Indigenous communities threatened with legal action by logging giant as floods devastate Sarawak

One of Malaysia's largest timber conglomerates is threatening to silence civil society with legal action. Meanwhile, the current floods impressively demonstrate the environmental costs of deforestation

(MIRI / SARAWAK / MALAYSIA) As communities in the north of Sarawak are recovering from devastating floods, some of them have also been dealt another blow: legal threats from logging giant Samling. For over a year, Kenyah and Penan communities of the Baram and Limbang rivers have been calling for proper consultations and transparency regarding the Gerenai and Ravenscourt logging concessions, run by subsidiaries of Malaysian timber giant Samling. Instead of fulfilling community requests, the company has instead threatened them with legal action.

According to William Tinggang of Long Moh, one of the communities affected by the threatening letters issued by Samling subsidiaries, “the letters appear to be a blatant attempt to silence communities and human rights defenders voicing concerns about faulty and inadequate certification procedures.”

Both of the involved concessions have been certified under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), whose role is to provide “independent assessment for forest management and chain of custody certification to ensure the sustainable management” of forests, including proper consultation with local communities. In practice, however, communities highlight what seem to be grievous discrepancies between the process of obtaining certification and actual practices on the ground.

The communities who have received the threatening letters from Samling have also lodged official complaints with the Malaysian Timber Council. “Samling seems to be concerned only about one thing: profiting from extraction. If they were remotely concerned with following procedure or obtaining the free prior and informed consent of communities, they would try to arrange for proper consultations instead of sending us threatening letters when we voice our concerns.” said Suya Ara, Assistant Headman of Long Ajeng, one of the Penan communities affected by Samling’s legal threats.

These threats come at a time when villages in Sarawak are reeling from the devastating impacts of abnormal flooding for the second time in a year: “we’re suffering from floods and from COVID right now, and they are threatening legal pressure on top of all of this. They need to take responsibility for their role in all of this,” said Penan leader Komeok Joe, CEO of KERUAN, a Penan support group.  

While it has long been understood that deforestation exacerbates both flooding and drought, logging in Sarawak continues largely unabated, at the expense of remote communities that rely on forest resources for their survival. Remote Indigenous communities are now left dealing with legal threats while they start the cleanup and rebuilding process once again.

The Bruno Manser Fund and The Borneo Project condemn Samling’s legal threats against civil society and ask for reconsideration of the multinational’s logging concessions on the communities' land. Lukas Straumann, Executive Director of the Bruno Manser Fund noted: “logging should only take place with the free, prior and informed consent of local people. Communities must be able to voice their concerns without fearing legal consequences. As long as the freedom of expression is not guaranteed, there can be no talk of sustainable logging and certificates must be withdrawn.”

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