The indigenous peoples of the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo hope that their objections to the Samling Group’s logging (covering a forest area roughly the size of Luxembourg) will finally be taken. seriously after the country’s timber certification board ordered the mediation of the disputes a year after first complaining about the plan.
The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) took action following complaints from 36 Penan, Kenyah and Jamok indigenous communities in the Sarawak regions, Upper Limbang and Baram region, about alleged defects in the certification of two logging concessions.
The dispute concerns two logging concessions in two forest management units (UFU): the 148,305-hectare UF Gerenai (366,469 acres), located in the upper Baram, and the 117,941-hectare UAB Ravenscourt (292,438 acres). , located in the upper area of Limbang.
News of the dispute resolution process came at a time when communities said they had received letters from Samling allegedly threatening them with legal action to talk about their concerns.
The communities name Samling, one of Malaysia’s largest forestry companies, and Selangor-based testing, inspection and certification firm, SIRIM QAS International, as parties to the dispute. SIRIM QAS was contracted by Samling to conduct area audits before MTCC certification was granted. Both parties have until July 15 to respond to the complaints, after which the council will deliberate on its findings and announce its decision.
The MTCC is supported by the Forest Certification Assessment Program (PEFC), a leading international forest certification body, to which copies of the complaints were also sent, as well as the Sarawak Forest Department and the National Commission. of Human Rights of Malaysia (SUHAKAM).
“In my view, this is the right approach to take for MTCC,” Penan leader Komeok Joe, who leads Penan’s advocacy group Keruan, told Al Jazeera and helped Penan communities of Limbang superior to file his complaint.
“The communities involved look forward to MTCC making the right decision, as they have previously responded to other communities. We call for the release of all relevant documents on Samling’s wood operations, proper consultation procedures and recognition of the importance of the forest for their livelihood, health and well-being “.
Thousands of indigenous people living in the Limbang and Baram districts in the north rely on the forest for their physical and cultural well-being, while the Baram River is the second largest in the state. The regions are also home to endangered species, such as gibbons, sun bears and hornbills, which are also at risk from logging plans.
Question of consent
Last year, members of the Baram and Limbang community he told Al Jazeera that, although the registration of their areas by Samling had been certified by the MTCC as “sustainable”, they had not given their free, prior and informed consent to any registration activity as they had not been properly consulted and not they had access to social and environmental issues. impact assessments that the company had submitted.
In their complaints, filed in May, communities highlighted the discrepancies between wood board certification and its implementation on the ground. They also noted the lack of transparency, the failure of Samling in proper community consultation on logging and its alleged neglect of indigenous peoples’ dependence on forest resources, but also on community initiatives for forest conservation. forests.
In an email response to Al Jazeera’s questions, Samling said he had “repeatedly addressed these baseless allegations,” which he said had “affected and soiled” the company’s reputation.
He added that he had initiated legal proceedings against Save Rivers, a non-profit organization working in the area.
“In these circumstances, we are confident that you will be grateful that we are not free to comment further on issues or issues related to pending proceedings, including the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) dispute resolution process,” said Tzee Ling Aunt Samling’s head of sustainability was called in the email. “Samling maintains that it has adhered to all the conditions and requirements imposed by the MTCC scheme.”
Indigenous communities also highlighted the flaws of the MTCC complaint mechanism.
“At the heart of the problem is Samling’s lack of understanding of what free, prior and consent means,” the allegations, seen by Al Jazeera, were alleged. “Participating with some select people in the community is not the same as consulting the community about what the community really wants.
“While Samling is certifying logging, many FMU communities have a different view of their territories: they want to protect their forests for future generations, livelihoods, wildlife and ecotourism.”
In Upper Baram, for example, the Kenyah Jamok and Penan communities have been working to establish the Baram Peace Park (also known as the Upper Baram Forest Area), a community-led initiative designed to protect the last stretches of primary forest. of Sarawak, celebrate local cultures and develop sustainable livelihoods.
The idea of a rainforest park run by indigenous people was born out of decades of struggles against logging and the exploitation of natural resources and rooted in the wisdom and knowledge passed down through generations of people who see themselves in themselves as custodians of the forest.
Initiated by the communities in 2009, the proposal was supported by local and international NGOs and subsequently adopted by the Sarawak forestry department.
The proposed park covers a whopping 283,500 hectares (700,543 acres) and is located in the interior of Sarawak, near the Indonesian border, between the Transboundary Biodiversity Conservation Area of the state’s Pulong Tau National Park. and Kayan Mentarang National Park in neighboring East Kalimantan.
In 2020, the Malaysian government formally submitted a proposal for the park to the International Tropical Timber Council (ITTO), which officially approved it and is now seeking funding from its member countries.
Despite this important step, the communities affected by the Gerenai FMU claim that the Samling forest concession coincides with its proposed forest park and ignores the community’s right to manage its forest.
In Upper Limbang, the Penan communities affected by the Ravenscourt RUU are some of the last Penan to be established and many still maintain semi-nomadic lifestyles, making their dependence on the forest even more significant.
“Within the Ravenscourt FMU and its environs live some of the penan groups that persecuted their nomadic livelihoods until recently and which today are only semi-established, spending a lot of time in the woods, hunting, fishing and gathering · Reader.
“Their dependence on forest resources is therefore even higher than that of an average indigenous community in Sarawak, and they have been firmly opposed to logging dating back to the 1980s,” they said in their complaint, which was drafted with the help of Komeok Joe and Defending Group Penan Keruan.
“While the company is cutting down the forest, we disagree,” Penan chief Peng Megut of Long Tevenga said in the upper area.
Indigenous rights activists and environmental advocates, who work closely with affected communities, are calling for a temporary moratorium on access to both concessions while the conflict resolution process and the publication of key reports are underway. social and environmental impact assessment.
Jettie Word, executive director of the California-based Borneo Project, which provides international attention and support to community-led efforts to defend forests, sustainable livelihoods and human rights, said her organization has been supporting in the communities affected by the Gerenai and Ravenscourt EBUs and helping to establish the Baram Peace Park.
“We are pleased that MTCC understands the gravity of the situation enough to open a conflict resolution process, however, the bigger question is whether Samling and SIRIM will remain at acceptable standards or whether it is simply a matter of ticking boxes, unlike to properly conduct free prior and informed consent – is good enough for these Malaysian entities, ”Word said.
He also noted the struggles facing communities to try to file an official complaint with the MTCC.
The affected communities are remote and to get to Upper Baram or Limbang you need a hard journey from the nearest town of Miri by unforgivable dirt tracks. From Miri to the nearest edge of the Gerenai concession it takes four to five hours, while to get to Ravenscourt base camp an internal flight from Miri to the city of Lawas is required and five to six more hours. and 4X4. Once in the villages, there is limited access to health, electricity and other basic services.
In Upper Baram and Limbang, complaints were drafted and community feedback was collected by community representatives and local advocacy groups.
“The grievance mechanism has been difficult to figure out even for organizations and people with reliable Internet and email access: how can people who live inside, without access to these tools, be expected to understand the grievance mechanism? complaint?
“It’s a big undertaking and an impossible task to complete in uulu (rainforest),” Word said.