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MALAYSIA: Encroaching Forest, Oil Palm Plantations Alarm Villagers

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, May 21 2010 (IPS) - A increasing number of natives in Sarawak state in north Borneo are alarmed at encroaching forest and oil palm plantations, which are taking over their native customary land and destroying their traditional lifestyles and biodiversity.

In Long Berawan, a village in the north of the state, a community of a thousand Berawan and Tering indigenous people who live in longhouses is worried about plans by a reforestation and plantation group to take over 80,000 hectares of native land. And there are other villages and communities similarly affected.

“The land is being given to the big companies to do the plantations in our area,” says Dennis Along, a villager who comes from a traditional farming family. “In future, it will be very hard for the longhouse people to do farming. There is no free land for us to do farming anymore, because the company is taking over the land.”

The villagers here used to cultivate paddy, plant rubber trees and grow a variety of local fruit trees – as part of a shifting cultivation tradition that goes back hundreds of years. “We move to a new area every year because we want to make the ground more fertile,” explains Along.

“When we move our rice fields, we plant fruit trees – rambutan, durian, langsat, jackfruit – to help replenish the soil.” Their land is also home to wildlife such as wild boar, monkeys, deer and all kinds of local fish varieties.

Now, they are going to lose all that as a company has taken over their land for plantation, laments Along, referring to Pusaka KTS, a joint venture between timber-based conglomerate KTS Group of Companies and the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation.

Similar large forest plantation projects are slated for the Kakus and Belaga regions.

The loss of biodiversity when land is cleared for plantations is alarming. “When a huge area is cleared for plantations, all the plants will be cleared, because they are clearing up the land,” explains Raymond Abin, coordinator of the Sarawak Conservation Action Network, which consists of environmental and indigenous rights groups in Sarawak.

“After that, they will do the excavating work in order for them to plant the oil palm. This will invariably lead to serious soil erosion that would flow into the streams and rivers and kill a lot of fish.”

In addition, foreign workers hired by the plantation firms are often concerned about their own survival and extract as much fish from the rivers as they can. “There will be little wildlife once the forest is gone and replaced by tree or oil palm plantation,” says Abin.

The immediate impact on surrounding communities is water pollution and flash floods.

In Sarawak, forest plantations are mainly of fast maturing tree species such as acacia mangium and rubberwood (timber latex clones). Acacia mangium is a highly invasive species regarded as a threat to natural forests and the natural environment.

Whatever the condition of the existing forest, planting fast-growing acacia involves prior clear-felling and removal of stumps, resulting in a denuded landscape ready for replanting. It is also a sterile monocrop that allows little to grow beneath it. Acacia plantations thus cannot support the rainforests’ original faunal diversity.

The ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook 3’ report released by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity – an international treaty adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 – earlier this month noted that the 2010 biodiversity target agreed to by the world’s governments in 2002 has not been met at the global level.

“The loss of biodiversity is an issue of profound concern for its own sake. Biodiversity also underpins the functioning of ecosystems, which provide a wide range of services to human societies. Its continued loss, therefore, has major implications for current and future human well-being,” the report said.

According to the website of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board, the Plantation Industries Ministry aims to develop 375,000 hectares of forest plantation for timber at an annual planting rate of 25,000 hectares per year for the next 15 years.

This is part of an aggressive programme that includes providing soft loans to companies for the development of such plantations “to reduce pressure on native forest as a source for raw materials and to ensure its continuous availability for the domestic timber industry.” Sarawak also plans to double its oil palm coverage to one million hectares by this year.

The loss of biodiversity in tree plantations in Sarawak is significant in the global equation, says political economist Andrew Aeria. “But don’t expect Sarawak politicians to be bothered by all this. All they are interested in is the profit margin of their crony companies and their family-linked companies involved in tree plantation projects.”

The federal government, with the collaboration of the Sarawak government, is in the process of finalising a mechanism on how to solve the issue of native customary rights land in the state, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok was quoted as saying Thursday by the Bernama national news agency.

Meanwhile, the villagers in Long Berawan are still engaged in farming using their traditional practices – but for how much longer?

“When the plantations come – and they are starting work now…” Along’s voice trails off. “Now they are doing work in the jungle, and after the jungle, the native customary land, and after that, the whole place, and definitely our farms will go.”

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