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In 2002, the Sarawak Penan Association (SPA) released the Long Sayan Declaration 2002, which was signed by more than 40 Penan community leaders.

Among others, the declaration urged the halting of all logging operations on Penan territories, the gazetting of their territories into Communal Forest Reserves and the provision of accessible healthcare, education, quality housing, power and clean water supply as well as agricultural training and support to the community.

However today, more than a decade later - the Penan community of Sarawak by and large are still living without adequate land rights security and in substandard living conditions. Worse, due to the depletion in natural timber resources in Sarawak as a result of three decades of unsustainable logging, timber tree and oil palm plantations are fast taking the place of the declining timber industry.

Plantations, which require the total clearing of logged over forests, will certainly bring about more adverse consequences to local communities, although the impacts of logging operations had all the while been severe enough.

This is the contention of our new publication, ‘Penan Land Rights in Sarawak: 13 years after the Long Sayan Declaration 2002'. The publication contains numerous materials that had been released by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and Penan community organisations between the year 2000 and 2013, chronicling for over a decade long, the struggle, grievances and demands of the community.

This new publication draws our attention to the continuous failure of the Sarawak state government and the federal government of Malaysia in resolving the people’s various land rights and welfare issues. It indicates the systemic nature of the oppression faced by the community and ultimately, the failure in good governance.

Reality on the ground remains the same

Despite the many statements of the Sarawak state government in the last year on its intention to strengthen forestry enforcement and forest protection, the reality on the ground for affected communities has remained the same.

This reality extends not only to Penan communities. Only in July, Ajeng Jok from the Kayan village of Long Pilah in Baram, was charged under section 379A of the Penal Code, for the ‘theft’ of properties belonging to a logging company, which Long Pilah has been blockading against since April. Several police reports had also been lodged by the villagers.

Even their attempt to gather information from the Sarawak Forests Department on the logging licence had reportedly failed as such information is considered as sensitive. Having no other option, in June, the people were forced to take possession of the company’s equipment, with the intention of handing it all back to the company, once it agrees to leave their territory.

It is thus timely to ask, after three decades of numerous promises to its indigenous peoples, and especially to the Penan community, what exactly has the Sarawak state government done to ensure the security of their customary land rights and the lifting up of their standard of living?

Our new publication, the recent case of Long Pilah, the two-year old blockade by the Baram-dam affected communities, the advent of plantations, all seem to point out that nothing much has been done. Further, a large section of Sarawak indigenous communities are still facing great challenges to access basic facilities such as electricity, clean water supply as well as quality healthcare, education and transportation services.

In line with the new tone of the state administration and the judicial recognition that states have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of our indigenous peoples, we would like to request for the Sarawak state government to shed light on why it appears to have failed to do so and how it now intends to provide stronger land rights protection for its indigenous communities and improve their quality of life.

SM MOHAMED IDRIS is president, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM).

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