area.

“Anyway, they have only been staying on the land since the 1970s, when longhouses were built for them. How can they claim the land to be theirs?” Lee said.

However, all the objections against the company’s activities led the firm to cease its operations last month, pending the outcome of a conditional land lease application.

Lee said there was still no decision from the Natural Resources and Environment Board, but said the company was hoping the board, under the Sarawak government, would give its approval for the firm to operate on the 4,000ha piece of land.

Lee said to get the land, Radiant Lagoon had paid the previous owner Titanium Management Sdn Bhd more than RM100 million to acquire its shares.

The previous owner was initially appointed by the Sarawak government to maintain roads and bridges throughout the state.

“However, the Sarawak government could not pay them in cash, so in lieu of the cash payment, the administration alienated the land to them,” the lawyer said.

He said Radiant Lagoon was at first worried about buying the land because Bekir Taib, the son of Sarawak’s governor Taib Mahmud, was a director in Titanium.

“The land was given to Titanium by the state government, but we (Radiant Lagoon) didn’t get it for free. We paid RM100 million,” said Lee.

He also claimed Radiant Lagoon had paid the Berawan people RM100,000 as compensation.

“That is not inclusive of the compensation to farmers. We have a list of the recipients.

“We are bearing losses because work has been postponed for 18 months.

“One hectare can produce 30 tonnes of oil palm. Imagine the amount from 3,500ha of land.”

Lee also said if the oil palm estate took off, the locals in Mulu would also benefit from the job opportunities and prosperity.

The estate business will also allow the company to build a 70km road linking Mulu and Marudi, which are now only connected by air and river, he added. – June 1, 2019.

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