Orang Asli seek understanding of their relationship with the land

KUALA LUMPUR – The Orang Asli of the Semai tribe in the peninsula and the Iban of Sarawak use the term ‘nengrik’ and ‘pemakai menoa’ to refer to their customary land. Indigenous communities own customary lands; this includes common ownership and is managed in accordance to customs, as opposed to statutory tenure.

With land becoming increasingly scarce due to rapid development and the increase in the population, native communities in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak, whose livelihoods depends on their ancestral land, now face a dilemma. The ancestral land here invariably refers to jungles that are integral to the traditions and livelihood of the natives. It is their home, the place they
hunt, farm and harvest jungle resources.

With vast areas of jungles being cleared for development or for logging, natives are increasingly being displaced from what they believe is their customary land. And since natives represent four million of Malaysia’s total population, their displacement is not a small problem.

The natives have brought attention to the many problems relating to customary land. They pointed out that there are parties who want to develop and profit from their customary land without recognising their rights over the land and the resources.

Moreover, the land is often leased to outsiders, including logging and mining firms, that exploit all the available jungle resources. The natives also claim that they have never been consulted over the fate of their customary land or even asked to participate in the development of this land.

These are the problems often reported to the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) over the last decade and it seems that no solutions have yet to be found for these problems.

Statistics provided by Suhakam indicate that there were 1,098 grievances related to customary land filed by the native communities since 2002. Most of the complaints were from Sabah, with 824, followed by 229 in Sarawak and 45 in the peninsula.

Suhakam’s involvement in the customary land issue started when the commission received five memoranda from the natives of Sarawak in 2001 in complaints over their relocation for the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam project and widespread logging activities.

In 2009, Suhakam released a detailed report entitled ‘The Rights of the Natives’. Jannie Lasimbang, the chairperson for Suhakam’s Committee for Native Rights, pointed out that problems regarding customary land never ends. Jannie, an advocate of customary land rights for the natives in Sabah for the last 15 years, said that while natives feel that they have a right to their
customary land, other people beg to differ. Therefore, natives think their land is being encroached upon when it is claimed as a park or forest reserve or when outsiders stake claims on the same piece of land.

In the peninsula, the Orang Asli find it difficult to apply for land titles for the land that they have been living on. Even if they receive the title, it is only for 99 years and not in perpetuity.

“Some of the land was sold to other people without their knowledge, and land ownership problems were further compounded by the fact that land enactments, like in Sarawak, do not recognise the rights of natives over customary land,” she said.

Jannie notes that natives are unhappy because they were not consulted about the development of their land and most of the time they feel they have been denied the right to speak. Often, natives are left in the dark and they only hear about the development of their land when the heavy excavators arrive. Not only are natives denied a role in the development of their land, but also are prohibited from participating in the development.

“In the end, native communities do not benefit from the development of their land,” she said.

Looking at the rising number of grievances over customary land, Suhakam has organised a national inquiry to seek a solution for the long standing problem. Displacing natives from their land has serious implications, since this deprives them of access to food and traditional medical resources.

“They live on the land with their children. They have little education and they know they cannot go far, like their urban counterparts. Therefore, they are dependent on the land,” she noted.

The inquiry, which was conducted by several researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak and Universiti Malaya, is expected to take a year and a half to complete. Suhakam Chairman Tan Sri Hasmy Agam and Jannie will lead the team, which will compile data and scrutinise the customary land problems from the legal and procedural perspective.

The five members of the inquiry panel are Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, James Nayagam, Prof Datuk Dr Khaw Lake Tee, Prof Datuk Dr Mahmood Zuhdi Abdul Majid and Detta Samen. The inquiry will begin in Sabah, running from June 16 to July 6, before being held in the peninsula and Sarawak.

“In peninsula, we will be going to the six states with sizable Orang Asli populations like Selangor, Pahang, Perak, Kelantan, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan,” she said.

The inquiry will also seek public input in Sabah and Sarawak from Nov 12-30 and in the peninsula from 11-24 Dec. Jannie says that, based upon the findings, Suhakam will make proposals to the federal and state governments to review enactments related to land to reflect a greater appreciation for human rights and address those problems relating to land faced by natives.

Strategies and moves to fast track native rights and ownership of land are important components of human rights. It is hoped that the inquiry will encourage change in the administrative procedure and recognise the customary land rights of natives.