Indigenous communities in Sarawak are tired of being ignored and treated as though our resources are expendable and our consent is a formality. Peter Kallang writes.
For many years my organisation, Save Rivers, has been working closely with indigenous communities in the Baram who feel threatened by dam proposals and logging activities on their land.
For decades in Sarawak, the methods for obtaining free, prior and informed consent from our indigenous communities have been seriously lacking, and this has led to the disenfranchisement of our people and the dispossession of their land. We are well overdue for a change.
I want to discuss the matter of free, prior and informed consent in the context of the certification processes for the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), which has recently sparked some heated debate.
After a series of failed attempts to reach decision-makers and ensure communities are included in consultations for MTCS certification, we discovered that the 148,000 hectare Gerenai certification for so-called sustainable forest management was processed in April and granted to the logging company Samling, while Malaysia was under the movement control order.
Shocked and saddened by this, we released a press statement shortly after, entitled “Certification without compliance”.
Both Samling and the Malaysia Timber Certification Council published responses to our release, stating that our organisation understood neither the facts of the case nor the complaints process.
We understand the facts based on what communities have told us — that they were either inadequately consulted or not consulted at all. Samling and MTCC are correct in pointing out we do not understand the complaints process, and this is our point entirely.
No one understands the process. Communities have searched far and wide for information, have sent letters to every office that might be responsible for handling their complaints, and all of these pleas have been left unanswered. The process is utterly inscrutable, and it is designed in a way that disempowers those whose voices matter most: the custodians of the forests themselves.
What the responses to our press release really reveal is there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what is meant by the free, prior and informed consent by which the timber certification process claims to be bound. Without this important box being ticked, European countries would not be interested in buying Malaysian timber. Because of this, companies will argue until they are blue in the face that they have obtained community consent. But we wonder if they have actually read up on what free, prior and informed consent means? Have they read the MTCC definition?
The MTCC defines free, prior and informed consent as a decision-making process that does not involve coercion/undue influence/manipulation (free), is made before activities are undertaken (prior), is founded upon a clear understanding (informed), and involves granting or withholding consent (saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to an activity, programme or policy (consent). In this process, consent is to be understood based on the definition of the term “consensus”.
Let’s look at that a little more closely.
Does not involve any manipulation (free)
In response to our press statement, the logging company wrote on 7 July that, “at the outset of operations, Samling had engaged with the local community leaders, who had been duly appointed by the Sarawak state government and registered with the District Office. These local community leaders were and remain fully supportive of Samling’s plans and operations. These local community leaders had full authority to represent and act for the communities.”
Engaging with a few select people from the community is not the same thing as finding out what that community really wants. The way the system works in Sarawak whereby ketua kampung (village chiefs) are appointed and paid by the state, rather than elected by the people, means they seldom disagree with infrastructure projects.
And because they receive salaries for their positions, it is questionable whether these figureheads can be said to be truly impartial and truly have only the villages’ interests at heart. Government appointed headmen might even prioritise the government’s interests over the communities’.
This is why the system has been criticised and why the federal government has proposed changing it.
How can this process of consultation be said to be taking place without any manipulation if only a select few community leaders are being consulted, and according to Samling itself, they are leaders appointed by the government?
Is made before activities are undertaken (prior)
It is often a shock when one of these certifications goes through, particularly for the communities themselves. It is not unusual in Sarawak for approval to be granted first, on the assumption that consent can be scrambled together later.
The case of the MTCS certificates for the Gerenai and the Ravenscourt forest management units showed that communities were not informed about the upcoming certification. The communities only learnt about it after the MTCS certificate was already issued to Samling. When a project appears to be a foregone conclusion, it is also more difficult for communities to feel they are able to refuse it. This is just one of the tactics that dismantles the free, prior, informed consent process in our state.
Founded on a clear understanding (informed)
We have established multiple times that multiple villages did not understand what the Gerenai certification meant, whether through shoddy consultations or, in some cases, no consultation at all. What we have been told is that when logging company representatives approach a village, the format is far more presentation than consultation, where representatives introduce themselves to the few people who happen to be around in the village on that day – that is, if they visit the village at all. In some cases, Samling simply called the headman for a meeting at kilo10, a central meeting place outside of the village.
When representatives do visit the villages, they are often not armed with adequate information and are unable to answer questions from the community, particularly when it comes to environmental and social impact, without which there can be no real understanding.
How can communities who have not received the environmental impact assessments for these proposals really provide any kind of informed consent? If I were approving someone’s plan to pull plants from my backyard garden in Miri, I would surely want to know what plants they intended to take, what the impact will be on my family and our local birds and pollinator insects, and I would definitely want to know what the plan is to grow my beloved garden back.
Communities we work with have been asking for these assessments and received nothing before the certification approval. And these are not hobby gardens we’re talking about;these communities rely on the forest for their physical, cultural and spiritual survival — these are not resources to be taken away lightly.
Information is power, and without environmental and social impact assessments, communities are powerless to give any kind of real consent.
Granting or withholding consent
Listening to a presentation is not the same as consent. A couple of random signatures from friendly parties is not consent. If consent is understood as consensus, as in the MTCC definition, Samling admits in its own press release it made no attempt to seek consensus.
But crucially, the process simply ignores — and perhaps excludes or avoids — those who just say no to the logging. Communities like Long Tungan in the Gerenai concession, who oppose all logging in their reserve forest, or the Penan in the Ravenscourt concession, who reject all logging on their land, are left completely out of the process.
It should be impossible for this to happen. These companies and certification bodies might not like to [hear it] and might not be used to hearing it: but sometimes no just simply means no.
Free, prior and informed consent fails on multiple fronts, not just in this case but routinely in Sarawak. There is a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to consult indigenous communities and what consent really looks like.
Now that our organisation has raised this issue in the public domain, we have been invited to sit down with them and talk about it. But it shouldn’t take six months of campaigning to get their attention.
Indigenous communities in Sarawak are tired of being ignored and treated as though our resources are expendable and our consent is a formality.
I ask you to join me in signing the petition to stop the chop of our beautiful, priceless forests and stand up for Baram communities: saverivers.org/stopthechop
Peter Kallang is the chair of Save Rivers