End of the road for Sarawak natives in land battle as court rules in favour of developers

Bede Hong

Lawyer Dominique Ng with some representatives of the native landowners. The Federal Court ruled in favour of the state government and oil plantation firms, ending a 13-year legal battle to reclaim 6,870ha of land in Pantu, near Sri Aman. – The Malaysian Insight pic, November 7, 2017.

A 13-YEAR legal battle by hundreds of Sarawak natives seeking to retain their ancestral land came to an end today after the Federal Court ruled in favour of the state government and oil palm plantation firms.

A five-judge panel led by Chief Justice Raus Sharif ruled unanimously in favour of appeals made by the Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA) – a Sarawak government land development agency – its commercial arm Pelita Holdings Sdn Bhd; a joint venture company Tetangga Akrab Pelita (Pantu) Sdn Bhd; and the Sarawak government against a January 2015 Court of Appeal decision which ruled in favour of native landowners.

The other four judges are Suriyadi Halim Omar, Zainun Ali, Balia Yusof Wahi and Jeffrey Tan.

Pelita and Pantu are both oil palm developers.

More than 80 native families launched a legal battle in 2004 to reclaim some 6,870ha of land in Pantu, near Sri Aman.

Today’s court ruling means they can only claim for compensation for their losses under Article 13 of the Federal Constitution.

Lawyers representing the families said the final legal recourse for the natives was a review.

“I’m truly sorry,” counsel Dominique Ng told some 80 representatives who were present at the hearing.

“Of course, we’ll try to go for a review, but it is a huge burden,” he said.

“This is the end of the road. We’re not sure of the results of the review, if (it is) allowed.”

Landowner and community leader Hilarian Bisi Jingot of Julau, near Sibu expressed his disappointment at the court ruling.

“Today’s result… I’m really, really sad. We don’t want the money. We want our land back. It is our blood and our life.”

Land activist Zul Haidah from Pujut, Miri, said the ruling was “unfair” to the natives, who were being thrown out of their homes.

“I’m totally disappointed. It’s not fair to us. Everything has been proven, but the ruling came, everything before was swept aside.

“It’s very unfair. We are originally from the area and now they kick us out.”

Last December, the Federal Court ruled that the Native Customary Rights (NCR) of “pemakai menoa” (territorial domain) and “pulau galau” (communal forest reserve) has no force of law in Sarawak and their claims applied only to the “temuda” (farmland), and not to the forest around their longhouses.

Dayak land rights activists said the court’s decision failed to take into account the unwritten customary laws called Adat.

“The bitter fact of today’s ruling also now means that any native land, NCR or native area land – even if gazetted, even if the government already recognises that it belongs to the natives – can still be lost,” said Ng.

“And how do they lose it? By merely issuing a development order under the LCDA ordinance going into a joint venture agreement with a joint venture company.”

Ng said in this case, the joint venture Kim Loong Resources Berhad owns 60% of the development area.

“And Kim Loong is not totally native. It’s not even Sarawakian,” he said.

“It’s now possible for a non-Sarawakian company to effectively own a gazetted native area land in Sarawak.”

Cobbold John, president of the opposition Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak Baru, said today’s ruling would have repercussions on some 400 pending native land disputes.

“Everyone, including the Dayak community, has lost their native land.

Even though they are compensating us, we will continue to fight on this matter because it will reflect on the other cases later on. All the native people must be alert on this issue.

“The only response to this case is to change the government. We can’t rely on the judiciary anymore,” he said.

The party and several land rights activist groups have planned a rally in Kuching on November 13, demanding amendments to the state land code to address the Federal Court ruling.

The amendment is to have been tabled in the legislative assembly, which begins its budget sitting next Wednesday, but Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah, who heads the Pemakai Menoa, Pulau Galau Committee tasked with recommending to the government the proposed amendment, has yet to draw up the proposal. – November 7, 2017.

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