Bruno Manser Fund alleges land grab illegalities by palm oil company in Sarawak

Radiant Lagoon oil palm concession, Mulu, Sarawak, January 2019.

The Swiss-based NGO the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF)¹ alleges in a new report that the Malaysian oil palm plantation company Radiant Lagoon has breached numerous regulations during logging operations in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and in its dealings with local indigenous communities.

The fund also accuses the Sarawak state government of colluding with Radiant Lagoon and according it favourable leasing conditions.

Radiant Lagoon has been logging rainforest near to the Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO heritage site that is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Indigenous communities in Sarawak have been calling for an end to encroachment onto their traditional lands for oil palm cultivation.

An indigenous delegation is in Europe on a multi-city tour to lobby officials about the detrimental oil palm expansion in Sarawak. Meetings have been scheduled in Brussels and Paris, and in Geneva and Berne in Switzerland.

The BMF has meanwhile urged the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate Radiant Lagoon.

There is a “Save the Mulu Rainforest” website and a petition addressed to Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and the current chief minister of Sarawak, Abang Johari Openg. Including offline support, the petitition has garnered 191,000 signatures.

The petition calls for the Radiant Lagoon’s concession to be revoked immediately and for a moratorium on new oil palm plantations throughout Sarawak.

Mulu blockade by indigenous communities, January 2019.

The BMF 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 and says the company received land leases at an extraordinarily low rate. Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, was, from June 2010 until February 2018, the controlling shareholder of Radiant Lagoon.

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.

Radiant Lagoon obtained two oil palm leases covering 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 BMF stated.[tweetquote]

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 group of companies that engages in timber extraction and trading and property development and sells palm oil to international brands such as Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez, and Procter & Gamble. (Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib’s shares in Radiant Lagoon were transferred to Onlyee Plantations in February 2018.)

The BMF says a fact-finding mission has shown that, between December 2018 and March 2019, Radiant Lagoon felled an estimated 30,000 m3 of timber worth more than US$10 million without the required licence.

This, the fund says, is only one of several legal breaches it has identified in Radiant Lagoon’s operations in Sarawak. The fund says Radiant Lagoon has also failed to respect the native customary rights of the local Penan, Berawan, and Tering communities.

The BMF also says that Radiant Lagoon failed to start oil palm planting within two years as is stipulated in the lease it was granted in 2008.

The fund says that, in March 2019, clearing activities were stopped after the Penan, Berawan, and Tering communities erected blockades in the forest .

“The clearing activities may be resumed very soon, depending on further government action,” the fund added.

“The Sarawak government failed to consult the local communities when the provisional
leases over their lands were granted in 2008. This is a clear violation of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Malaysia is a signatory.”

State government accused of colluding with Radiant Lagoon

In its new report, entitled “The Mulu Land Grab”, the BMF expands on its allegations about the Sarawak state government’s handling of Radiant Lagoon’s oil palm leases.

In December 2008, Radiant Lagoon was controlled by Chung Soon Nam, one of the closest business associates of Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib.

The company was granted a special condition, extending the allowed planting period to 15 years instead of the standard five years, the BMF says.

“Soon after the leases were granted, Chung Soon Nam transferred the majority of shares to Taib’s son who had already been a company director in early 2008, but resigned before Radiant Lagoon received the leases from Taib’s ministry,” the fund said.

The BMF says the leases were granted to Radiant Lagoon at extraordinarily favourable conditions with an annual rent of only 60 US cents per hectare.

The fund has also expressed concerns about the handling of the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessments for the leases.

“Sarawak’s Natural Resources and Environment Board, which is a state agency, keeps these important public documents under lock and key, and refuses to make them accessible to the Mulu indigenous communities,” the BMF stated.

According to the lease stipulations, the leaseholder would normally have been obliged to begin planting within two years after the leases were granted.

“Radiant Lagoon has itself admitted that it waited almost ten years before it commenced the development of the plantation, ” the BMF stated.

“According to the lease provisions, any ‘breach or a default in the observance of any or all the conditions … shall render the land laible to forfeiture’.”

The BMF has called on the Sarawak government to declare the Radiant Lagoon leases null and void with immediate effect. “The company has waited way too long to start planting and has thus forfeited the leases,” the fund said.

The fund says that several Berawan and Tering gravesites in the concession area have been desecrated by Radiant Lagoon’s use of heavy machinery.

It also says that a hazardous pesticide, Antracol, produced by the German manufacturer Bayer, has been found near a greenhouse containing palm oil seedlings in the Radiant Lagoon concession area.

Antracol is banned in the European Union because a major metabolite of propineb, its
active ingredient, is suspected of being dangerous for a foetus in the womb .

The BMF says the Radiant Lagoon oil palm plantation would significantly contribute to habitat fragmentation in the Gunung Mulu National Park. “The lease area is an important wildlife corridor between the national park and the forests of Brunei, the last major primary forest reserve in the region,” the fund said.

The fund points out that 457 hectares of the Radiant Lagoon provisional lease area consist of peat soils. “Their drainage for palm oil cultivation would have a significant impact on Malaysia’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

The executive director of the BMF, Lukas Straumann, said: “Instead of issuing trade war threats to the EU, Malaysian politicians should focus on cleaning up Sarawak, which has become the dirty backyard of the Malaysian palm oil industry.”

The BMF has also called on Malaysia‘s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to direct the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to open an investigation against Taib Mahmud, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, and Chung Soon Nam over Radiant Lagoon’s Mulu oil palm leases.

The fund has also urged the Malaysian authorities, and the Sarawak state government in particular, to reform their oil palm policy and stop the expansion of oil palm concessions in Sarawak with immediate effect.

“While the Malaysian government promotes palm oil as a sustainably produced crop, every day tropical rainforests are being cleared for new oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo,” the BMF states in its new report.

“It is envisaged that, between 2019 and 2023, 600,000 hectares of rainforest and community lands will be converted into plantations, especially in Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state.”

The BMF says such mass land conversion goes against the pledge made by the late chief minister Adenan Satem that the expansion of oil palm monocultures would be stopped in Sarawak.

Radiant Lagoon oil palm concession, Mulu, Sarawak, January 2019.

Protest by indigenous communities in Mulu, March 2019.

Protest at the Malaysian High Commission in London, May 4, 2019.

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.

All main photos are courtesy of Mulu United Land Action/BMF.

  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.

Update 8/5/2019

Indigenous activists today handed over a 191,000-signature petition against rainforest destruction in the Gunung Mulu region to an official from the Malaysian embassy in Brussels.

“We have come all the way to Brussels to make clear that we want our rights respected and the forest left intact, “ said Willie Kajan, a Berawan activist from Kampung Melinau in the Mulu region. “The Mulu plantation has to be stopped and the land given back to the Dayak people.”

The delegation then went to the European parliament where they are meeting EU officials and NGOs. They danced in front of the parliament building to protest against, and raise awareness about, the expansion of oil palm cultivation at Mulu and elsewhere in Sarawak.

Petition is handed over to a Malaysian embassy official in Brussels.