Massive land survey exercise seeks to resolve clashes

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An aerial view of Sarawak's vast plantations

An aerial view of Sarawak’s vast plantations

By Carolyn H.S. Yee

As clashes over land rights take their toll on Sarawak’s development and its public image, the government is banking on an extensive land survey to resolve the disputes within two years.

Almost RM100 million has been allocated to demarcate the boundaries between state and native land in a bid to prevent future clashes. Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak recently announced an additional RM30 million allocation for the survey following the RM60 million in federal funds allocated two years ago.

The massive exercise, covering a state almost the size of Peninsular Malaysia, is slated to be completed by 2015. The aim is to draw up clear boundaries so that state development plans will no longer end in bitter disputes that have sometimes turned violent.

Sarawak’s land development minister Tan Sri James Masing said this will also permit the state to develop native land, with the consent of the owners, as a way to alleviate poverty.

“My job is to develop NCR (native customary rights) land free from encumbrances,” he said. “That’s why the perimeter survey is very useful. We will know exactly where we stand.”

Land rights was a major opposition campaign platform in the May 5 general election, and helped it triple its share of parliamentary seats to six from two in 2008. The problem has become even more acute in recent years as Sarawak seeks to utilise vast land areas for oil palm and its rivers to generate cheap hydro power for industries.

Tan Sri Masing said after the survey was completed, if the people agreed, the government has created three development models to help them develop the land. The models differ in the types of partnership between the land owner, government and private sector.

He said the potential was huge as about 65 per cent of native land is suitable for oil palm.

But not everyone agrees that the land survey is the answer. Opposition assemblyman for Ba Kelalan, Baru Bian, said the land survey does not tackle the real source of the disputes which is the differing definitions of NCR land.

The government, he said, continues to exclude large tracts of forests claimed by the native communities as their traditional resource. If included, these would triple the estimated 1.5 million hectares of native land, he said.

“I don’t think it will solve the problems. It may instead restrict the definition of native land,” said Baru, who is also a land rights lawyer.

However, Tan Sri Masing said the government was refining its strategy as it progressed. He said for instance, it has changed how it resettled people affected by the building of the dams.

He said the government had allocated 30,000 hectares of forested land for the Penan community affected by the Murum dam even though their claim did not legally extend this far. The forest is for those who want to continue their hunting and gathering lifestyle but for those who want to be settled, a scheme has been set up.

“You can’t force them, you have to give options,” he said, adding that the government had learnt from the problems of resettlement for the Bakun Dam 15 years ago.

Murum, which can generate 1,000MW, is currently under construction. It’s the fourth dam being built as part of an ambitious plan to turn Sarawak into a powerhouse for energy-hungry industries like smelters. Its goal is to bring in industries that can create high-paying jobs such as engineers but it has stirred controversy for the environmental and social impact.

So far, two dams have been built – Batang Ai which provides 100MW and the huge 2,400MW Bakun. Feasibility studies are also underway for another dam at Baram or Baleh.

“Some of the objections are correct but we also need to look at the economic and development aspects,” said Tan Sri Masing.

To him, the on-going land survey is a start in resolving some of these land clashes. And as he pointed out, this has become imperative as the issue gains greater political prominence.

 

Photo Credit: Carolyn H.S. Yee

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