IOI group suffered a legal setback this week when the Miri High Court — a court for Miri District in Sarawak, a state in Malaysian Borneo — ruled that the palm oil grower is liable for damages caused by the destruction of land belonging to Long Teran Kanan, a Kayan native community. The legal battle has dragged on for 12-years but now represents an important precedent for forest-dependent communities in Malaysia, reports the Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO that campaigns on behalf of Sarawak’s forest people.
According to the Borneo Resources Institute Malaysia (BRIMAS), Senior Assistant Registrar of the Miri High Court, Abdul Raafidin bin Majidi on behalf of Justice Datuk Abdul Aziz bin Adul Rahim, ruled that members of the village of Long Teran Kanan possess native customary rights over land that had been granted to IOI by the Sarawak state government. The court said the leases had been issued unconstitutionally and were therefore “null and void.”
“With this decision, the court declared that the first and second defendants or its agents or servants are trespassing over the native customary rights land of the plaintiffs and that any damages and loss suffered by the plaintiffs be assessed by the Deputy Registrar of the High Court at a date to be fixed,” said BRIMAS in a statement.
“The court awarded both exemplary and aggravated damages against the defendants.”
The defendants — the Sarawak Government Land and Survey Department, the Land Custody Development Authority (Pelita) and IOI Pelita Plantation Sdn. Bhd. — are expected to appeal the decision.
Implications for sustainable palm oil
Deforestation by a logging company around a Penan village in the Middle Baram region in Sarawak. Image courtesy of the Bruno Manser Fund
The court ruling is another blow to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an initiative that aims to improve the environmental performance of palm oil production through a certification standard, says Bruno Manser. IOI is a prominent member of the group, but last month a report from Friends of the Earth linked the palm oil grower to deforestation in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
Legal battles for Sarawak’s forest people continue
The Long Teran Kanan ruling comes less than three months after authorities destroyed, without warning, 39 Iban homes in the village of Sungai Sekabai in Sarawak in a dispute between the community and state-backed land developer, Tatau Land Sdn Bhf. A Sarawak court shortly thereafter issued an injunction to prevent further demolition.
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. 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 Sarawak state government has long backed industrial interests over those of native peoples like the Penan and Iban, both by investing in projects — including oil palm plantations, mines, hydroelectric projects, and logging operations — and by 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.
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