Penan go to court to defend Heart of Borneo rainforests
"This is our land": Penan elder James Laloh Kesoh demarcating the Penan Ba Jawi's territory (Picture: BMF)
Ba Jawi (Sarawak), MALAYSIA. The Penan community of Ba Jawi in Sarawak's Upper Baram region has today lodged a collective action lawsuit against Malaysian timber giant Samling and the state government of Sarawak over 15,000 hectares of primary rainforest in order to protect their livelihood from being destroyed by logging.
The case was filed this morning by lead plaintiff Lija Agan, headman of the tiny village of Ba Jawi, and three other plaintiffs who are claiming that the Ba Jawi forests have been used since time immemorial by their ancestors and urgently need to be protected against logging. "About 200 years ago, the ancestors of the plaintiffs were living in and around Ba Jawi, exercising native customary rights over the land in Ba Jawi and its vicinity", the Penan's statement of claim reads. "They hunted and gathered food from the forests and lived on sago (uvut) as their staple food. The plaintiffs are presently exercising these rights over that same land."
The Penan are claiming that a logging licence held by Samling Plywood, a subsidiary of the Malaysian Samling group of companies, should be rescinded, since it was issued by the Sarawak government in an "unlawful, improper, unconstitutional and therefore null and void" manner.
The new case is the fifth native customary rights case lodged by Eastern Penan communities from Upper Baram since 1998. It has been prepared with assistance from the Bruno Manser Fund and will be represented by the renowned law office of Messrs. Baru Bian in Kuching.
The area covered by the Ba Jawi claim is a key region of the Penan Peace Park, a self-administered conservation region in the Heart of Borneo, which was proclaimed a nature reserve by 17 Penan communities in November 2009 and covers twice the size of Singapore.
In February 2007, the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei signed the tripartite "Heart of Borneo Declaration" in which they committed themselves to protecting the rainforests of central Borneo. However, the declaration has not been followed by much action on the ground. In December 2009, Sarawak's director of forests, Len Talif Salleh, even condemned the Penan Peace Park as an "illegal" project that "tainted Sarawak's image".
(21 December 2010)