Malaysia: State Agency Could Use PR Training

posted by Josh Ran

This morning, our international fact finding team in Malaysia was scheduled to meet with officials from the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra), the state agency that officially works to alleviate poverty and improve the socio-economic status of rural communities, but in reality has led the expansion of oil palm plantations and owns a share of many of the companies.

We expected to receive a public relations presentation about how well Salcra is managing development and helping Indigenous communities in Sarawak, and we had a few questions ready to challenge those assertions. We were seated and given tea, fresh fruit and other snacks, along with a printout of the power-point presentation that was set up for the meeting. The boss came in and started shaking hands with members of the delegation and asking where we were from. When I said Rainforest Action Network, his eyes grew wide and he repeated “Rainforest?!” After meeting everyone, he left the room. Ten minutes later, his assistant came back and collected the presentation copies we’d been given (“Wrong version.”) and after waiting another twenty minutes, we were informed that the agency had only expected to meet with people from the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (the Indigenous rights group that arranged our meeting) and that they would not go forward with the meeting while people from the international community were in the room. So… Salcra missed a prime opportunity to give us their side of the story and made it very clear that their operations can’t stand up to international scrutiny.

So now instead of telling you about the meeting, here’s some other news about Salcra. Last month, Salcra Chairman Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang said that Western environmentalists used the media to tarnish Malaysia’s plantation reputation, particularly in Sarawak, without having any respect for the truth. He said that after blaming plantation activities for causing the destruction of the Orang Utan habitats, the latest accusation was that the land clearing for plantation purpose had contributed to increased emission of greenhouse gases and global warming. In fact, he says, oil palm plantations have had the opposite effect, and have not damaged the local ecology. (I wish I could’ve asked him about all of the fish poisoned in the rivers near the communities I visited.)

Salcra’s mandate includes developing all types of land in Sarawak, but their focus has been developing land where Native Customary Rights apply (meaning that the land belongs to the Indigenous community that has continuously cultivated it over a long period of time. Salcra and local politicians have pressured communities to agree to “joint ventures” with oil palm plantations, where communities essentially become (low) paid workers instead of landowners with control over their own land. This scheme subverts efforts by Indigenous communities to gain title to their land in perpetuity – instead, the joint venture company receives a title issued for a period of 60 years. Last night, I heard from another delegation member that one of the communities she met with had entered a joint venture on part of their land and continued to cultivate the other part of their land on their own. They found that they’re making much more money on the land they cultivate themselves – and they don’t have to sign away their rights to do it!

Thanks for the educational meeting, Salcra!