Malaysia: the Murut struggle against palm oil, for land and life

Bigor longhouse with land cleared for oil palm in the background. Photo: Sophie Chao.
Bigor longhouse with land cleared for oil palm in the background. Photo: Sophie Chao.
Supported by state and national governments, palm oil plantations are advancing over the rainforest hills of Sabah, Malaysia, writes Sophie Chao. In their way: the indigenous Murut of Bigor, whose culture, livelihood and very lives are under threat as forests and farms fall to chainsaws and bulldozers, enriching loggers and distant investors beyond the dreams of avarice.
We must continue to fight, for our children need to eat, and our grandchildren need to know what is a forest, and what is the way of life of the Murut people who came before them, and who will come after them.

In the remote village of Bigor, about 250 kilometers southwest of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, local community members gather in the longhouse (rumah panjang in Malay language), the traditional dwelling of the indigenous Murut people.

Slumped in his wheelchair, a makeshift sling supporting his right arm, the dying light of dusk casting shadows over his diminished frame, Statly Bin Ampihang (see photo), a 48 year old indigenous Murut Tagol man and head of Bigor village, tells the story of a tsunami.

"The oil palm company arrived, and made us sign contracts that we did not understand. They told us they would help us - make our lives better, give us jobs, increase our welfare. The government told us that the laws would help us secure our customary lands and forests."

"Instead we were hit by a tsunami. But this tsunami was not a natural disaster. It was caused by our government. And now our lands are oil palm plantations. We have nowhere to hunt anymore. We have nowhere to plant our crops. Our economy has been destroyed. We are disappointed, for we have been deceived by our government."

Kneeling at his side, Statly's wife, Salurah binti Libut, watches his every move attentively, whispering to him when, every so often, his eyes glaze over in a vacant stare - the effect, he says, of the repeated strokes he has suffered in the last year as a result of his sustained struggle against the dispossession of his community by land-hungry corporations.

In the spacious longhouse, Murut children, mothers and young men huddle together and listen to Statly's words in silence. Through the wire window mesh of the terrace, above which hang turtle shells, wild boar tusks and deer hides - the traditional forest game hunted by Murut men - the hilltops, once green and lush, are now, in the words of Statly, "bald and bare" from the relentless clearing of forest.

The oil palm boom

Producer of 12% of the world's palm oil supply, Sabah, the northern part of the island of Borneo, has been identified as a global hotspot of forest loss and degradation, in a country afflicted by one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

The allocation of vast swathes of lands and forests by the government to private companies for conversion to agribusiness mono-crop oil palm plantations has had widespread documented impacts upon the livelihoods, land security and environment of the indigenous peoples of Sabah, who number 39 groups and make up around 60.5% of the population.

We must continue to fight, for our children need to eat, and our grandchildren need to know what is a forest, and what is the way of life of the Murut people who came before them, and who will come after them.

The oil palm phenomenon has intensified in recent years in part due to the Communal Title, a system of land titling instituted by the Sabah government as a strategy for 'fast-tracking' native land title claims, but amended in 2009 to further increase state control over land and prioritise conversion to oil palm plantations.

As documented in the National Inquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples produced by the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia in 2013, the Communal Title system has resulted in the deprivation of native people of their customary rights to the land and the reduction of indigenous participation in matters concerning land tenure, use and management.

Losing the forest

Statly describes how the Murut people, who have inhabited the area for at least seven generations, maintain a close connection to the lands and forests from which they derive their traditional subsistence in the form of forest game, river fish and a range of horticultural activities, including tapioca, sweet potato, bananas, rice and various vegetables:

"The forest is our economy and our life. I want our forest to be preserved, not destroyed, for there are many generations to come. Oil palm plantations? That is not the forest that we Murut know."

In 2010, the Sabah government issued four Communal Titles over 2,500 hectares of land encompassing the customary territories of the Murut and several other neighboring villages. Soon afterwards, a joint-venture agreement was signed between certain community members and oil palm company Eramas Mutiara Sdn. Bhd., which Statly and several other Bigor inhabitants argue was achieved through coercion, intimidation and deception.

When asked what changes have occurred since oil palm has been planted in the area, Statly notes:

"Before, the river water was clean and we could drink it and irrigate our field with it. Now, there is less and less water because all of it goes to supply the plantations, and we have become dependent on rain water instead. There is pollution too from the land clearing taking place. Our forest is rapidly disappearing, and with it all the animals and plants and crops that we depend on for our livelihoods."

Striking back

In July 2015, employees of Eramas Mutiara Sdn. Bhd. bulldozed several paddy fields, vegetable plots, rubber trees and water catchments on the lands of the Bigor community, but no compensation was paid for the damage done.

Soon after Statly reported the occurrence to the local police, the oil palm company responded by accusing the villagers of preventing them from carrying out their work, resulting in the arrest of Statly and two other community members. Undeterred, Statly made another police report after spending two weeks in prison, denouncing the encroachment of the company on the community's lands and the arbitrary arrest of community members.

Through public protests and by harnessing local media, newspapers and the internet, the community, together with the support of NGOs such as the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia, or JOAS), are seeking the excision of their customary lands from the Communal Title system, state recognition and restitution of their Native Customary Rights, a moratorium on company operations on their customary lands, compensation for lands and crops destroyed, and the replanting of community watershed areas.

The situation in Bigor illustrates the failings of the Communal Title approach, which purports to safeguard land rights but instead deprives indigenous peoples of their land and natural resources by transferring land use decision-making powers to the state.

Without urgent reforms to the Communal Title system, the Native Customary Rights of indigenous peoples, like those of Bigor, will remain vulnerable to further corporate encroachment, jeopardising their forests and futures.

Hope for the future

On a more positive note, in 2015, the Sabah government publicised plans to produce only sustainable-certified palm oil across the state, in line with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) voluntary standard, with a target of 100% certified palm oil by 2025.

If implemented, this move would mark an important precedent in terms of governmental commitment to full environmental and social sustainability in palm oil production. This includes respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and other local communities to customary land, to iterative consultation, to free, prior and informed consent and to effective participation in land use planning, management and monitoring.

Pending the implementation of this landmark commitment by the state of Sabah, for Statly and his community, among many others adversely affected by oil palm expansion in the area, the struggle must go on. When asked what motivates his continued resistance, despite the toll it has taken on his physical and psychological wellbeing, Statly's expression brightens and his words resonate through the penumbra of the longhouse corridors:

"We must continue to fight, for our children need to eat, and our grandchildren need to know what is a forest, and what is the way of life of the Murut people who came before them, and who will come after them."

"The government has deceived us, but there is still hope. Hope for life, and hope for the forest."



Sophie Chao is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney. A graduate of the University of Oxford, she previously worked for international human rights organisation Forest Peoples Programme, investigating the impacts of oil palm expansion on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia.

Books: Sophie is co-editor of 'Conflict or Consent? The Palm Oil Sector at a Crossroads' (2013), 'A Sweetness Like Unto Death: Voices of the Indigenous Malind of Merauke, Papua' (2013) and 'Diverse Paths to Justice: Legal Pluralism and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Southeast Asia' (2011).

This article was developed as part of the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights. Launched in March 2016, the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights is a five year initiative to mobilize communities, organizations, governments, the private sector and individuals worldwide. It is a call to recognise that secure land rights are at the heart of building a just and equitable world and to work together to double the global area of land legally recognized as owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities by 2020.

Join the movement at