- For decades, Indigenous activists in the Malaysian state of Sarawak have found themselves in conflict with timber giant Samling.
- In September, Samling agreed to withdraw a lawsuit it filed against SAVE Rivers, a local NGO that publicized concerns about the company’s treatment of people living in and around two areas under the company’s management.
- Samling also lost certification for its Ravenscourt Forest Management Unit, one of the areas of concern in its lawsuit against SAVE Rivers.
- Activists in Sarawak say they will continue in their fight to empower Indigenous communities questioning Samling and other industrial giants’ plans for their land and resources.
Indigenous activists have claimed two small victories against timber giant Samling in their decades-long battle to protect their remaining forests and territories in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
Operating in Sarawak since 1976, Samling has grown to be the biggest among the “Big Six” timber companies that control almost three-quarters of the country’s forest concessions. The company reportedly exported timber worth 544 million ringgit ($115 million) in 2022.
Indigenous activists say the rise of the company has often come at the expense of traditional land, homes and livelihoods, even as the company has made efforts to undertake more corporate social responsibility practices.
Samling’s state-sanctioned concessions have overlapped with dozens of Indigenous villages. Some of these communities accept or tolerate the company, but individuals and grassroots organizations have fought for decades against the company’s actions.
One such group, SAVE Rivers, was sued by Samling after publicizing concerns about the company’s treatment of people living in and around two areas under the company’s management: the Ravenscourt and Gerenai forest management units.
After 25 months and four rescheduled trials, Samling and SAVE Rivers reached an amicable settlement announced Sept. 18, the day the trial was scheduled to begin.
“Samling maintains that their licensing and harvesting activities in Gerenai FMU and Pelutan FTLA [forest timber license area] are subject to monitoring and approval by the Sarawak authorities,” said the statement published on Samling’s website. “Both parties to the Suit agree that the welfare of the local community remain their priority.”
The lawsuit hinged on seven articles published on SAVE Rivers’ website between June 2020 and March 2021. Samling alleged that SAVE Rivers wrote untrue statements about the company’s efforts to gain and maintain Malaysia’s sustainable forestry certification for its FMUs.
According to the statement of claim filed by the plaintiffs, SAVE Rivers wrote that Samling was conducting logging in areas outside its concessions, had not adequately informed and consulted Indigenous residents who use the forest land about its activities, and had rushed the Malaysian Timber Certification Council process during COVID-19 restriction periods so that it could evade higher community reporting standards.
Claiming they had lost business as a result of the articles, Samling sought 5 million ringgit ($1.06 million) in damages from the Sarawak NGO, leading activists locally and internationally to decry the case as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP, meant to scare off Indigenous Sarawak residents from contesting the timber giant. Samling adamantly disputed this allegation.
Peter Kallang, SAVE Rivers’ chair, told Mongabay he felt Samling’s attempt to file a lawsuit against his NGO was really intended to obscure Indigenous residents’ concerns from buyers in the supply chain, by “shut[ing] them up about all the things [Samling] are doing on the ground.”
According to Kallang, Samling approached SAVE Rivers with several settlement offers, initially requesting that the NGO remove the articles in question from its website. Kallang said these offers were unacceptable to him. Then, finally, on the eve of the trial, Samling offered to publish the final settlement letter and let the articles stand online.
“We finally agreed because it’s very neutral, it doesn’t implicate us in any way,” Kallang said of the final settlement. He added that neither party paid the other as part of the agreement.
“The withdrawal of this lawsuit by Samling shows that people power reigns and corporations should think twice before filing any vexatious lawsuits against environmental defenders,” said Meenakshi Raman, president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia), in a statement. “The aim should not be to silence critics but to work towards ensuring that people and the environment are always above profits.”
When asked by Mongabay for comment, Samling replied by email, “We have no additional response to make at this stage.”
Lost sustainability certification
In related news, Samling recently lost certification for its Ravenscourt FMU, one of the areas at issue in the articles that prompted the company to sue SAVE Rivers.
Since the 1990s, the Sarawak government has been developing guidelines for more sustainable logging and forest plantation operations. Its solution has been the creation of the forest management unit, a type of concession in which proceeds from logging some parts of the concession fund the conservation of forests in other parts of the concession. To qualify for an FMU, companies like Samling must lay out 10-year plans detailing which areas will be logged and when, and in which parts of the concession forests will be left to stand. Companies are also obliged to recognize areas of environmental importance — from water catchment areas and protected forest to salt licks used by animals — as well as some of the areas that Indigenous residents hold as crucial to their cultures or traditions. A company with an FMU is also required to regularly inform people living in and around the area of its activities and to provide them with resources such as roads or buildings.
Sarawak’s government also urges timber companies to get some form of external certification that they’re following the sustainable practices set out in their 10-year management plans. The government has specifically promoted the national system for forest certification, the Malaysia Timber Certification Scheme, initially urging all licensees to have some form of certification by the end of 2022.
This certification can be revoked if a company fails to fix issues found in regular audits. According to the MTCC, this is what happened to Samling’s Ravenscourt FMU.
Sirim Qas, the auditor used by the MTCC to check conditions at its certified concessions, didn’t publicly declare why the Ravenscourt FMU certification was revoked, but it flagged major and minor instances where Samling wasn’t following procedures in its 2020 and 2021 audits. Most of the issues flagged in those audits indicated that the company hadn’t adequately been informing residents of its activities. For example, both reports said the company hadn’t adequately set up or discussed conflict resolution processes with communities, and the 2021 report said that three communities had never received the results of social impact assessments Samling conducted in 2020.
Komeok Joe, CEO of the Penan Indigenous rights NGO Keruan, said in a press release about the revocation that Samling has shown it’s unwilling to follow procedures set out in the FMU, asking the government to cancel the Ravenscourt FMU altogether.
“We ask the Sarawak government to walk the talk and cancel Samling’s logging concession in this FMU for non-compliance. The Penan will consider any logs extracted from the area to be illegally logged,” he said.
The Ravenscourt FMU was named in SAVE Rivers’ articles questioning Samling’s certified concessions, but it wasn’t a part of the settlement discussion, Kallang said.
When asked if he thought Samling would acknowledge that Indigenous residents still have questions and complaints that aren’t being addressed, Kallang said he thinks doing so would take a “mind shift” for Samling, as the company constantly responds that its logging is legal.
It’s not enough just to do something legally, Kallang said. “You have to do it in the correct way that doesn’t hurt anyone else.”
In the meantime, the NGO has no plans to change its methodology, Kallang said, and it plans to continue informing and empowering Indigenous communities who are questioning Samling and other industrial giants’ plans for their land and resources.
Banner image: Community members celebrating the withdrawal of the lawsuit against SAVE Rivers. Image courtesy of Bruno Manser Fonds.
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