In an act of breathtaking meanness and greed the multi-billionaire Taib family are seeking to deprive impoverished Ibans of one of Sarawak’s last remaining hardwood forests, for a paltry compensation of just RM250 per family.
Meanwhile, Sarawak Report has received exclusive new leaks which indicate that the Chief Minister himself stands to personally profit by a million times that amount (an estimated RM250,000,00) in corrupt backhanders from the deal.
Raziah Mahmud and Quality Concrete Holdings
This latest illegal raid on Native Customary Rights Land is being carried out by Quality Concrete Holdings Berhad, a company part-owned and directed by the Chief Minister’s own sister, Raziah Mahmud. The Taibs, one of the richest families in Asia, have already started harvesting the timber, which is worth millions of US dollars, even though the majority of the villagers are refusing to accept the deal.
“We have been threatened that if we oppose this claim we are going against the government and opposing development” explained one protester, “but why does the government act like a common thief in this case and how much development can we achieve for RM 250?”.
The threatened area is a small range of hills near Sebangan not far from Kuching, consisting of 3,305 hectares of forest. The surrounding region has already been devastated by state-sponsored logging promoted by the Taibs in the 80s and 90s.
However until now it was not considered economic to tackle the raised ground, which has been farmed and hunted for generations by 16 villages of Iban dwellers.
The villagers explain that the area is carpeted by hundreds of thousands of tall trees, some of it valuable primary jungle containing hardwoods that are now painfully scarce. The Secretary General of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) Nicholas Mujah, who comes from the community, says that there are up to 700 tons of Belian, Meranti, Bulyan, Selangan, Kapur, Kempas, Tekam, Resak, Lon, Penyau, Ruan and Engkaban available per hectare. These all command top prices in the world market, although the logging of such rare timber is now internationally condemned.
The area is also a refuge for some of Sarawak’s remaining wildlife and birdlife, much of which has been wiped out by the Taibs over the past 30 years.
Corruption and conflict of interest
The Iban owners of the forest say they are happy to conserve the wood for future generations and to conduct sustainable logging for their needs. However, the aging Chief Minister, who has already earned billions out of corrupt logging deals seems to have been unable to resist the prospect of grabbing more money by cutting it all down.
In this case, like so many others, he has used a relative, his sister Raziah Mahmud, to conduct the plunder. Raziah is a shareholder and paid Non-Executive Director of Quality Concrete Holdings, a public company largely owned by the family of Tiang Ming Sing and Tiang Ming Kok (the Chairman and Managing Director). She is therefore directly profiting from her connections with the Chief Minister, who hands out all timber licences.
The CM’s cut will be at least MR250 million - Exclusive new Revelations
However, following new leaks, Sarawak Report is now able to further reveal an even more shocking form of corruption involved in the deal. Top timber company insiders have exclusively confided to Sarawak Report that before issuing any timber licence the Chief Minister always demands an extra secret cut, to be paid upfront into one of his offshore bank accounts.
The insiders say that Taib traditionally demands a rate of RM 100 per ton of timber. However, in this latest case the sum is likely to be substantially larger, given the value of the hardwoods at the Sebangan reserve.
According to the whistle-blowers, the Chief Minister calculates his cut by getting State Forest Department officials to assess how much timber is available in each concession.
So, if the 3,305 hectare Sebangan forest contains 700 tons of wood per hectare, this would mean that Taib will have bagged just under 250 million ringgit from issuing the licence. That is well over $80 million US dollars at current exchange rates and is almost exactly a million times the amount being offered to the Iban families who rightfully own the land!
Even on a more conservative estimate of 50 tons per hectare Taib would stand to illegally profit by nearly MR17 million. Sarawak Report would therefore like to ask Quality Concrete to confirm if they have yet made such an up front payment or if they are paying part up front and part later, which is sometimes the arrangement, or whether they are claiming that on this occasion they have been for some reason let off the payment?
Robbing his people blind
Such miserable deals have been the pattern by which the Chief Minister has deprived numerous communities in Sarawak of billions and billions of ringgit-worth of timber and made himself one of the richest men in Asia. Instead of going into promised development the money has gone into Taib’s foreign bank accounts, leaving the people of Sarawak among the poorest in Malaysia, despite their rich natural resources.
Strong-arm tactics – lies and thugs
In this latest case the Taibs are again attempting to abuse their control of state officials and adopting strong-arm tactics to force the unwilling villagers to hand over their forest, firstly through misrepresenting the terms of their licence.
Quality Concrete have in truth, only been issued a conditional year-long Occupation Certificate to log the timber, for the very reason that this is Native Customary Rights (NCR) Land.
This certificate has been issued under Section B of the Forest Ordinance, which specifically means that Quality Concrete need to achieve the consent of the Iban landowners before commencing any logging.
However, Raziah and her business cronies have of course done no such thing, because they know that such consent would either be withheld or would only come at a reasonable price for the land! They have instead sought to imply that they are fully licenced to strip the forest.
No warning and no permission asked
“Nobody warned or consulted us about anything” explains Sadun Ason, the Headman of Kampong Ensika, one of the affected communities. “The first I knew of it was when a villager called me to say he had seen logging equipment being shipped up river by boat on 11th July. We then immediately called the Pengulu, who astonishingly said he knew all about it and told us that there is nothing we can do to protest, as the whole matter is perfectly legal and we have no rights!”
