Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ibans fight for communal forests

Tony Thien Sep 27, 08

The Iban community in Rumah Sengok, about 80km up the Kemena River in Bintulu are fighting a losing battle to protect their communal forests or pulau, considered their most valuable assets, from loggers.

And they are not the only ones having to face such a problem - the same loggers are said to be moving to other villages in the upper reaches of the river and likely to encroach into their communal forests too, Jok Jau, Marudi-based co-ordinator of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) told Malaysiakini today.

“The loggers claim they have a permit to extract the timber and are ignoring the rights of the 26-door Sengok longhouse over their communal forests of about 300 to 400 hectares, taking away valuable timber species from the pulau,” he said.

Once they have finished work there, the loggers are expected to move to neighbouring areas to continue with timber harvesting, Jok Jau said, adding that at least 10 other Iban longhouses in the upper reaches of the Kemena River would be affected.

According him, the Ibans are not demanding for money but to preserve their rights which are recognised by law to the communal forests which supply their daily needs.

Jok Jau said a government-backed consortium Grand Perfect comprising three large local timber companies are managing and implementing a forest plantation project covering an area of more than 500,000 hectares extending from Bintulu right up to Balingian under a Forest Department licence.

Encroachment started in April

The licence was originally awarded to a pulp and paper company.

The consortium has their contractors to clear the area for the plantation and the process involves the harvesting of timber.

Rumah Sengok residents are complaining that these loggers have been encroaching into their pulau which is considered as part of what is known as native customary rights (NCR) land since April this year.

Jok Jau said the affected natives are rather helpless as their pleas have fallen on deaf ears with the loggers insisting that they have been given clearance by the authorities to clear and remove the timber.

He alluded to some threats being used against the natives as well.

In the first round of tree harvesting from the Rumah Sengok communal forests, an estimated 500 tonnes of timber - hill species such as meranti, kapor and keruing - have been taken out.

The company originally offered to pay the longhouse people RM6 per tonne of timber extracted but headman Sengok ak Sabang and his longhouse residents disagreed “because it is not money they want but the right to keep their communal forests which is important to their livelihood,” said the local SAM leader.

Present timber prices are high with growing overseas demand to increase stockpiles in log importing countries.

“I have been to Rumah Sengok and now I hear the logging company is going into other villages and this is most worrying,” Jok Jau said, adding that the state government should look into the rights of the natives over their NCR lands and communal forests.

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