Whenever I read stories of people struggling against big powers that run them over with arrogance, something in me goes off. I’m at first upset and then I wonder how things like these can take place. Is there no legal redress? Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the problem lies. By way of the legal definition of what makes up ‘indigenous’ land, injustice occurs.
It’s an age old game that the old colonial powers played well, using the doctrine of “terra nullius,” they take over lands they deem to be “land belonging to no one” or “territory that nobody owns so that the first nation to discover it is entitled to take it over.” That’s fair enough until we discover that even where land was already occupied by people, they are still taken over. On what grounds do they make their claim? Or should I say pretext? The following website by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation gives a comprehensive explanation on the issue:
The colonisers acknowledged the presence of Indigenous people but justified their land acquisition policies by saying the Aborigines were too primitive to be actual owners and sovereigns and that they had no readily identifiable hierarchy or political order which the British Government could recognise or negotiate with.
Well nearer to home, I salute Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief of The Straits Times, for this courageous piece of writing with regards to the issue of land and the future of the native people who live there and are its true owners.
The Straits Times | March 17, 2011
By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief
KUCHING (SARAWAK): A group of villagers in northern Sarawak’s interior set up a blockade last week to stop the construction of a Petronas gas pipeline to Sabah.
The villagers at Long Atip in Baram were demanding that the national oil company first fulfil its promises said to have been made in 2007 to upgrade the road, install lamp posts and provide them generators.
Such blockades are not uncommon, but they are usually aimed at logging and plantation companies that the indigenous people say are rapidly encroaching on their land. These measures have turned violent on occasion. Last month, the longhouse villagers in the remote Ulu Niah area of north Sarawak clashed with a plantation company that allegedly infringed on their land.
‘We had 2,458ha of native customary land, but we found out that the land was converted into state land,’ longhouse head Changgai Dali told The Star newspaper. Lawyer Baru Bian said this was just the tip of the iceberg. His firm has filed over 100 such cases in court in the last 10 years, and he believes that there are more than 200 cases in total awaiting judgment.
Mr Baru, 53, heads the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat in Sarawak and will be contesting the election in the interior. He is a Lun Bawang, a member of a minority tribe in the highlands.
Such land disputes are among the biggest issues in Sarawak, especially native customary land where the government and the native people disagree over the definition.
Under the law, land that was occupied by indigenous people in Sarawak before Jan 1, 1958 is considered native land, usually based on the presence of burial grounds, and the planting of crops and trees. But the people there insist that it should also extend to what they call territorial domain and the forests which provide them sustenance.
The government, however, considers this state land and has awarded concessions to timber and plantation companies.
‘It’s a problem everywhere, from Lundu to Lawas,’ said Mr Baru, naming two towns at the extreme ends of the state.
Even in areas where the native claims are not disputed, problems arise. For instance, not far outside Kuching, several villagers of the Bidayuh tribe said they are still waiting for titles promised to them 10 years ago.
One of them, Mr Smith Jenih, said they need the land titles to get bank loans to start small businesses.
‘This is really the biggest problem for us,’ he said, adding that the lack of titles has also caused quarrels among the villagers who do not know where their properties start and end.
‘We want a solution to our problems before the election,’ said Sibuluh village chief Jien anak Nyobek.
The opposition hopes to capitalise on these longstanding issues but has so far not had much success in the remote interior. It had tried to make inroads among the Ibans in the last by-election in Sibu last May, but that did not happen.
The isolation of these areas and their close-knit communities are the biggest stumbling blocks.