Natives scuttle Sarawak bid to take their ancestral land

Published: 18 December 2014

The 31 landowners and their families celebrate with their lawyers outside the Kuching court complex today after winning their five-year battle to keep their native customary land in Upper Bengoh. – The Malaysian Insider pic, December 18, 2014.
A five-year legal fight of 31 Bidayuh families against the Sarawak government's plan to acquire their native customary land in Upper Bengoh for a national park ended today after a settlement was reached.

The state government this morning signed a consent order to acknowledge that all the landowners in four villages – the 31 plaintiffs in the suit and another 204 who were not party to the legal action – had native customary rights to the 2,592ha of land the government planned to acquire.

The area is above where the 63-metre high Bengoh Dam has been built and which will flood some 10 square kilometres of land when impounded.

The native Bidayuh are moving to the area after their original settlements were taken over for the dam. They had also rejected the resettlement plots given to them by the state government, in favour of the land above the reservoir area.

The state, however, had wanted to turn the area into part of the Bungo Range national park, which would have limited their customary rights to the land and restricted their livelihood activities.

The consent order, recorded by High Court judge Datuk Rhodzariah Bujang in chambers, brought to an end a case that was filed in October 2009.

“I'm so happy this legal fight had come to this conclusion,” Simo Sekam, the headman of Kampung Rejoi and first plaintiff in the case, told reporters at the Kuching court complex in Petrajaya today.

“I'm also happy because we didn't give up even when things got rough,” the 53-year-old pastor said.

“This win is a beautiful Christmas gift for us. Gives us a good excuse to have a good celebration this year and there's no stopping us having a big one.”

The villagers have planned for an even bigger thanksgiving celebration next month.

In the consent order, the Superintendent of Lands and Survey Kuching division and the Sarawak government acknowledged and recognised the 31 plaintiffs and other landowners of four villages – Rejoi, Bojong, Taba Sait and Semban – and that they had acquired native customary rights to the land covering 2,592ha.

In the order too, the Land and Survey Department said it would carry out a perimeter survey to identify the boundary of the native customary rights (NCR) land and to declare the land as native communal reserves, for agriculture purposes.

From the same order, Kampung Taba Sait and Kampung Bojong are to have customary privileges over an area in the Bungo National Range Park which the other two villages, Semban and Rejoi, had already enjoyed after they were admitted by the Bungo National Park notification in 2010.

As part of the agreement, 54 landowners – the 31 plus another 23 – also agreed to withdraw their entitlement to the RM2.14 million that had
been deposited to the court for the payment of compensation.

The landowners' legal counsel, See Chee How, said even if the case had gone to trial, the landowners would have won it because their settlement there was recorded in a journal in 1858.

“This consent order means a lot particularly to those Bidayuh villagers from Kampung Rejoi and Bojong.

“Their settlement is one of the earliest settlements of the Bidayuh Tebiak in Upper Bengoh,” See, a PKR lawmaker, said.

The assemblyman for the urban Kuching seat of Batu Lintang said if the case had gone to trial, “it could take months”.

“It would have been a long-drawn-out case as it would involve at least 30 witnesses testifyng,” he said as he expressed his appreciation to the state legal adviser Datuk Fong Joo Chung, better known as J.C. Fong, who had “assisted in the negotiation to settle this long-standing case amicably”.

State legal officer McWillyn Jiok, represented the superintendent of Lands and Survey Kuching and the state government while the plaintiff were represented by See and his legal team comprising Desmond Kho and Jamillah Baharuddin.

The Bengoh dam, with a capacity of 144 million cubic metres, is meant to meet Kuching's demand for water supply. – December 18, 2014.