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Sarawak Report has been piecing together documentation that enables us to prove for the first time that the Chief Minister has conducted land thefts on a massive scale from the people of Sarawak. Using a number of sources, many of which Taib has shamefully attempted to keep secret, we are now unravelling detailed information showing the full extent of his seizures of Native Customary Rights Lands for himself and his family and also the extraordinary profits he has made at the expense of his people.
The corruption has been so extensive and the affects have been so devastating to so many Dayak communities and to the environment of Sarawak, that we are unable to cover this issue in just one article. Instead we will be examining our evidence over coming weeks and bringing you the results in a series of reports, which will look at the impact of Taib’s destructive greed on communities the length and breadth of the state.
Clear pattern emerges under ‘Thief’ Minister
Yet, already we can point to a clear pattern of activity or ’modus operandi’, through which Taib has abused his power by helping himself and his family to Dayak lands. In his joint role as Resources and Planning Minister the Chief Minister pushes a policy of ’alienating’ Native Customary Rights (NCR)Lands in the name of ’development’, a practice which was recently ruled illegal by the Federal High Court.
However, he has always worked hard to keep the private benefactors of this public policy hidden! The identity ofthe companies originally handed parcels of Dayak land by the state authorities and also the sums they have been charged ought to be public information, but they have always been treated as a top state secret, marked confidential in the Land Registry!
Sarawak Report can now confirm the perhaps unsurprising truth that very many of these companies directly belong to Taib’s family, or indeed himself, or to people he owes political or business favours . Our evidence also details how the standard practice is for the Chief Minister to hand over great parcels of land to companies owned by his siblings for rock bottom prices (or nothing at all) who in turn sell on these companies as quickly as possible (usually in a matter of days) to a crony business partner for a massive profit.
The Taib family member then often cements the deal by taking up shares or directorships in the new parent company (often under a proxy or hidden identity) so that they can continue to enjoy the profits of developing the land, but in a less obvious capacity. This ‘development’ almost invariably consists of stripping the area of its valuable timber and then planting palm oil plantations, leaving the destitute Dayakcommunities with nothing but very low paid jobs and usually laughable levels of compensation.
One shocking case in point
Sarawak Report has established that this scandalous activity has taken place in one of the most controversial current land grabs being sponsored by the State of Sarawak. The very poor Melanau population of Pulau Bruit near Sibu are one of the many communities to have suffered from this form of ‘development’, even though they are from the Chief Minister’s own race. The island till recently was a precious remaining area of fast disappearing lowland mangrove forest with a National Park of protected land. In 2004 the Chief Minister saw fit to ‘develop’ the area for yet more palm plantations, despite the growing international outcry over the destruction of Sarawak by palm plantations.
Therefore in May 2004 10,000 hectares of the island was handed to a company Eastern Eden Sdn Bhd and a further 5,000 to a company Poh Zhen. Of course the natives knew nothing of such decisions over their land until the palm plantation company came and started stripping the area of its pristine mangrove forests the following year and planting oil palm in its place. The company offered the locals just RM120 ringgit per hectare for their land - a total of just over a million ringgit to be shared by the entire community for all their native lands.
Encik Bahrum, one of the headmen, explains how he learnt about the development when he went to the jungle one day for forage for fish and food. A short way in he discovered that a vast area had been flattened. Bahrum, whose people have always lived in the area, said that the plantation company at first promised the locals that they were stripping the area to grow padi fields for the population, but in fact their whole region has been covered in oil palm. NGOs have told Sarawak Report that protesters have complained of harassment and arrest and many have ended taking the compensation feeling they have no choice.
Suffering of the people
Bahrum says that his people are now desperately short of food, because the forest and fish have gone. They are also suffering polluted waters as a result of pesticides andfertilisers on the plantation. Few have received jobs. The ‘development’ is now spreading across the island and extending into Iban territories affecting 8 communities at Sungai Lengan. The NGO Sadia has alerted the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil that the logging also appears to be encroaching illegally into the National Park area on the island. The Ibans say that already their health and food supplies have been affected by the pollution of their waters by chemicals and that fish are dying and children are falling sick. No compensation has been offered to the Ibans.
Sadia and the law firm belonging to PKR opposition leader Baru Bian are now supporting the natives in a court case to protect their remaining lands and sue for proper compensation. But there will be little surprise that the community say they have had no such support from their local representative to the Federal Parliament Norah Binti Abdul Rahman. She also the Chief Executive of the Tanjun Manis ‘development’ project that is driving the destruction of the entire area and she happens to be the niece of Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud.
Norah and Taibtreated themselves in the summer to a state-funded visit to Oxford University in the UK (along with two plane loads of publicly funded officials) in order to promote their business projects in the region at notorious event hosted by the University’s Said Business School. Norah is seeking international funding for further logging and devastation in order to develop a ‘Halal food Hub’ in Malaysia’s Christian state.
Even less surprising has been Nora’s sudden recent announcement that a large sum of money is about to be spent on an infrastructure programme to bring roads, electricity and water to the people who have till now been totally neglected in the ‘development’ of their region and who have suffered the loss of their forest lands and fishing grounds. She is of course now looking for their support in the upcoming election, but whether the promises will be remembered after the election is over is another matter. Local people are advised to ignore the 60 ringgit bribes she will also offer and to continue to ignore her even if she ups the bribe money! It is their right to receive Norah’s bribe money and to vote for another party entirely.
We expose who really profits
This is because perhaps the most shocking aspect of this story is the part that has until now been kept most hidden. Our investigations have revealed just how much money Norah’s family has taken from the natives of Pulau Bruit. When the locals had sought the owners of the palm plantations who had been handed their land by Taib’s decision as Chief Minister and Planning and Resources Minister they learnt that the companies, Eastern Eden and Poh Zhen, belonged to Jaya Tiasa a subsidiary company of the vast timber company Ribunan Hijau, run by a key crony of the Chief Minister. Therefore, their representatives have been making their protests to this company.
However, Sarawak Report can now reveal that the original owners of these companies were Taib’s own brothers Arip and Ali Mahmud. They received the land grants from the government on 19th May 2004 paying RM 6 million for Eastern Eden plot of 10,000 hectares and RM 3 million for the Poh Zhen plot of 5,000 hectares. However, in just 12 days on 31st May they had sold on the companies to their crony tycoon Ribunan Hijau/Jaya Tiasa chief Tiong Choong for RM 33 million and RM 16 million! This represents a RM 40 million clean profit for the Taib family in a matter of 12 days!
Further, true to the pattern we have identified, the Aripfamily have continued to enjoy profitable ties with the company they sold out to. Sarawak Report has identified a large chunk of Jaya Tiasa shares continue to belong to the Arip family (he died in 2005). These shares were clearly handed to the family as an added ‘sweetner’ for the deal. This means that the Mahmud family continues to reap big profits from the palm oil plantations and the timber extraction from the lands that were stolen from the local communities on top of the fat profit they made from selling on land that Taib had handed to them well below market price.
Sarawak Report will be following the fortunes of the impoverished islanders of Palau Bruit as they campaign to save the little remaining area of their lands and to receive compensation. However, their tragic case is just one of hundreds of land grabs by the Chief Minister and his family across the State. We will be unveiling more about these outrages and the effect on the people of Sarawak in later reports.