Malaysia highest court affirms tribes' land rights

By JULIA ZAPPEI
Associated Press
2009-05-10 02:36 PM

Malaysia's highest court has affirmed a ruling granting land rights to indigenous people that could help them resist oil and logging companies razing their ancestral forests, a lawyer said Sunday.

A panel of three Federal Court judges unanimously ruled that tribes have customary ownership of land they have lived on for generations and state governments cannot take it from them without compensation, said See Chee How, a prominent land rights lawyer.

"It is a landmark decision," said See of Tuesday's ruling. "It's the first time the Federal Court has affirmed (such) a decision."

See said he hoped this would bode well for more than 100 other land rights cases still pending in court. Land rights are a key concern for the country's indigenous people, many of whom have been pushed off land without compensation by state governments to make way for development.

State governments claim the tribes have no legal rights to their ancestral land, which is owned by the state. But the tribes, who mostly live in poor settlements in the jungles on Borneo island, argue that the land is theirs because they have lived on it for generations.

In 2007 the Federal Court ruled that a family of the Kedayan group in Sarawak state on Borneo had rights over land they used and that they should be compensated. The government had taken over the land in the 1990s to grant it for oil exploration.

The state government sought a final review of the decision in the more-than-decade-old case, but on Tuesday another Federal Court panel upheld the ruling in favor of the family.

London-based Survival, an international organization supporting tribal peoples, welcomed the court's latest ruling, saying it could help tribes who "are desperately trying to stop logging and oil palm companies razing the forests they rely on for their survival."

Activists say tribes' livelihood is being threatened by companies that clear land for logging and oil palm projects, and laws that do not recognize or protect their indigenous customs and right to land ownership.

Last year in an unprecedented move, the federal government said it would grant ownership of farming land to about 20,000 indigenous families to improve their lives.
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