World Rainforest Movement

Malaysia: Landmark decision against oil palm joint venture companies

The High Court in Kuching, the capital city of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak in the island of Borneo, has made a landmark decision when it ruled out on last 20 February that any joint venture agreement between a non-native and native in oil palm plantation is in contravention of the Land Code that provides that ‘a person who is not a native of Sarawak may not acquire any rights or privileges whatever over native customary right”.

The decision is a victory for plaintiff ethnic Ibans, natives of Sarawak in the Pantu Land district, who have sued The Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA), Pelita Holdings Sdn Bhd, Tetangga Arkab and the state government of Sarawak on behalf of themselves and 90 others.

The plaintiffs claim to be entitled to native customary rights over land in an area that had been undertaken by the defendants to establish an oil palm plantation under a joint venture agreement.

The Court declared the Ibans are entitled to their claim to land under the argument that “the natives have been deprived of their native customary rights land which is a source of their livelihood and lost the rights to their property which are violations of Articles 5 and 13 of the Constitution”.

And furthermore said that “It matters not that the landowners have been paid some dubious money of RM120.00 per hectare, a misery sum considering the fact that oil palm planted on their land had been harvested for more than three years.”

The decision of the court has wide implications for more than 20 joint venture agreements between non-natives and natives in the oil palm plantations as well as for the almost 200 lawsuits pending in the Sarawak courts relating to claims by indigenous people on lands being used for oil palms and logging.

And quite important, it restrains the companies from “entering, occupying, clearing, harvesting or in any way howsoever carrying out works in the plantiffs’ native customary rights land”.

In Sarawak state, once covered by rainforest, first logging and later oil palm plantations have cut down forests displacing thousands of forest people, some of whom have lived for centuries by fishing, hunting and farming in the jungle.

For many indigenous people who want to preserve their communal way of life in long houses that each are home to some 400 people, this means defending the forests that sustain them.

An Iban group of Sarawak living in the riverside (1) is determined to defend their land and has rejected an offer from a palm oil company to pay each family around US$ 66 – a tiny amount even for people with simple means as them.

The village chief says it’s not about the money. “We depend so much on the forest. We don’t want to sell, the forest is not for sale”.

Article based on information from: (1)“The High Court decision has wide implications”,
Joseph Tawie, The Broken Shield,; “Malaysian tribes fight to protect rainforests”, Azhar Sukri, Al Jazeera’s,