Towards transparent forest management in Sarawak


The Dalai Lama once said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”


By Patricia Hului


IN AN EFFORT to promote more transparency in forest management in Sarawak, Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) organised a workshop called ‘Capacity Building Workshop on Forest Watch initiative in Sarawak’ together with Forest Department Sarawak.


Seven speakers of different stands presented their papers during the workshop: Dr Affendi Suhaili from Forest Department Sarawak, Zulhairy Zadel from Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission Sarawak, Victor Soosai from TI-M, Mark Bujang from Borneo Resources Institute (Brimas), Nicholas Mujah from Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia), Dato’ Ik Pahon Joyik from JKKK Pusat Jagoi and Wong Meng Chuo from Institute for Development of Alternative Living (IDEAL).


In his welcoming address, President of TI-M Dato’ Akhbar Satar stated: “This workshop aims to provide an avenue for stakeholders in Sarawak to gather to showcase their efforts in supporting forest conservation and sustainable management, in addition to fostering and strengthening stakeholder networking towards encouraging good governance of forests.”


Besides presentations from the speakers, the day-long workshop provided a platform for all stakeholders to give opinions and exchange thoughts on the current status of forest management in Sarawak during the question-and-answer session.


To Build or Not To Build


When plans for an additional 12 mega dams to be built in the interiors of Sarawak were announced in 2008, the move raised a lot of questions; did Sarawak need that many dams? Weren’t the Batang Ai and Bakun dams enough?


Presenters and participants of the workshop raised the issue of building dams in rural areas, displacement of thousands of indigenous people and the loss of the state’s natural biodiversity, while proponents for hydroelectric dams argued that these dams were necessary to fulfill future electricity projected demands from Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).


According to a report published by The Borneo Post on June 9 last year, the raw demand for electricity from traditional customers paying domestic and commercial tariffs is now around 900 megawatts (MW).


Currently Sarawak has a population of 2.5 million and is expected to increase to 4.6 million in 2030 as a result of Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).


Forest Governance Integrity (FGI)


Forest Governance Integrity (FGI) Programme is a programme under the TI-M to enhance forest governance through numerous ways, and one of it is through public participation. The Forest Watch under the FGI programme is a project mechanism through which the public can become the ‘rangers’ of the forest.


As the FGI Project is sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy Kuala Lumpur, Sapuan talked of his experience meeting the ambassador of Norway to Malaysia.


On the topic of dams, Sapuan shared: “I asked how many dams Norway has: 82. Sarawak only 12 dams but now orang marah-marah. Dia bikin 82 tiada orang bising.”


Norway has had its own battles with the building of hydroelectric dams, a notable one being the construction of the Alta power station in the 1970s to early 1980s.


In the late 1970s, the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) had laid out the plan for constructing a dam and hydroelectric power plant located on the Alta-Kautokeino River. It would form a man-made lake and inundate the village of Maze, inhabited by the indigenous Sami community.


Although it faced political resistance from the Sami community, the Alta power station construction was continued. Today, at 145-metres in height, the Virdnejávr Dam is the tallest dam in the country.


It might look like the indigenous people lost in this case but some positive outcomes from the ‘Alta Controversy’; was that it became a turning point for the Sami community within Norway, as the country recognised the Sami people’s distinct rights over the lands in Northern Norway and it also revived Sami interest in their own culture.


During his talk on ‘Indigenous peoples’ role in traditional forest conservation and governance in Sarawak’, Mark responded that “The question is not about how many dams. But the question is the people affected and consent or not. Even if they consent, the matter is how the implementation of the dam.”


Whose land is it?


Another important topic openly discussed during the workshop was on Native Customary Rights (NCR) land.


NCR lands have been a long-time issue between many stakeholders including indigenous people and logging and mining companies with oil palm plantations also joining in the fray.


Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing revealed during the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) in May last year that 191, 851 hectares of NCR land had been cultivated with oil palm as of April 2013 by various joint-venture companies and smallholders.


When asked during the Q&A session in the workshop why logging was still done on NCR lands, Sapuan answered, “Under the Class II timber license, all NCR are to be excluded. It is already stated in the license condition.”


He also said that the Forestry Department had issued 371 Occupational Title (OT) licences for those who owned NCR land. The OT licences allowed them to log on their own land, adding that he had records to prove this.


Sapuan also mentioned that he would be looking forward to engaging with the civil societies in Miri this July to discuss further on the issues of NCR with facts and figures in order there will be a continuous communication between the government and the civil societies.


We want in!


In the course of development and forest management, the indigenous people have one thing to say: they want to be a part of it.


Advisor for Bijagoi Heritage and Conservation Community (BHCC), Ik Pahon said, “We want to know what is happening, and we want to participate. We also want progress.”


BHCC is a success story in terms of a native-driven community project to protect Bung Jagoi’s cultural and natural heritage. When sand and logging companies came knocking on the Jagoi communities’ door, the people came together and stood their ground.


BHCC recognises the Bung Jagoi area as a community reserve area and further cutting of timber and any forest clearing activities was prohibited. Even hunting of wildlife has also been prohibited.


On development, Mark recommended an immediate halt to any development projects which may bring negative impact to the indigenous people and also to respect their demands to determine their own development.


What do the indigenous community think about current forest management?


Mark was also acting as the executive director of Brimas, an indigenous organisation working to enhance local initiatives throughout Sarawak.


He commented, “Our state forest management policy tends to favour more commercialisation. Even though the state is also doing conservation efforts and conservation projects, of course the main focus is commercialisation.”


Nicholas, who was awarded the Global Human Rights Defenders award from the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (Frontline), believed that there were a lot of gaps in current management such as a lack in precise regulation and policy, understanding of local custom, insufficient interaction between enforcement officers and forest managers with local inhabitants, and that current enforcement is confined to political order and lack in transparent operation procedures.


He also opined on who should manage the forest: “No doubt forest managers are good people and they look after the environment. But I don’t believe that they are better that the local people to look after the forest.”


What does the future hold for the forest?

Discussion is truly the best way to settle the many conflicts of forest management as Ik Pahon said, “If we sit like this, we share then we would understand. For me this discussion is the best way to settle things.”


Sapuan echoed Ik Pahon’s sentiment earlier, saying that :“Most of the things happen in this world because of miscommunication. We have to communicate then we understand. What is your problem, your concern; is our concern also. So we better communicate.”


Nicholas shared that it used to be difficult to meet the director of the forest department and saluted Sapuan for being the first director of the forest department willing to sit and listen to the indigenous people and hoped that they would be able to work together regarding forest management.


Regardless of the different views and opinions, under the wing of newly elected Director of Forest Department Sarawak, it still gives a new hope for better relationship between the government sector, indigenous people and various NGOs in the matter of forest management.


It is about time that every stakeholders to be more transparent in our state current forest management.


WORKING TOGETHER: All the participants of the workshop which was held at Four Point Hotel last month.

WORKING TOGETHER: All the participants of the workshop which was held at Four Point Hotel last month.


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