Demanding human and indigenous rights is a central part of our work in Sarawak. We are particularly committed to the rights of indigenous people to their forest and land and support them in this process both legally and by mapping their territories. <b>Globally guaranteed indigenous rights</b> For indigenous peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has been in force since 2007, provides special protection mechanisms to which all population groups that were already on the territory before colonisation can refer. The Declaration stipulates that human rights such as the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination also apply to indigenous peoples. The UN Declaration also goes beyond individual human rights by speaking for the first time of collective rights to land and institutions and collective self-determination. The central core of indigenous rights is the principle of 'free, prior and informed consent'. This means that the prior consent of indigenous groups to projects that directly affect them is required. For example, in the case of infrastructure projects or the extraction of resources on indigenous territories, the state — or the companies granted concessions by the state — must fully inform and consult the people living there. As long as this consultation or approval by the affected indigenous people has not taken place, no construction or logging may take place. This internationally recognized principle is of immense importance not only for social but also for ecological reasons, since a large part of the remaining resources worldwide are located on indigenous territories. Thus, indigenous people, whose way of life is still closely linked to their land and its resources, are particularly hard hit by the exploitation of these resources. Since indigenous rights are not legally binding, there are numerous violations worldwide that regularly go unpunished. The work of civil society and NGOs such as the Bruno Manser Fonds is therefore of central importance.
The situation in Sarawak, Malaysia
In all of Malaysia, indigenous groups make up about 14 percent of the total population. In Sarawak, the population is almost 50 percent indigenous. These are made up of over 40 different groups with different languages and cultures.
The UN human rights covenants - which are considered an international legal standard - have not yet been ratified by Malaysia. At least the country has committed itself to implement the Declaration on Indigenous Rights. However, discrimination and marginalisation of indigenous groups are Sarawak's central challenges. Indigenous people in Sarawak are discriminated against in many ways. For one thing, they often have limited access to government services and infrastructure. Many Penan do not even have identity cards, which also prevents them from exercising their political rights. On the other hand, their indigenous way of life and culture is acutely threatened by aggressive resource policies.
The main problem for the indigenous people of Sarawak is that the government considers all the rainforest areas in which the indigenous people have always lived as national territories. In this logic, the logging and palm oil companies are free to destroy and exploit the rainforest. The logging and palm oil companies often fail to fulfill their obligation to consult the local population in advance.
The most important instruments that the Indigenous of Sarawak have to defend themselves against the destruction of their traditional territory are land rights lawsuits. However, the procedures are lengthy, the evidence is difficult to present, especially for those Indigenous who lived as nomads for a long time, and the success rate of the lawsuits is low. Moreover, without additional pressure from local blockades or international campaigns, deforestation usually continues even during the ongoing proceedings.
Work of the Bruno Manser Fonds
Together with its local partner organisations, the BMF has been working for decades for the rights of the local population in Sarawak and in particular for their land rights. The last land rights case came in 2019 against a palm oil company which wanted to destroy valuable secondary forests for a 4,400-hectare palm oil plantation in the immediate vicinity of Sarawak's only UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the Mulu National Park. Thanks to local blockades, an international campaign by the Bruno Manser Fonds and a land rights lawsuit against the company responsible, deforestation was stopped and the company was forced to withdraw from the area.
Another major success of the Bruno Manser Fonds is the prevention of the planned Baram Mega Dam, which would have led to the displacement of 20,000 indigenous people and the flooding of 400 km² of rainforest.
The Bruno Manser Fonds also supports projects in areas where the government is failing. This is always done in close cooperation with the local population and our partner organisations. For example, the BMF has made it possible to provide a pre-school in the Penan village of Long Bangan, thus guaranteeing the right to education, build bridges or water pipes, or support the implementation of a forest conservation area managed by the indigenous people.