Indigenous communities in Sarawak call for an end to oil palm encroachment beside UNESCO heritage site

Indigenous communities in Sarawak are calling for an end to encroachment onto their traditional lands and the Swiss-based NGO, the Bruno Manser Fund¹, is urging the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate the oil palm company Radiant Lagoon, which has been logging rainforest near to the Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO heritage site on the island of Borneo.

The fund points to the links that have existed between Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib (the elder son of Taib Mahmud, who is the governor of Sarawak) and Radiant Lagoon Sdn Bhd and says the company received land leases at an extraordinarily low rate.

Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, was, until recently, the controlling shareholder of Radiant Lagoon.

“Sarawak’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site is threatened by oil palm plantations,” the Bruno Manser Fund stated.

“In the immediate vicinity of the Mulu National Park in Sarawak, an area of 4,400 hectares is currently being converted into palm oil monocultures.”

“The affected indigenous Berawan and Penan communities were not consulted and oppose the project that will destroy their forest and livelihoods.”

Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib (left) with Taib Mahmud.

The Bruno Manser Fund says that not only the Mulu rainforest is threatened. “Oil palm plantations are still spreading at an incredible rate. Despite Malaysian government promises, rainforest is being logged for the production of palm oil on a daily basis.

“This fundamentally contradicts the Malaysian government’s and the late Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s promise to stop the expansion of oil palm monocultures.”

Taib Mahmud was formerly the chief minister of Sarawak and is accused of pillaging the state through logging, and amassing a huge fortune as a result.

According to the Bruno Manser Fund, Radiant Lagoon obtained two leases covering a total of 4,400 hectares of “mixed zone land” in the Tutoh Apoh river region from the Sarawak state government in December 2008.

At the time, Taib Mahmud was still chief minister and the minister of resource planning in charge of land matters.

“Both leases were granted to Radiant Lagoon at extraordinarily favourable conditions,” the Bruno Manser Fund stated.

The Radiant Lagoon oil palm concession.

The Bruno Manser Fund says that, in the case of the first lease on “Lot 2 Tutoh Land District”, which covers an area of 3,017 hectares, Radiant Lagoon pays an annual rent of 7,543 ringgit (about US$1,850) to the Sarawak state government.

For the second lease, on “Lot 3 Apoh Land District”, which covers an area of 1,423 hectares, the company pays an annual rent of 3,558 ringgit (about US$875), the fund adds.

“This means that Radiant Lagoon pays the Sarawak government an average of merely 2.5 ringgit (about US$0.60) per hectare in annual rent,” it stated.

“The leases were granted for 99 years without due consultation of the affected Berawan and Penan communities who claim native customary rights over the land.”

The Bruno Manser Fund states that Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib first became a director of Radiant Lagoon in February 2008.

“Conspicuously, he resigned after two months and was reappointed in December 2009 after the company had been granted the two land leases and had been given a special 15-year deadline to complete the planting of the area.”

According to Radiant Lagoon’s 2017 financial report, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib held 99 out of 100 company shares as of December 31, 2017.

He resigned as a director of Radiant Lagoon in April 2018, one month before Malaysia’s last general election, and Radiant Lagoon was sold to the plantation and property tycoon Yee Ming Seng.

Current company records show that Radiant Lagoon is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Miri-based investment holding Onlyee Plantations, which is controlled by Yee Ming Seng. Yee Ming Seng is one of the owners of Double Dynasty, a Malaysian oil palm group.

“The involvement of Taib’s son in Radiant Lagoon smacks of favouritism,” the Bruno Manser Fund stated.

“This looks like the kind of deal that Global Witness exposed in its famous 2011 video on Taib land grabs and corruption. We call on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to immediately open an investigation into Radiant Lagoon.”

The Bruno Manser Fund has launched a petition to Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and the current chief minister of Sarawak, Abang Johari Openg, calling for the Radiant Lagoon’s concession to be revoked immediately and for a moratorium on new oil palm plantations throughout Sarawak.

Rainforest Rescue, based in Germany, is urging people to sign the petition.

