The Malaysian Ministry of Economic Affairs has announced an increase in pulpwood plantations throughout Malaysia, Sarawak included. At present, an area of 10,000 hectares is occupied by tree plantations in Sarawak and it is increasing as in other regions of the country. While in the past most of the tree plantations were established by the State, at present private companies are becoming more and more involved. The role of the State is changing: Dr. Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud -Sarawak’s Chief Minister- has recently announced that “a part” of the 64,000 km2 forest reserve will be declassified and this land will be devoted to tree plantations. The intention of transforming Malaysia into one of the most important world producers of cellulose seems to be a relevant factor in this policy. Taib Mahmud announced this at the ceremony marking the start of construction of “Borneo Pulp and Paper Sdn. Bhd”, a new pulp mill, situated in Ulu Tatau, near Bintulu, that will cost U$S 600 million. The project is a joint-venture between the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation and the Asia Pulp & Paper Company Ltd. In this case it is the government itself who is going to establish 200,000 hectares of fast-growing species to supply the paper factory, that will start production in 1999, with an initial annual production of 750,000 tons of cellulose. According to the Chief Minister, “such projects could mean a fortune for the people who have lived in poverty for generations".
Such statement is contradicted by reality. The development of large scale monocultures -both oil palm and industrial tree plantations- is together with logging, dam building and tourism resorts another activity that severely threatens the customary land rights of the Dayak Iban. The Sarawak State Government plans to "develop" 1,5 million hectares of native customary land (NCL) as oil palm plantations. In implementing the land development programme, the government mainly grants provisional leases to the State statutory bodies/agencies or private companies for a period of 60-90 years. Once the land has been leased, the agencies or the private companies become the proprietors of the land. Without the knowledge or consent of the native communities, most of their NCL has been appropriated to companies which are either state owned or owned by the same people who were granted the logging licences or permits to develop these land areas into oil palm plantations. The native communities are opposing and resisting these activities.
The Government has also targetted one million hectares of land for industrial tree plantations. Some 10 timber companies have met with the Sarawak Timber Association and the Forest Department to carry out a scoping exercise to identify the concerns of potential investors in this venture.
In Tatau in Bintulu Division, the Borneo Pulp & Paper Sdn. Bhd. has been provided with 373,700 hectares of land for the planting of acacia, eucalyptus and other fast-growing tree species. The site for the pulp and paper mill is affecting 12 Iban longhouses in Upper Tatau. The Ibans are challenging the extinguishment of their NCR and also filed an arbitration in the High Court.
It is very clear that -unless stopped- there projects could certainly "mean a fortune" to a few powerful people, but will result in poverty for the people who have lived in harmony with nature for generations.
Sources: Roger Graf, Bruno Manser Fonds Newsletter, January 1998; Forest Peoples Programme, January 1998.