Real-life Avatar: court blocks destruction of indigenous community in Borneo

January 27, 2010

A court in the Malaysian state of Sarawak has issued an injunction to block the continued destruction of the Iban village of Sungai Sekabai, reports the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an indigenous rights groups.

Last week Sarawak state police demolished 39 Iban homes in a dramatic escalation of dispute between the community and a state-backed land developer, Tatau Land Sdn Bhf, which is owned by a holding company controlled by Sarawak's Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, according to the local news service, Bintulu.Org. Authorities said they were serving an eviction order, but a lawyer for the Iban said the order was under appeal. The homes were destroyed without prior notice.

Iban natives of Sungai Sekabai are shocked after the destruction of their village by the Malaysian authorities; in the center headman Nor anak Nyaway.

Destroyed house at the Iban village of Sungai Sekabai. Pictures © BMF / TAHABAS

One of the destroyed homes belonged to Nor Nyawai, a community leader in Sungai Sekabai who famously won a court case in 2001 which recognized native rights over primary rainforest.

"In a 2001 landmark court ruling, the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak acknowledged that the Iban community under Nor had native customary rights not only over their farmland but also over primary rainforests," said BMF in a statement.

But while the ruling set a precedent that strengthened native claims to customary lands in Sarawak, the community of Sungai Sekabai has been battling developers ever since. A timber company at the root of the dispute has cleared much of the forest around the community, replacing it with acacia plantations, despite the 2001 court decision.

The new injunction will put a halt to demolition of Iban homes until a trial is held on the community's pending court case on February 9. A non-profit, Berkeley-based The Borneo Project, is raising money to provide emergency funding for the community and legal support for the case.

Destroyed house at the Iban village of Sungai Sekabai.

Picture 1: Headman Nor anak Nyawai of Sungai Sekabai in front of his destroyed house. Nor was the plaintiff of a 2001 landmark court case in which a Malaysian court acknowledged for the first time acknowledged that native communities had native customary rights over primary rainforests.

The Sarawak state government has long backed industrial interests over those of native peoples like the Penan and Iban, both investing in projects — including oil palm plantations, mines, hydroelectric projects, and logging operations — and sending in the military and police to crush local opposition. Its newest scheme is known as SCORE, a set of projects that will turn a large swathe of Sarawak into an industrial corridor for mining and energy development. SCORE includes at least four hydroelectric dams (up to 28,000MW of power), aluminum-smelting and steel plants, coal mines (1.46 billion metric tons), and natural gas development (nearly 41 billion cubic feet), according the state government, which is trying to attract investment at a time when investors (domestic and foreign) are fleeing Malaysia due to concerns over corruption and political unrest.

Environmentalists say the projects will displace indigenous groups and destroy important ecosystems, endangered biodiversity and contributing to Malaysia's surging greenhouse gas emissions.

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mongabay.com (January 27, 2010).

Real-life Avatar: court blocks destruction of indigenous community in Borneo.