- For more than a year, Indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo have been campaigning against timber conglomerate Samling’s certified-sustainable production plantations.
- They allege the certification processes for the plantations, which overlap with their traditional territory, were flawed and carried out without proper community consent; Samling has denied the allegations.
- The Malaysian Timber Certification Council last month launched a dispute resolution case between the two sides, giving the communities a chance to formally air their complaints.
- The conflict comes as the local government works toward a 2022 goal to have all timber companies obtain sustainable forest management certification.
Penan and Kenyah Indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo will be given a chance to formally air their complaints against a timber company operating in their traditional territory, following the start of a dispute resolution case between the two sides. The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) launched the process last month after the communities filed complaints over alleged flaws in the certification of logging concessions owned by the company.
On May 31, the MTCC informed community representatives that their complaints had been taken up by its independently appointed committee of experts, who will deliberate on the certification process of two forest management units in Sarawak state owned by timber giant Samling Group. (FMUs are government-granted concessions that aim to use funds from timber production in parts of a concession to conserve forest in other parts of the concession.)
The FMUs in question are the 117,941-hectare (291,439-acre) Ravenscourt FMU in Sarawak’s Limbang division and the 148,305-hectare (366,470-acre) Gerenai FMU in the Miri division. Combined, they make up an area almost half the size of Bali.
While Gerenai was certified under MTCC’s flagship Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS) last year and Ravenscourt in 2018, Indigenous groups in the area say the certification procedures were flawed. They allege that Samling withheld key documents about the process, did not obtain free, prior and informed consent from affected communities, and failed to consider how the Indigenous people use the land for their livelihoods.
Samling says it has “adhered to all the requirements set by the MTCC with regards to the certification process.” “We welcome the opening of the dispute resolution case as a means to protect the Group’s reputation and integrity,” the company said in a statement.
The MTCS is endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), an international group for sustainable forest certification boards. The MTCC says its certification takes into account social, economic and environmental sustainability aspects, including the rights of Indigenous and local communities who live within and adjacent to FMUs.
While it is not mandatory for companies to be certified, many do so to meet their sustainability goals or appease buyers in foreign markets such as Europe and the U.S., who often require sustainable forest management certification. As of April 2020, 4.62 million hectares (11.4 million acres) of forest in Malaysia are MTCS-certified.
Fiona McAlpine, communications and project manager at the Borneo Project, a nonprofit that has been working with Indigenous groups on this case, said in a phone interview that her organization had met with representatives of the affected communities, the MTCC and the PEFC before the complaints were filed. “If MTCC doesn’t address the case adequately, PEFC can step in and suspend or terminate their endorsement entirely. But that would be the very last resort,” she said.
Any such action would be a blow to the Sarawak government’s ambitions to have all timber companies obtain sustainable forest management certification by 2022. The Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak are home to most of Malaysia’s remaining intact forests, but at least 80% of their forests have been logged or cleared for timber, oil palm and other agricultural industries.
In a complaint letter addressed to the MTCC dated May 11, the Gerenai Community Rights Action Committee (GCRAC), which represents contesting Indigenous groups affected by the Gerenai FMU, said that prior to the certification being awarded, the communities had “raised major issues with the implementation of the [MTCS], especially about the lack of consultation and free, prior and informed consent.” “The certificate was issued nevertheless,” it wrote.
Among other issues, the GCRAC said that neither social impact assessment (SIA) nor environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports had been made available to the local communities despite multiple requests. “Without relevant impact reports, communities cannot make informed decisions about FMU proposals,” the GCRAC wrote.
Samling says it had not received “any formal request” to share either the EIA or SIA reports. “To allege that Samling has refused to release these reports is totally untrue,” the company wrote in a May 20 media release.
The Indigenous groups also allege that Samling failed to “properly or openly [consult] communities within” the FMUs during the certification process. “Most of the people in the communities within Gerenai FMU are not even aware that they are within an MTCS certified area, let alone aware of the implications,” the letter said.
Samling said in a media release last year that it had “engaged with the local community leaders, who had been duly appointed by the Sarawak state government and registered with the District Office” since the outset of operations. “These local community leaders had full authority to represent and act for the communities,” the company wrote.
GCRAC raised questions about whether the leaders Samling chose to meet with were truly representative of the community. “Engaging with a few select people from the community is not the same thing as consulting the community about what that community really wants,” it wrote.
A previous audit of the Gerenai FMU, conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, found that the FMU had followed the principles of sustainable forest management and complied with state government license requirements. The same report also flagged issues with Samling’s community consultation processes.
In the report, Samling-appointed auditor SIRIM QAS International wrote that residents had not been sufficiently consulted, and most were not aware of a community relations committee that’s supposed to be established for communication on the FMU. Subsequently, the auditor received and accepted a corrective action plan by the company.
“What follows after that is the corrective actions are supposed to be addressed by the respective FMU,” said Jason Hon, head of the Sarawak conservation program at WWF-Malaysia, who was involved in stakeholder consultations for Gerenai FMU. “The onus, the responsibility, is on the FMU to actually close these gaps with follow-up actions … and the FMU certification has to go through an audit process on a yearly basis.”
Though the MTCC launched the dispute resolution case, the council has no power to grant, suspend or withdraw certifications, Siti Syaliza Mustapha, senior manager of FMUs for the MTCC, wrote in an email. “The decision … lies with the certification body that conducts the assessment,” she wrote. In the case of Ravenscourt and Gerenai, the certification body is SIRIM QAS.
In a letter dated May 26, Samling subsidiaries threatened to take legal action against the Indigenous groups for alleging it was involved in the trespass, damage or destruction of forest. The communities’ allegations had “not only tarnished unfairly Samling’s image but have also brought into serious question the good reputations of both MTCC and of the certifying body, SIRIM QAS,” the company said in its May 20 media release.
“Our greatest fear is that under the rules, Samling has done everything right. Because if the rules work like this, they’re not respecting Indigenous rights,” McAlpine said.
“The best-case scenario would be for both sides to sit down and have a proper consultation and working relationship,” she added. “The communities are very reasonable and if the consultations are taken seriously, they can actually achieve that.”
Samling said it would fully cooperate with the MTCC on the dispute resolution case. “We hope that all parties involved will be able to find common ground for a peaceful and acceptable resolution,” the company wrote in an email. “We are committed to working with the communities within the FMUs in charting the sustainable management of forest areas and ensure their preservation for generations to come.”
Hon said the dispute resolution case was a “good opportunity” to improve the certification process. “Certification and conflicts [are] not a new issue in Sarawak,” he said. “But now it’s in the open.
“There might be some gaps or shortcomings, but … the current situation allows all parties to come together and … close these gaps,” he continued. “The [mandatory] certification goal is definitely the ultimate plan for everybody. In terms of what this means for Sarawak, this is just … one little glitch … and the opportunity to actually make it right and move towards that ultimate goal.”
Banner image of logging by Samling in the Baram region. Image courtesy of The Borneo Project.
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