He stood alone, armed with two parang, against what he considered a greedy oil palm company that wanted to plunder his ancestral land.
For three months, Iban farmer Segan anak Degon left the comfort of his village in Kampung Lebor, 70km from Kuching in Sarawak, to endure mosquitoes, snakes and pests in protecting his land, which is as big as 14 football fields, some 45 minute- walk away.
Out of the 101 pintu or households living in the 11,000ha village, Segan was the only one who successfully defended his 7ha land against takeover by local oil palm company Nirwana Muhibbah Sdn Bhd.
His land is now an “island” surrounded by a sea of oil palm trees. When he is protecting his land, he lives on rice supplied by his wife.
It was nine years ago that Nirwana Muhibbah appeared with bulldozers and other heavy machinery to clear land at the village.
The Sarawak state government had granted a provisional lease to Nirwana Muhibbah to develop the sprawling 11,000ha Native Customary Rights (NCR) land — the size of Kuala Lumpur International Airport — into an oil palm plantation.
Under the Sarawak Land Code, NCR land was created, whether communal or otherwise, prior to January 1, 1958, including any area of state land declared as Native Communal Reserve by the chief minister.
It also includes Interior Area Land, upon which NCR has been lawfully created by obtaining a permit.
The villagers were caught off-guard and defenceless.
“There were no meetings, discussions, agreements or consultations. But they brought in their machines. Overnight, they destroyed all our crops. We lost our livelihood,” said Segan.
Nirwana Muhibbah had forcefully cleared and grew oil palm on 3,500ha of the NCR land belonging to 100 families. Determined not to be trampled upon, Segan and his fellow villagers consulted lawyers and took the company to court. A year on after the trial, the case is still not settled.
Kampung Lebor’s suit is among one of the 180 backlog cases of encroachment of NCR land in the state.
Sarawak Dayak Iban Association secretary-general Nicholas Mujah said two thirds of the cases involved oil palm companies while the rest are logging, mining and tree planting concessionaires.
“Cases involving NCR land take years. Even the first case filed almost a decade ago has not been settled.”
The Iban community of Ruman Nor in Bintulu division, led by headman Nor Anak Nyawai, had filed a suit against Borneo Pulp Plantation Sdn Bhd in 1997 to protect 672ha of their NCR land.
This year alone, five cases were referred to Nicholas.
“It’s only going to get worse as the people become better informed of their rights.”
He said efforts were initiated to talk to the state government but “they are allergic to non-governmental organisations”.
“We have no choice but to take these companies to court.
“These people have been there for hundreds of years. Their ancestors worked the land, fished in the rivers and roamed the jungle collecting its produce. How can these companies just walk in and take over?”
The impact of encroachment on NCR land is huge. As well as having their cash crops such as rubber trees destroyed, the villagers of Kampung Lebor lost fruit trees and vegetables which they planted to support their family. They are also struggling to source forest produce like rattan, bemban grass and bamboo to make handicraft as income supplement.
“The British, Japanese and even our common law recognise that there are pre-existing rights of the indigenous people before the statutes came into place,” said Nicholas.
“We have been managing the land according to adat such as the pemakai menoa for generations.”
The pemakai menoa is a territory, which includes areas of secondary forests (temuda) and land reserved for communal use (pulau galau), marked by native customary laws.
“The concept of pemakai menoa goes beyond agricultural use. It also includes rights to fish, hunt, live off jungle produce and for burial grounds and shrines.”
Today, some 80 participants of the “Strive of the Indigenous People” national workshop-cum-exhibition will hand over a memorandum to Istana Negara to push for the government to honour the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP).
The four-day workshop is organised by the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia, to coincide with DRIP’s first anniversary. Malaysia is one of the signatories of DRIP.