Malaysia: End Secrecy on Major Land Deal in Sabah

The Sabah state government in Malaysia should immediately make public the terms and status of a land deal that would hand management of 4.9 million acres of tropical forest to a foreign company for up to 200 years, Human Rights Watch said today.

(Human Rights Watch) – The Sabah government is obligated to respect and protect the rights of the communities and tens of thousands of Indigenous people who call the forest their home and derive their livelihoods from it, and to ensure that any deal reached with the company upholds these rights.

The provisional conservation agreement, signed by the Sabah state government on October 30, 2021, gives Singapore-based Hoch Standard PTY Ltd. the exclusive right to monetize “natural capital” in vast areas of the state. This includes the right to seek payments for ecosystem services provided by the forest – such as the absorption of carbon dioxide by trees and plants – from other companies looking to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions. Since November, when media reports revealed the existence of the deal, Sabah state officials have given conflicting statements about the binding nature of the agreement and the need for or existence of prior consultations with Indigenous communities living within areas covered by the agreement.

“The lack of transparency about the deal with Hoch Standard, which has the potential to seriously damage the lives of tens of thousands of Indigenous people in Sabah, is simply outrageous,” said Richard Pearshouse, director of the Environment and Human Rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials should publicly respond to the concerns raised by the state’s Indigenous communities and commit to a course of action that protects, rather than undermines, their rights.”

On February 28, 2022, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Hajiji Noor, the Sabah chief minister; Jeffrey Kitingan, the deputy chief minister; and Frederick Kugan, the chief forest conservator, asking a series of questions about the status and scope of the agreement. Human Rights Watch also sent similar letters to Hoch Standard and Tierra Australia, which is reported to have brokered the deal. More than a month later, none of those contacted had responded.

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