Sarawak;s New Middle Class

In the small town of Sebako in Sarawak, Malaysia, some 20 people wait patiently for planting updates from officials of the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra). Led by their headman Salimin Asiew, they are owners of land to which they exert native customary rights (NCR).

NCR are acquired by landowners in accordance with the customary law of communities prior to Jan 1, 1958, as set out in Section 5(2) of the Sarawak Land Code. Land ownership is life itself to rural natives of Sarawak. It is an inheritance, from both a cultural and economic viewpoint.

Prior to government-funded perimeter and individual lot surveys, proof of land ownership was very tenuous, Salimin noted.

Many elders, when asked to identify their land, would make a sweeping motion from left to right with their arm, spanning fruit trees, bamboo clumps, a river or valley, and marked burial sites. But through Salcra’s oil palm development schemes, NCR landowners have had their boundaries properly surveyed and were given land titles.

“Allegations of rampant land grabbing that you read about on the Internet are not entirely true. There are land disputes. We have native courts to settle them,” Salimin said.

Asked about free, prior and informed consent for oil palm development, he replied: “From the start, Salcra officers explained their management policy. There is mutual trust and respect in our dialogue sessions. Many more among our community have gained confidence and applied to Salcra to plant oil palm for them.

“Our children, although many are working in Kuala Lumpur, see oil palm planting here as a good investment. In time, our children will inherit the land. We want to pass on this business that they can build on with better agronomic expertise.

“With more government funding for proper land terracing, better seedlings and higher quality fertilisers, more NCR land can be developed via economies of scale. We would like to see more of our neighbours and relatives reap the benefits of commercial-scale planting.”

Federal funding sought
Under the 11th Malaysia Plan from 2016-2020, the Sarawak government aims to upgrade the value of NCR land as a means of improving the people’s income.

State Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing noted that NCR land development is handled by four organisations – the Sarawak Land Development Board, Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA), Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority and Salcra.
As at September 2015, about 235,000 ha of NCR land had been planted with oil palm.

“In 20 years, Sarawak has targeted another 500,000 ha for oil palm development on NCR land. We hope the federal government will agree to allocate RM571 million for the next five years as per our application to help us raise our people’s standard of living,” said Masing.

With a funding boost from the federal government, he said LCDA and Salcra can help more NCR landowners develop idle plots to raise the value of their real estate.

He also said the issuance of land titles has helped settle disputes and enabled NCR landowners to mortgage their land for start-up capital to leverage on more value-added activities. This is line with the state government’s vision of a native middle-class.

“Planting oil palm on idle land has always been for the benefit of business owners and landowners. It is regretful that many NGOs make false allegations about land grabbing and [that they] sow distrust among our communities in order to gain political mileage and stop the growth of the industry.”

In Sri Aman, Briku Busang, the community leader for the Pakit longhouse, expressed a similar view. He noted that before his people embraced oil palm planting, life was tough because his community had only planted padi and had just about enough to eat.

“In the 1970s, my people were still shifting cultivators. We have no capital to invest in heavy machinery and no technical knowledge on planting oil palm commercially.

“In 1980, Salcra suggested this new method to make NCR land more productive without ownership sacrifice. We started with Phase 1 and today, we have engaged Salcra to manage around 3,000 ha.”

Briku noted it has been 25 years since his people started planting oil palm.

“We’re due to replant a second cycle of oil palm. We would like for the federal government to allocate specific funding for replanting of oil palm and rubber on NCR land,” he said.

“What we’re getting from the federal government for the construction of internal village roads and bridges is not enough. As taxpayers, we too want equal opportunities for development that will help bridge the rural and urban gap.”

Source: New Straits Times, Oct 15, 2015

This is an edited version of the article.


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