Undercover sting exposes Malaysia land-grab


Allegations of corruption get louder following secret tapes showing plunder of resource-rich Sarawak province.

Florence Looi, Aljazeera

Plantations and logging are ravaging Malaysia’s majestic Borneo region and indigenous people who have lived for centuries here say they are increasingly being uprooted from their once-pristine lands. 

Watch Al Jazeera’s video at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/03/2013318131755948174.html 

But as the timber and palm oil companies swarm over the rugged landscape of resplendent rivers and ancient rainforests, villagers in Long Napir in the country’s biggest state Sarawak have vowed to thwart any further land-grabs.

The village is a settlement of longhouses, the traditional communal housing favoured by indigenous people in eastern Malaysia’s Borneo island.

Under the Sarawak Land Law, indigenous people have rights over areas as long as they can prove they have lived in or used the lands prior to January 1, 1958.

But the surrounding ancient rainforests that are so essential to their traditional way of life is under threat because of logging and plantation companies. Over the past 30 years, Sarawak – one of the richest Malaysian states – has become one of the largest exporters of tropical timber.

Despite its wealth, profits have failed to trickle down, and the people here are some of the poorest in the country.

Long Napir villagers lay the blame for their plight squarely on one man: the state’s powerful chief minister, Abdul Mahmud Taib, who is in charge of all land classification and the allocation of lucrative forestry and plantation licenses.

“He lives, the rest of us suffer,” Tamin Sepuluh Ribu, a former village headman, told Al Jazeera. “We have no land to farm, our rivers have become muddy, there’s hardly any fish left anymore.”

‘Coterie of cronies’

Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation working against environmental exploitation, has investigated and exposed the situation in remote eastern Malaysia.  

An undercover Global Witness investigator posing as an investor was offered several opportunities to purchase land in Sarawak by company officials linked to Chief Minister Taib. In each instance, the land in question was occupied by indigenous communities, who have valid claims to ownership rights under Malaysian law.

Global Witness said the indigenous areas were being sold by companies with close personal or political ties to the chief minister.

Taib has held the post since 1981, and has been repeatedly accused of corruption during his nearly 32-year rule.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur noted in one cable released by WikiLeaks: “Chief Minister Taib Mahmud … doles out timber-cutting permits while patrolling the underdeveloped state using 14 helicopters, and his family’s companies control much of the economy.”

The American cable added that, “All major contracts and a significant portion of land to be converted to palm oil plantations [including on indigenous ‘customary land rights’ that the state government has refused to recognize] are given to these three companies.”

People in Sarawak are “fed up” with Taib’s administration, “seen as only enriching his family and a small coterie of cronies”, it said.

Under investigation

Global Witness released a November 2012 report titled, “In the future, there will be no forests.” 

“Taib’s powerful executive position and personal responsibility for the issuance of lucrative logging and plantation licences has enabled him to systematically extract ‘unofficial payments’ from the state’s timber tycoons for the enrichment of himself and his family,” the report said.

Taib, meanwhile, denied the corruption allegations as “wholly untrue and malicious”, said the report.

In 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission launched an official investigation into Taib, which continues at present.

In secretly taped negotiations provided to Al Jazeera, the Global Witness investigator discussed buying land with company shareholders Fatimah Abdul Rahman and Norlia Abdul Rahman – Taib’s first cousins. Fatimah admitted the parcel of land under discussion had been transferred to them by Chief Minister Taib.

“Yeah, he’s the one who gave us the land. He’s my cousin,” Fatimah said, laughing.

In 2011, Taib gave his cousins 5,000 hectares of land for about $300,000 dollars, according to leaked land registry documents. Having secured agriculture and timber licences, they were trying to sell it a year later for more than $16mn.

Later, discussing the ease of receiving a forestry license, Fatimah told the Global Witness investigator: “The Land and Survey Department, they are the ones that issue this licence. Of course, this is from the CM’s [Chief Minister’s] directive, but I can speak to the CM very easily.”

Fatimah and Norlia did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Read more at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/03/2013318131755948174.html