My Experience in Malaysia - Part 2

My Experience in Malaysia - Part 2
WEEK 5: Native communities in Miri and the ‘New Concept’ scheme

In general, the ‘New Concept’ scheme promotes the development of land that belongs by customary rights to native communities into large-scale palm oil plantations. In turn for giving their land to be developed, native communities become shareholders of a JV scheme together with the State Government of Sarawak and the private sector. As such, they are provided cash incomes from the palm oil production and in addition they have access to wage labor in the plantation and new services and infrastructure provided by the State Government. The rationale behind the “New Concept” is based on the Government’s conviction that the best way to bring progress to the rural economy and help natives to improve their “socio-economic status and their vulnerability to poverty” is through the development of the “idle and underutilized NCR-land into large scale oil palm plantations”. The vision under the ‘New Concept’ is to achieve 1 million of ha fully developed into palm oil plantations by the year 2010. For this purpose pioneer development project areas have been established in the State around 1996. In order to see what are the effects of such development I decided to carry out my second and third case studies in one of these areas. As a result, I spent the fifth week with the communities of Sungai Bong and Ulu Teru in the Miri District, northern Sarawak.
I started the week in the city of Miri, where I contacted ground support that helped me organize the trip to the communities. The next day I left the city on a jeep and together with me came Ryan, a Kenja-Dayak who played the role of translator for the rest of the week. The trip took 5 hours into the jungle and the palm oil plantations. The first community we reached was longhouse Kalong in Kampong Ulu Teru. This community agreed to participate in the New Concept scheme and gave 60% of its NCR-land to be developed into palm oil plantation. According to them more than 50% of the community works in the plantation now and they are waiting to receive in a couple of years the revenues from the palm oil production (although the project was launched in 1996, the palm oil plantation operations started only a few years ago in 2004). On top of that, the Government promised the community new services and infrastructure as a condition to participate in the scheme. In short, the community expects that the decision of being part of the JV will bring them progress and economic growth to contribute to the well-being of the community members.     

Longhouse Rayong

Longhouse community

palm oil nursery

Palm oil nursery

The main socio-economic activity of natives in Sarawak is characterized by shifting cultivation. The shifting cultivation practiced by the Iban, the largest native group in Sarawak, is based on the production of paddy rice. The Iban live in longhouses, traditionally located along the river, which generally serves as infrastructure. Each family has its own household (called bilek) in the longhouse and although many productive activities are carried out in groups, each bilek has its own production field. Traditionally, shifting cultivators are subsistence farmers. The daily paddy rice is supplemented by vegetables grown on the field, wild vegetables gathered in the forest, chicken and pigs kept behind the longhouse, fish from the river and animals hunted in the forest. Traditional subsistence socio-economic activities of natives are highly dependent on the local natural resources and environmental conditions. This interdependency between socio-economic well-being and environmental sustainability is key for the sustainability of local livelihoods and is the basis for native communities to secure and fulfill their subsistence needs. On this basis, the sustainability of livelihoods is inherent to native communities’ risk minimization strategies to secure their basic needs, of which a main one is food security.

Harvesting paddy rice     Making a fishing net
Headman of Longhouse Rayong     

The second community we visited was longhouse Rayong in Kampong Sungai Bong. This community did not agree to participate in the New Concept scheme among other reasons because of the mistrust on the Government and the unclearness of the modus operandi concerning the land development scheme. The communities in Sungai Bong, however, feel they have what they need to fulfill their needs and the well-being of the bilek and hope to keep the traditional productive factors and natural resources within their NCR-land the way they currently are for future generations to make use of them.

Headman Longhouse Rayong

In old times all men had tattoos covering their bodies; it was a signal of strength and characterized the so called “Headhunters”.

In addition to communities perceptions I could observe a series of local environmental degradation caused by palm oil plantations development. Besides forest fragmentation, forest resources and biodiversity loss, palm oil plantations have a large effect on river water quality. One of the largest effects on the environment is caused during the first development phase of the plantation, when forest is cleared (in Malaysia with preference using zero-burning practices) and land is prepared to be planted. In this first phase soil erosion is 50 times higher as normal baseline conditions. High erosion and no buffer vegetation result in high sedimentation levels in the rivers. Following the clearing operations and until cover crops are not fully developed, fertilizers and sediments run-off to the rivers is high. No wonder then that communities identify the river as one of the most changed natural resources due to palm oil plantations and describe it as ‘moody and dirty’ adding that ‘there is less fish to catch, and no good water to bad’. The effects on local environment conditions and the loss of access to traditional productive factors such as land and forest jeopardize the ability of native communities to practice the necessary traditional activities to fulfill their needs and thus pose a threat to the sustainability of their livelihoods.     

Clearing operations

Clearing operations

Polluted river

River water crossing palm oil plantation

In sum, I found out that communities’ attachment to traditional practices highly depend on the perspectives they have on the future and development of their community. Moreover, I realized that communities benefit differently from palm oil plantations development according to the approach taken under the land development strategy by the State, their level of involvement and the communication with Governmental Agencies.

By looking into schemes such as the New Concept and at local environmental impacts it is possible to state that although at national level the development of biodiesel and expansion of its feedstock production is an attractive opportunity, at local level this development involves significant trade-offs. While a clear potential for socio-economic benefits contributing to MDG 1 exist, there is a number of negative externalities that put at risk the local environmental sustainability (MDG 7) and jeopardize the sustainability of local livelihoods by affecting native communities’ ability to fulfill their subsistence needs, thus making them more vulnerable by weakening their risk minimization strategies for self-sufficiency and well-being.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that palm oil plantations have the potential to meet rural development objectives and the sustainable achievement of MDG1 and MDG 7 if there is commitment towards the wellbeing of native communities, attractive wage labour opportunities (likely to require significantly higher wages than currently offered), work requirements that include regulations to preserve the local culture and prevent social erosion caused by immigration overload (coming to work to the plantations and keeping the salaries and work conditions low), recognition and respect of native communities customary rights, high level of stakeholder participation and transparency in the consultation and decision making process. It seems hopeful, or even likely that palm oil plantation schemes following such principles can raise standard of living of native communities and contribute towards poverty eradication in the rural areas (MDG1). Last but not least, there is a large opportunity gap in mitigating and/or preventing negative impacts on the local environment (MDG 7) by implementing mitigation measures that needs to be exploited further.

The introduction of a certification system or sustainability/environmental requirements that lead to better sustainability performance would be in the benefit of Malaysia. Although the burden would be put on palm oil and biodiesel producer companies probably reducing profits, the externality costs that are currently borne by native communities and the local environment – and thus Malaysian sustainable development if considering MDG 1 and MDG 7 – could conceivably be reduced

These were in brief my five weeks in Malaysia. An amazing adventure, a rich professional experience, a lesson of life and a door to better understanding the contradictions and trade-offs of modernization and development of an already rich region of the world.