Marginalised Penans fighting for survival
By: Syed Jaymal Zahiid
The Penan community of Ulu Belaga, Sarawak, no longer has any legal avenue to claim their rights over ancestral land.
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) unearthed this disturbing fact following investigations into complaints from the community.
First, findings showed that when the Sarawak Land Code was enacted, the voice and “historic custom (of the Penan community) of ownership and stewardship of land” were completely ignored.
Second, in the presence of Shin Yang Forestry Sdn Bhd, a logging company currently operating on land claimed by the indigenous as ancestrally theirs, the chances of fighting for it is further diminished as the amendments made on the Sarawak Land Code puts a full stop to the notion.
“Our investigation found that despite being an indigenous group of Sarawak, the Penan’s historic custom of ownership and stewardship of land is not considered in the 1958 Sarawak Land Code,” said Dr Mohammad Hirman Ritom, a member of the team of commissioners probing into this matter.
As a consequence, he said, logging licences were issued and plantation activities were carried out with little consideration to the Penan’s claim to land.
“Research found that through the Sarawak Land Code (amendment) Bill 2000 which was passed by the state assembly on May 9, 2007, Section 5(2) f which provided ‘any other lawful method’ of establishing claim to land had been deleted,” added Mohammad Hirman.
This provision was previously used constantly to argue the Penan’s claim to land.
“Despite practicing settled agriculture and slowly abandoning their nomadic lifestyle, a majority of them (Penan) heavily depends on the forest for their survival. If the forest is cleared, how then will they survive?” he asked
The plight of the Penan community does not stop here.
The community will “witness further destruction of their natural environment and livelihood following the company’s move to clear forest areas in September and October 2007 on land claimed by the Penan community”, said Suhakam in a report which was launched today.
The report - titled Penan in Ulu Belaga: Right to land and socio-economic development - was a result of complaints lodged by the community who feared logging and oil palm plantation in Ulu Belaga would threaten their livelihood.
Suhakam had responded to these complaints by conducting fact-finding field visits to the affected areas and holding dialogues withe the Penan community, government agencies as well as the Shin Yang Forestry.
EIA report questionable
The Suhakam report also found that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report which was conducted before the logging company was granted license was not accurate.
In the process of granting licenses to private companies for foresting operations, the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Board (NREB) will be the authority approving the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA), a prerequisite for attaining a license.
A consultant or consultancy firm will be assigned to produce the EIA report.
The EIA report must include information on impacts and repercussions the affected communities will face when foresting activities are to take place.
In the case of the Penan community in Ulu Belaga, Sarawak, the findings of the EIA report produced by the consultant on the proposed Shin Yang forest plantation states that there was no evidence of human settlement within the proposed forest plantation.
However, Suhakam came to a different conclusion. Their investigation, through literature review, local and internationally, have led them to believe that there were “Penan settlements in Ulu Belaga at the time when the EIA report was prepared” corroborating with claims made by the Penans.
Data from the Ulu Belaga district office also confirmed this.
“This is a drawback to the EIA assessment. We urge the government to necessitate an urgent intervention on this matter before everything is lost,” said Dr Denison Jayasooria, another commissioner working on the case.
“We are concerned with the accuracy of the EIA report,” he added.
In the light of this contradictions of results coming from both sides, Suhakam recommended in their report that “the government takes necessary measures to ensure that only independent consultants are appointed to assess and prepare the EIA report.”
“This is to ensure greater objectivity and transparency and to negate all allegations of bias. It is also recommended that the government review the procedures of the preparation and verification of the EIA report”.
Land issue was not the only matter raised by Suhakam. Poverty was a ghost constantly haunting the Penans there.
The Suhakam report indicated that the “Penans in Long Singu and Long Jaik are among the poorest groups in the country and live below poverty level.”
It also indicated that “they have inadequate access to nutritious food, healthcare, education, housing and clean potable water.”
“The prime minister said that he wants poverty to be eradicated by 2010. The Penans should be included in this,” said the Suhakam report.
The rights commission stressed the “government to ensure the availability of basic necessities for the Penans to ensure that they do not live in abject poverty.
“We strongly recommend that poverty eradication and income generations be implemented.”
“The continuous disregard of the Penan community will push them further into marginalisation,” concluded the 270-page report.
Suhakam said that the government was chiefly responsible to ensure the Penans’ right to life and an adequate standard of living.