By Terence Netto
PKR (People's Justice Party) advisor Anwar Ibrahim described the arrests of Iban landowners for alleged arson in the interior of Sarawak as "the latest chapter in the continuing saga of Dayak desperation" over native customary rights (NCR) land whose ownership is imperiled by logging and plantation agriculture companies.
The arrests of land rights activist Jacob Emang, Ziglar anak Kasau, Edward Ungga and Gerah ak Gugat in the Sri Aman division on April 12 followed police reports by a logging company that their mobile camps in Silantek had been torched. The four have been remanded until April 23.
Anwar described Dayaks in the interior of Sarawak as "living lives of quiet desperation that now and then flares up in action that invites police attention, not to mention the notice of the rest of Malaysians who don't quite know what it is to be under the tyranny of geography."
"Hence we in Semenanjung (peninsula) have little empathy for the plight of the Dayaks in the Sarawak interior," said the former deputy premier in remarks to malaysiakini on the arrests.
Anwar said the amendments to the land code in Sarawak in 2000 and 2001 had stoked fear among Dayak owners of NCR land that they were going to lose their inheritance to logging and plantation agriculture companies.
The 1958 Land Code: The Sarawak Land Code was implemented in 1958. Under this code, land in which native customary rights (NCR) had lawfully been created prior to 1st January 1958 is termed Native Customary Land (NCL). However, section 5(3) of the Land Code states that "any native customary rights may be extinguished by direction issued by the Minister" for "public purposes" or to facilitate alienation of land, which under Section 15A must be for the purpose of any undertaking that would, in the opinion of the Minister, be for the benefit of the State. In effect, as of 1958, NCL became a part of State land, and NCR can easily be disposed of. The indigenous people lost real control over their land.
The Land Code does state that any order to extinguish NCR must be accompanied by the payment of compensation to any person who can claim NCR on the land. However, claims for compensation must be made within 60 days of the order. After this time period, "native customary rights shall cease and be extinguished and the land held under such rights shall revert to the Government." As the indigenous people have limited access to legal resources, 60 days is often not enough for them to file their claims. Also, a 1996 amendment to the Land code removed the requirement that the indigenous people must be notified of any directions of extinguishments of NCR. This means that if the people do not have access to the District Office during the sixty-day period, they may lose their land without even knowing it.
Land the 'last bastion'
He said state government assurances that NCR land was not being threatened and that putting such land to economic use via logging and plantation agriculture did little to assuage Dayak fears of disinheritance. He described Dayak ties to NCR land as "mystic" and thus impervious to the market savvy calculations of planners for whom rising commodity prices made the sight of idle or poorly cultivated land a travesty of economics.
He said sources had told him that the four who were arrested owned NCR land in Abok in Sri Aman and that the logging company with a permit to extract timber had encroached on durian planted land belonging to the arrested NCR owners. The encroachment was by way of a path carved by the company enroute to the timber concession.
Anwar said the Dayaks' meagre educational opportunities, low skilled labour, and fragmented political leadership had conduced to poverty and made them regard their NCR land as the "last bastion" of their legitimacy as a people.
"They are the poorest community in Malaysia today and so the land issue has become an emotive one for them," he said.