MIRI, Sarawak, Malaysia, December 10, 2009 (ENS) – The indigenous Penan people on the island of Borneo have turned to the courts in their decades-long effort to protect their ancestral lands from logging and plantations.

Five indigenous Penan communities of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak have filed a lawsuit against the Sarawak state government and three licensees of timber and planted-forest concessions at the High Court of Sarawak and Sabah.

The new land rights litigation affects forestry operations by the three Malaysian timber conglomerates of Samling, Interhill and Timberplus in concessions issued to Damai Cove Resorts, Samling Plywood, Samling Reforestation and Timberplus.

The Penan are demanding land titles for an area of 80,000 hectares (308 square miles), the nullification of the four timber and planted-forest licences they claim were “unlawfully issued” and also compensation for damage done by the logging companies in the course of their past operations.

In particular, the Penan are asking the court to issue a mandatory injunction against the licensees, plus their contractors and subcontractors, for the removal of all structures, equipment and machinery from the plaintiffs’ native customary rights land.

The Penan plaintiffs provide evidence that they and their ancestors have been using their claimed rainforests since time immemorial.

Formerly nomadic, the Penan hunted and gathered food from the rainforest and lived on sago, a starch extracted from the pith of sago palm stems, until the 1950s, when they decided to settle at village locations where they live today.

The Penan have a history of barter trade in jungle products, such as resin for producing fire, latex from kapon trees and handicraft items, with traders who have been coming to their villages since the early 20th century.

The Penan claim that the Sarawak government’s issue of timber and planted-forest licences is “oppressive, arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional” and “calculated to result in a profit for the Defendants.”

The Penan plaintiffs state that, for over 10 years, various logging operators have wrongfully trespassed onto their ancestral land with bulldozers, excavators, shovels, trucks and lorries and have destroyed a substantial area of their forest, fruit trees, crops and cultural heritage, such as graves and historical sites.

In September 2009, a Malaysian government report confirmed allegations by the Penan of the middle Baram region that a number of indigenous girls and women had been sexually abused and raped by logging company employees.

An independent review of logging operations in the region commissioned by the French Accor group had uncovered numerous offenses committed by Interhill against the Sarawak forestry legislation.

The lawsuit claims that the Penan plaintiffs “have a legitimate expectation that their rights, tradition, culture and livelihood will not be disrupted, extinguished, and/or restricted.”

The plaintiff Penan claim native customary rights over their ancestral land, which they have never abandoned and from which they derive food, valuable medicines, wildlife and other forest produces for their livelihood and substance. They also farm cultivate and plant padi, fruit trees, and other essential trees and crops on their ancestral land, the lawsuit states.

“The Plaintiffs’ rights were impaired without a right to be heard and/or a right to say “no” and/or object to the granting and/or issuance of any Timber Licences and/or title to the extinguishment and/or termination of their rights,” the lawsuit states.

The Penan also claim that although the law grants the Sarawak state government “special powers and discretion to give preferential treatment to the Plaintiffs as regards the reservation or alienation of land in Sarawak,” the government “failed, refused or neglected to exercise it” to protect the Penan’s rights and/or title in and possession of their native customary land rights.

The litigation is divided over two court cases that have been filed by 10 Penan leaders of the communities of Ba Abang, Long Item, Long Kawi, Long Lilim and Long Pakan in Sarawak’s Middle Baram region.

The cases are being handled by the law office of Messrs. Baru Bian in Kuching. Baru Bian recently was appointed the Sarawak leader of the People’s Justice Party.

Both cases are based on detailed community maps and oral history documentation that have been compiled with the assistance of the Bruno Manser Fund. This nongovernmental organization based is Switzerland is named after and carries on the work of environmental activist Bruno Manser, who lived with the Penan for six years in the 1980s.

Manser staged protests to bring international attention to the struggle of the Penan people to keep their ancestral lands from being destroyed by logging and plantations. In 1991, Manser chained himself to a lamp post with a banner during the G7 summit in London until cut loose by police. In 1992 he parachuted into the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Last seen in May 2000 in the isolated village of Bario in Sarawak, Manser is missing and presumed dead.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.