Relocation of Plieran Penans unjustified

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Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) is very concerned with the construction of the Murum hydro- electric Dam that will critically affect the Plieran Penan community in seven villages in Sungai Plieran in Sarawak.

The communities of Long Wat, Long Singu, Long Luar, Long Tangau, Long Malim, Long Pelutan/Long Menapa, and Long Jaik have recently been asked to relocate to Sungai Penyuan, Belaga to their own detriment.

SAM understands that since the beginning of the construction of the Murum dam project in April 2008, the villagers have been not been well-informed on the project and the forced relocation. It appears to us that little attention has been given to the affected communities’ rights on their ancestral land, identity and traditions.

Likewise, there is little indication that their consent has been obtained within participatory consultations. The state government must not repeat the error of ignoring the people’s traditional resource-ownership and management practices as this may lead the people to where the Bakun- affected communities in Sungai Asap are now.

As recent media reports show, the Sg. Asap communities are having difficulty in settling even their utility bills. Working adults are leaving the settlement due to a lack of job opportunities and farming land is also limited for them to sustain their lives.

The refusal of the affected communities to relocate is very much justified. According to them, firstly, the land in Sungai Penyuan is small and not arable; thus making it impossible to secure a livelihood. Further, the area is also held under the customary rights of the Sempob communities.

To make things worse, a large part of the land is also believed to be currently leased to KTS Forest Plantation and Shin Yang Oil Palm/Pulp and Paper Plantation.

For the people, this particular choice of the relocation site is highly irrational as it will potentially jeopardise their already difficult lives. This situation is compounded by the poor-information disclosure process and the absence of their meaningful consent – the people have been disabled from making informed decisions.

We also would like to point out the fact that many of the Penan villagers are also without identity cards. Our survey showed that in Long Singu alone, out of the 249 residents, only five own identity cards.

Thus, if they are unable to farm adequately in the relocated area, how are the people going to obtain a decent income from stable and formal work to support themselves without identification documents?

Recently, a memorandum from the people was sent to the chief minister of Sarawak to highlight their plight, containing five concrete recommendations. In line with the memorandum, SAM calls the Sarawak government to heed the following on an urgent basis:

- an immediate full-information disclosure process on the relocation to be instituted for the affected communities including the establishment of:

- clear rates of compensation for all the potential losses of their properties, from the loss of ancestral territories to burial sites, cultivated gardens, fruit and other trees that incorporate valuation such as crop age and productivity and other details;

- free, prior and informed process on the relocation – villagers must be given the freedom to consent to the relocation as well as to choose the relocation site, which can include their freedom to remain within their territorial boundaries;

- fair and transparent investigations on any complaints pertaining to their loss of livelihood within a formalised complaints-mechanism process

Within this process, the Sarawak must commit to the people that their socio-economic well-being as well as their education, health and housing needs be prioritised.

As a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the above recommendations are all fully in line with the document’s commitments. They are also in line with the federal and Sarawak constitutions.

Our courts have also ruled that both the federal and state governments have a fiduciary duty to the indigenous peoples. The grievances of the Penan community of Plieran deserve to be resolved urgently and in a respectable manner.

Ever since logging and subsequently, plantation activities began to encroach into the community’s forest reserve, the longhouse residents have had their livelihoods gravely affected. They have derived no meaningful benefits from such ‘development’ activities and are worse off than they were before.

Thus to relocate them today to a site that they are opposed to in a situation where information is severely lacking for them will only serve to aggravate their difficult living conditions.

In this light, SAM urges the Sarawak and federal governments to adopt the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process for communities affected by such projects so as to prevent grave injustices from being committed against the peoples affected by projects which in the end may adversely impact their livelihoods, culture and way of life.

The writer is president, Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

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