Masing: There's no land grab

This is written by my colleague Lian Cheng at Kuching bureau in Sarawak.

KUCHING: There is no way for the state government to grab the land of the natives, especially the Penans, when there are strict procedures that must be followed when developing Native Customary Rights (NCR) land to oil palm estates.

State Minister of Land Development Datuk Seri Dr James Masing said allegations of the state government grabbing NCR land was based on ignorance and arrogance.

"Ignorance, because they do not know that there are procedures involved. Arrogance, because they are making the assumption that Sarawak politicians are all crooked," said Masing at a press conference here.

"There is no way the government can grab land as alleged by international non-governmental organisations, should the land be genuinely NCR land. There are strict procedures, which include the signatures of every land owner. We seek the co-operation from every NCR land owner before we develop their land. If they disagree, we won’t go in.

Masing pointed out that anyone who wished to know about the land development concept in Sarawak is free to check with his ministry.

He was refuting allegations made by a Kansas-based human rights activist Robert E. Rutkowski, who wrote to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to inform the latter that "the hunter-gatherer Penan and other tribes are under threat from new plans to expand oil palm plantations massively in the Malaysian state of Sarawak".

"The Sarawak government has announced plans to double the area used for oil palm by 2020, using indigenous land which it says is 'mostly under-utilised and without titles'," said the letter dated 21 Dec 2010, copied to Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud and United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Masing clarified it was indeed the government's plan to develop two million hectares of land but not only as oil palm plantations but also other crops, such as rubber. "By 2020, our target is to develop some two million hectares of land which belongs both to the state and the natives for plantation purposes. In our case, it will be oil palm and rubber," he said.

"I am not going to apologise for trying to develop unproductive land for land owners when we are trying our best to do it properly. If the land  remains  idle, then the owners will remain poor. Among the main objective to develop the NCR land is to eradicate poverty among the people in the rural area.

He added that while there were only 1.5 million hectares of NCR land in Sarawak, the accusation that the government intend to turn two million hectares of NCR land into an oil palm plantation was wrong.

"Of the 900,000ha of existing oil palm plantations, only 50,000ha are NCR land. There's another 200,000ha of NCR land identified for oil palm," said Masing, adding that the plan to develop land for cash crop plantations not only involved NCR land, but also other land types.

He then pointed out that according to the Land Law 1958, the natives could only claim the land as theirs if they cultivated on the land. "The Penans were not cultivators. However, the state government understands their needs, so they are allowed to hunt and roam freely in the areas they want, such as the catchment areas of Bakun and Murum, while other natives, such as Iban, do not have the privilege."

He said there were about 3,000 Penans who were still nomads, living in the Baram and Belaga areas. Others have joined the mainstream society. "There are only 3,000 nomadic Penans. And the total catchment area of Bakun Dam (including Murum Dam) is 69,000ha."

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