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‘Lack of will’ reason for unresolved land woes

By Luke Rintod of FMT
The Sabah government, which has unfettered control over jurisdiction on land, should work out 'negotiated solutions' in all land-grab issues.

KOTA KINABALU: Globe-trotting Danish environmental consultant, Brigitte Feiring, who was commissioned to evaluate the effectiveness of Pacos’ land rights and natural resource management programmes among natives, has listed two reasons why land-grab issues are yet to be resolved in Sabah.

According to Feiring, the two reasons are a “lack of will” and “capacity problem”.

“There is lack of will both on the part of the government and affected parties, and another is capacity problem… access to information…,” she said during her recent visit to the state.

Cynthia Ong
She was asked on what might be the top two causes why land-grab problems in Sabah are not being resolved.

Feiring, who has served in many roles in European bodies and also the United Nations, was contracted to evaluate the effectiveness and capacity of the local Pacos Trust (Partners of Community Organisations) in carrying out its land rights and natural resource management programmes among the natives in Sabah.

Pacos, established in 1987, is a community-based organisation dedicated towards supporting causes of indigenous communities in Sabah.

It has been actively partnering with international NGOs since 1990s and has championed native customary rights (NCR), especially among the Kadazandusun natives in Sabah.

Negotiate solutions

Together with local environment advocate, Cynthia Ong, Feiring toured rural kampungs in four districts – Ranau, Keningau, Tenom and Tongod – last month.

Their evaluation would further identify and analyse the challenges and lessons learned here.

Their evaluation will also provide recommendations that would guide future initiatives between Pacos and the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

Brigitte Feiring
Speaking to FMT, Feiring said that the Sabah government, which has unfettered control over jurisdiction on lands in the state, should work out “negotiated solutions” in all the land-grab issues in the state where marginalised natives were forced to defend their NCR from well-oiled big companies with links to power.

“A negotiated solution is the best answer to Sabah land-grab issues,” she said, adding that the state could learn from other countries on the matter.

Asked which countries Sabah should look to for guidance, Feiring said that countries in Latin America where they have “communal territorials” reserved for their natives could be an apt example of how to protect NCR.

“We also have ‘ancestral domains’ in the Philippines where Sabah can learn from them…,” she said.

Communal titles

Rampant land grabs have been on the rise in Sabah. To counter widespread discontent, the Musa Aman-led administration recently introduced the “communal title” for natives, which are believed to have been partly-modelled after the Latin American and Philippine arrangement.

However, local natives in Sabah are not happy with the “communal title” as it brings new threat of limiting native ownership to available land in their districts, and the lingering question as to who will inherit the allocated lands eventually.

The newly created arrangement of “communal title” has also not solved a single land-grab case.

Worse still, while communal title is given on the premise that less land is available for individual natives (who are used to being allowed to own in perpetuity 15 to 50 acres or even more of native land per person), companies, on the contrary, had been known to be given thousands of acres in one “sweeping” approval.

In one case, a single company was said to have been given approval for a whopping 65,000 acres of land stretching from Beluran to Pitas and Kota Marudu districts in the northern-east of Sabah, threatening dozens of natives kampungs with a massive forced evacuation or relocation.

And worst still, this is not an isolated case in Sabah. There exists at least a dozen similar cases now being uncovered in many districts in the state such as in Kudat, Kota Belud, Keningau, Ranau, Tenom, Nabawan, Lahad Datu, Tawau, Sandakan, Tongod, and even Semporna.

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