The end of the jungle?

The Malaysian government and the palm oil industry has been accused of laying waste to last remaining rainforests of Borneo in what has been described as a corporate land grab.

By Angus Stickler (BBC News)

A BBC investigation has uncovered evidence of the latest jungle clearance – where vast tracts of land are being bulldozed to make way for plantations. Indigenous tribes say they are being driven from their lands.

Oil palm

Palm oil is found in household products including soap and margarine

Malaysia sells its sustainable palm oil to the world. A slickly produced advert, banned in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority, proclaims that palm oil is “a gift from nature – a gift for life.”

Palm oil production in Malaysian Borneo – Sarawak – is on an industrial scale. One of the major producers is the IOI Group, a global player serving markets in more than 65 countries.

Palm oil is found in one-in-ten supermarket products: from margarine to soap and shampoo. Last year, IOI turned over more than £2.5bn.

Devastated land

Most of the oil plantations in the part of Sarawak I visited are controlled from IOI’s base camp in Tejab. Here you can get a sense of the scale of the company’s operations, with mile upon mile of oil palms as far as the eye can see in every direction, all of which used to be rainforest.

Harrison Ngau
What is the government priority? It’s greed
Harrison Ngau

But though, from a distance, the plantations look quite green and lush, in reality they are barren: the life has basically gone.

It’s estimated that only 3% of the primary rainforest of Malaysian Borneo remains.

Logging has devastated much of the land, but now campaigners say the palm oil plantations have taken over.

And it’s not just the forest that’s gone. Since the early 1990s whole communities have left – driven, they say, from their farms.

La Tip is from the Kayan tribe. He lives in a rough-and ready shack in the middle of one of the oil plantations which has a stagnant pool for fish. He used to have rice paddies and fruit trees, but these have gone.

“They just simply come and bulldoze our farm and our coco trees,” he explained, “They never come to us, to talk to us about this. We tried to negotiate with them but what they say to us [is] they have more right than us here.

“There’s no solution, we don’t have anymore land… What’s around us is oil palm.”

The jungle after having been cleared

Barren hillsides are all that remain after a rainforest is cleared

IOI only took over here from another company two years ago but it is expanding its operations.

La Tip showed me a map, based on an agreement drawn up in the 1960s, of the land he says has been taken from his people. He says that IOI has cleared the tribe’s water catchment area.

“We’re worried that it poison us – because they use fertilizer – weedkiller and pesticides on that land. Especially during the wet season, it’s always blocked so we cannot get our water supply.”

These fears of contaminated water may be unfounded. But until the water is tested there is understandable cause for concern.

‘Very pessimistic’

Communites like the Kayan used to clear small plots of land in the forest to farm. But this is now rare, as most farmland has been taken over by oil palms and most of the people have left for shanty towns where they live in absolute squalor, picking a living earning money in whatever way they can.

Penan tribesmen

The Kayan and other tribes are fighting in the courts. They say they have documents to prove their right to the land.

Harrison Ngau, who is heading the legal challenge, told me: “The natives are subsidence farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen – a simple people”.

“One can become very pessimistic – here is a question of the government responsibility to its own people – particularly the native people. But their intention is solely to make profit at the expense of the livelihood of the natives. What is the government priority? It’s greed.”

Harrison Ngua is outspoken. In 1987 he was arrested, jailed for 60 days, then placed under house arrest for two years for voicing his views.

Nevertheless, for Dr James Masing, Cabinet Minister of Land Development in Sarawak, the legal issue is clear cut.

“You’re looking at state land, that land belongs to the government,” he says.

“But you cannot condone people who are squatters who are in areas where they should not be.

“If it is indeed their land, the law of the land will take care of that.

“We have places where there are court cases, where native land has actually been wrongly taken by the government, and they go to court and they won the cases – the land was given back to them.”

The legal case Harrison Ngua is heading has been running for 11 years. Meanwhile IOI is continuing to clear land.

Absolute devastation

City shanty town

Former forest communities now find themselves living in city shanty towns

Travelling on a Sunday, when security was lax, we drove deep into IOI’s latest development area, past a sign with the corporate branding which read “Jungle Clearance.”

The area was a scene of absolute devastation: a vast scar on the landscape. Vast shards of tree trunks and branches stuck out of the yellowy orange soil. The land had been bulldozed, completely cleared to make way for oil plantations

Surveying the scene, La Tip’s friend Marcos was shocked. “I feel very, very shocked and I feel very, very angry to see the environment really destroyed. Let me say, they are greedy.”



IOI is a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – the RSPO. We asked for an interview. It issued the following statement:

As a responsible corporate citizen, IOI has never evicted nor forced any natives from their lands. Immediately after taking over the company IOI initiated meetings with the native leaders to resolve the unsettled conflict. Some accepted ex-gratia payments and willingly handed over their land. Negotiations and consultations are still ongoing. An RSPO investigation concluded that IOI had acted responsibly for the management of land in Sarawak.