“Radiant Lagoon is rapidly encroaching into the Mulu rainforest,” the Bruno Manser Fund stated. “However, it is not too late to stop this environmental disaster. If we act now, the forest of the Berawan and Penan can still be saved.”

Locals say they were never alerted to the sequestration of their lands, let alone compensated.

Radiant Lagoon operations near the Gunung Mulu National Park this month.

Berawan leader Willie Kajan says the Kampung Melinau community has filed a police report against Radiant Lagoon over the desecration of a 300-year-old Berawan and Tering grave site in the Mulu forest.

Members of the Penan and Berawan communities say that loggers have stepped up their operations in the forest.

Penan leader Komeok Joe said: “If Radiant Lagoon doesn’t stop logging and keeps converting our forest into an oil palm plantation, we the Penan will have no way to survive.

“We need the forest for our food supply and to pursue our traditional way of life. The Sarawak government must intervene immediately and stop the destruction of the Mulu forest. Our native customary rights over the forest must finally be recognised.”

In January, the Penan and Berawan communities addressed a joint letter to Sarawak’s chief minister, urging him to put a stop to the conversion.

The representatives of the Bateu Bungan, Long Terawan and Kampung Melinau communities said they were all affected by the planned oil palm plantation and wanted to express their “deepest concerns” about the destruction of their forest by Radiant Lagoon and another company, Formasi Abadi Sdn Bhd.

The communities say that the area taken for oil palm cultivation is a crucial part of their traditional land, which they wish to retain for themselves, their children, and future generations.

“Since time immemorial and until today, we live in and highly depend on our beloved forest,” the community representatives wrote.

“Rather than losing it, we want to protect the diversity of the surrounding of the Mulu world heritage site in the heart of Borneo. It should remain as an attraction for tourists and an important ecosystem for the whole world.”

The communities are asking that they be allowed to live peacefully and in harmony with their forest.

According to the news portal Malaysiakini, a copy of the letter was also sent to Malaysia’s Primary Industries Minister, Teresa Kok, and Works Minister Baru Bian.

Teresa Kok was quoted by Free Malaysia Today as saying: “As land is a state matter, I am counting upon the state government to take the appropriate measures to resolve the matter in the interest of the state, the indigenous people, and our national sustainability agenda.”

Formasi Abadi is a subsidiary of Rimbunan Sawit Bhd, which is part of the multinational conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau, which is controlled by the Tiong family from Sarawak.

The countries in which Rimbunan Hijau operates include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Vanuatu, New Zealand, and Russia.

Rimbunan Hijau has been heavily criticised by environmental and humanitarian organisations for alleged human rights abuses, political corruption, and environmental destruction.

The company has been investigated by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. In 2004, Greenpeace produced a report entitled “The Untouchables: Rimbunan Hijau’s World of Forest Crime and Political Patronage”. 

In December 2011, an international coalition of NGOs approached the then attorney-general, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and the inspector-general of police, requesting the arrest and prosecution of 13 Taib family members for allegedly conspiring to steal Sarawak state assets and lands. The letter was left unanswered.

In the course of its Stop Timber Corruption campaign, the Bruno Manser Fund has, since 2011, identified more than four hundred companies in 25 countries that it says are linked to the Taib family.

A haven for flora and fauna

The 544-square-kilometre Gunung Mulu National Park is the largest national park in Sarawak and is known for its dramatic peaks and caves, including the huge Deer Cave with its famous colony of bats.

There is a bat observatory near the entrance to the cave and special “bat cam” surveillance technology enables visitors and scientists to observe the comings and goings of millions of the mammals.

The Deer Cave leads to the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley and waterfall enclosed by limestone cliffs.

There are three mountains in the park: Gunung Mulu, Gunung Api, and Gunung Benarat. The Pinnacles at Gunung Api are tall, jagged limestone formations with steep trails and rare orchids.

There are tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna in the national park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2000.

  1. The Bruno Manser Fund was founded by the Swiss rainforest advocate Bruno Manser, who has been missing since his last trip to Sarawak in May 2000.