• File image of logging activity in Sarawak. Much of the jungle here, where Kelabit people have lived for centuries, has been cleared for palm oil plantations. (Jerry Redfern /Getty Images)Source: Jerry Redfern /Getty Images
Indigenous people in Malaysia are drawing up detailed maps using drones and testimony from village elders to fight a new law they say denies them customary rights to their land, amid rising demand for territory for commercial plantations.
17 Jul 2018 - 12:31 PM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2018 - 12:31 PM

Disputes over land have long festered in Malaysia’s Sarawak state, which stretches along the northwest coast of Borneo and is dotted with dense rainforests.

Under a law passed last week, Indigenous people will have to apply to the state for recognition of ancestral domain and communal forests. There will also be a cap on the size of such land granted to communities.

The bill was drafted with "the views and inputs of many community leaders," Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas told reporters.

While officials say the new law gives Indigenous people ownership rights where they previously only had "usufructuary rights", or the right of use; Mark Bujang from the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia disagrees this is a good deal.

"They are not recognising us as rightful owners of land that we inherited from our ancestors," Mr Bujang told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"By making it harder for us to claim our land, the government is putting the interests of the logging companies above ours," he continued.

The semi-nomadic Penan community recently created nearly two dozen maps of a 10,000 sq km (4,000 sq miles) area in Sarawak that includes forests, settlements, mountains, rivers, hunting and burial grounds.

They used drones and oral testimonies of village members and elders, said Atama Katama, an Indigenous activist.

"Officials are keen to monetise the land, which is why more communities are doing their own mapping to show they have held these lands for generations, even if they did not have titles," he said.

"The maps will give them a more sound footing when making their claim under the new law, or if they have to go to court."

Indigenous and rural communities customarily own about half the world's land, but only have legal rights to 10 per cent, according to the United Nations.

Dozens of disputes that have pitted Indigenous Malaysian communities against logging and oil palm companies have ended up in court in recent years and several campaigners have been killed, according to rights groups.

More protests are planned against the bill this week, including in capital Kuching, to make the government reconsider, Bujang said.

Rina Chandran

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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