The 16 villages involved are rightly suspicious of this Pengulu. Taib undermined democracy in when he removed the right of longhouses to elect their own headmen and Pengulus and started to appoint these ‘representatives’ himself.
He pays them a miserable monthly salary to keep them loyal. Nevertheless, these characters usually still come from the local community and are accepted by the residents.
However, in this case a new Pengulu was appointed a few weeks before the issuing of Razia’s logging licence. He is a PBB member from an outside town. The headmen are naturally furious he kept them in the dark about Quality Concrete’s plans and the previous Pengulu has also testified against such behaviour and joined their protest.
“If there is anything that relates to the joint ownership of the forest the Pengulu should discuss the matter with the headmen and likewise the headmen would talk to their villagers. All these resources are shared resources and it is not right for the Pengulu to make a decision, especially such an important decision on his own”, says Ason emphatically. “Rightfully, the Pengulu and headmen should be the ones to protect the forest, but we end up fighting him”.
Deceitful tactics by the loggers and their official backers
The villagers have tried to blockade the site and have demanded proper information and paper-work from Quality Concrete. But Raziah and her co-directors have been characteristically unforthcoming. Outrageously, they have also started driving a road into the territory and harvesting valuable timber in the process.
At a meeting organised by the police on 2nd July, officials from the Forestry Department and Land Survey Department showed their bias by meeting first, separately with the representatives of Quality Concrete and their lawyers, along with the suspect Pengulu.
The officials then came out and claimed to the villagers that the land was not gazetted and claimed there was no evidence the area was NCR land. However, Sarawak Report has obtained evidence proving this claim was untrue. In fact the Land Registry’s own records show that the land has been gazetted since 1956 and is indeed Native Customary Rights Land. The licence Quality Concrete has been given is subject to any NCR claims. Meanwhile, internal documents from the Forestry Department also show that officials have now instructed Quality Concrete not to encroach on the vast majority of the area contained in the provisional licence unless and until the dispute has been settled.
Sarawak Report has copies of all these documents, however in typical fashion the officials on the ground, working with Raziah Taib and Quality Concrete and their lawyers, have attempted to conceal these facts from the villagers.
Bullying into submission
Meanwhile the timber company and Pengulu have been working hard to browbeat and divide the community into submission. They have gone around all the longhouses offering MR25o ‘compensation payment’ to each family prepared to sign away their rights to the forest and MR800 to each headman. This may be a laughable sum, but Taib has kept his people financially poor for a very good reason – it makes them easier to rob of their natural wealth.
On 13th August a group of 11 villagers including three of the 16 headmen were transported in Quality Concrete’s own vehicles to Sibu, where they were given a reception and dinner and then asked to sign documents in the absence of any legal representative. They were not given copies of the documents to bring back, but they were told that they have now legally signed away their rights to the forest.
These headmen have now gone round other long houses and persuaded a number of the desperately poor villagers that, since they have no choice in the matter (not true), they had better take what money is available to them.
A minority of the villagers have now been persuaded to go to the nearby town of Sebuyau and sign away their claims for a mere MR250. They had no legal representative and have been offered no copies of the documents they signed – most are illiterate.
“The worst thing about it is that it has divided the villages in such a terrible way”, says Numpang Suntai who has been helping coordinate the protests. “Some are so brow-beaten and poor they feel they must accept the money, but the others know that in the long-term the consequences will be terrible for us. We look at neighbouring areas where this has happened and we know we will suffer. We won’t have any wood, our land will be taken, the wildlife will be gone, the water of the river will be affected and the fish will all die. We will be hungry. Our life is tough and we have no real income, so we depend on the forest”.
Numpang dismisses the idea that there might be jobs and development. “There will be no jobs at all, they use Indonesians to cut down the forest and Indonesians to work on the palm plantations. They only offer MR7 a day to work on palm plantations and we can’t live on that. The Indonesians find it worth it, because of the exchange rate for them”.
A fit leader for Sarawak?
Taib of course believes that he will triumph in this matter. The fight for Sebangan’s final forest has reached a critical stage, which he, his sister and their timber company collaborators have experienced many times before. They have all the finance, the official backing and of course, access to intimidation as well.
The villagers are already fearfully expecting the arrival of the notorious logging company ‘thugs’, the strongmen who so often come to intimidate local communities who hold out against them. Meanwhile, the Pengulu and the logging company legal teams are misleadingly informing the protesters that because some people have now signed it will be impossible to stop the logging.
There is still hope for justice
However, signs are that people are waking up to the Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud. It will be interesting to see whether the new information revealing the true extent of Taib’s personal profit from this raid - his MR250 million cut -will alter the dynamics of this particular forest battle.
Sarawak Report will also be forwarding the inside leaks from the Land Survey Department and Forestry Department to the legal team, headed by Baru Bian in Kuching.
Baru, who is Sarawak’s top human rights lawyer and the PKR leader in the state, has started to win significant court victories against Taib in the local and federal courts .
Taib’s last grasp?
This scandalous case will join over 200 other native land rights cases on his desk, all of which directly challenge the Taib family’s devastating plunder of the state.
Most importantly, the Chief Minister will soon have to face the electorate with a record that no politician on earth would wish to have to defend.