Borneo natives fear ousting of leader over UNESCO World Heritage row

Mulu community leader Ukau Lupung targeted by Sarawak government over Penan resistance against controversial township plans at UNESCO World Heritage site.

(MULU/SARAWAK/MALAYSIA) The Penan community of Bateu Bungan located at the heart of Sarawak’s iconic Gunung Mulu National Park denounce efforts by the Sarawak government to oust their long-term leader, Ukau Lupung, for his stance against a controversial development project affecting the National Park’s integrity.

According to Penan sources, a campaign is underway to replace Ukau by a candidate from Sarawak’s ruling party, GPS (Gabungan Parti Sarawak), who is allegedly pro-logging and in favour of a controversial township development that threatens the integrity of the Gunung Mulu National Park, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Malaysian Borneo.

In reaction to the government campaign, villagers have written a letter in support of their headman to Sarawak’s state authorities. The letter has also been endorsed by Penghulu Juwin Lehan, a paramount Indigenous representative of the region.

“We call on the Sarawak government to respect the right of the Penan communities to elect their own leadership, a right guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)”, said Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fonds. “As a signatory to UNDRIP, Malaysia has an international duty to comply with its standards.”

In August 2022, plans of a massive new township became known that would entail the destruction of high conservation value rainforest and might negatively impact the water cycle of the Mulu cave systems. The plans include the construction of a highway, an extension of the airport and a huge water treatment plant. They are fiercely opposed by the Penan of Bateu Bungan whose community lands would be expropriated for the township.

Last month, the Bruno Manser Fonds requested UNESCO to add Mulu to the List of World Heritage in Danger under Article 11(4) of the World Heritage Convention. UNESCO is likely to discuss the issue during its next World Heritage Committee meeting

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