‘Make a stand on real issues in Sabah’

They must take the opportunity to highlight the “real issues” of land grab and corruption that has lead to desforestation in Sabah, says a UK-based NGO.

Teoh El Sen, FMT

Even as Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton prepare to embark from Kuala Lumpur to Sabah for a two-day tour starting tomorrow evening, the British royal couple have been urged to “examine the real cause of destruction” of the Malaysian Borneo rain forests.

An International NGO, Global Witness, said that while the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s official purpose of the visit is to highlight the conservation activities of the Royal Society, they ought to also take the opportunity to highlight the “real issues” of land grab and corruption that has lead to desforestation.

Global Witness is a UK-based organisation which “investigates and campaigns to prevent natural resource-related conflict and corruption and associated environmental and human rights abuses”.

It said that the young royal couple should not “play into public relation objectives” of those directly involved in the destruction of the forests in Sabah and Sarawak.

The systemic causes of rainforest destruction in Borneo — which has left Sabah with less than 4% of intact forest — was caused by “high level corruption and the relentless process of industrial-scale logging and conversion of forests to oil palm plantations”, it said.

“This new generation of the royal family has an opportunity to highlight the real issues such as land grabbing and corruption that directly result in poverty, deforestation and human rights abuses, rather than inadvertently providing diplomatic cover – even kudos – for some of the most destructive activities on the planet”, said Tom Picken, Campaign Leader, Forests at Global Witness.

This was especially since the couple’s tour tomrrow will involve an audience with Sabah Chief Minister, Musa Aman.

“Musa is currently the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by Swiss authorities for the laundering of USD 90 million(RM277 million) through the Swiss bank UBS, allegedly amassed by soliciting bribes from loggers in exchange for timber licenses,” said Picken.

Picken reminded the couple that high level corruption in Sabah and Sarawak “has resulted in some of the highest rates of deforestation anywhere in the world and appalling human rights abuses for the forest communities standing in the way”.

Diplomatic row

Earlier this week, British tabloid Daily Mail reported that Prince William and his wife’s stopover at Sabah could propel them into the “first diplomatic row” of their new royal careers.

The paper highlighted the fact that Musa was being probed by Swiss prosecutors over claims that Swiss banking giant UBS allegedly helped him to launder money.

A demonstration was held outside St James Palace last week during in which the royal couple was reportedly urged to snub Musa, who is believed to have helped arrange the visit and will be host on Friday.

“Their primary reason for wishing to visit Sabah owes itself to the Duke’s interest in conservation,” a St James Palace spokesperson had told Daily Mail. The British Foreign Office also told Daily Mail that the government would not pass judgment on the money laundering allegation against Musa until it has been fully investigated.

This Saturday, William and Kate will visit Danum Valley, which would be seen as a “stamp of approval” for conservation efforts in Lahad Datu. Danum Valley is managed by Yayasan Sabah for conservation, research and education purposes. The UK Royal Society is one of the key sponsors.

The visit to one of Borneo’s last virgin rainforests would be the highlight of their official Royal Tour of the Commonwealth in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, marking her 60th year on the throne.