Shafie must clarify move to abolish communal titles, says NGO

Pacos Trust executive director Anne Lasimbang says it is not enough to abolish the communal land title scheme if the relevant law is not changed to remove the state government’s power over NCR land.

KOTA KINABALU: An NGO has asked Parti Warisan Sabah president Shafie Apdal to clarify his statement regarding doing away with the communal title scheme if it comes into power.

Partners of Community Organisations in Sabah (Pacos Trust) executive director Anne Lasimbang said it supported the communal titles, but only those based on native customary rights (NCR). Anne said at present, there were two types of communal title lands in Sabah — one is land planned by the state government and the other is based on customary tenure, or NCR.

“We hope that Shafie was referring to the ‘unpopular’ state-planned communal titles.

“These incorporate a development scheme using companies to participate in joint ventures with the local communities,” she told FMT.

Anne said Pacos Trust wants these state-planned communal land titles abolished because these joint venture companies “use unscrupulous tactics”.

“The companies would give money and ask the locals to sign an ‘acknowledgement’ as receipt.

“The company then misrepresents these signatures to mean that the community has agreed to the terms of the joint venture.”

She added that some of these companies have no respect for the wishes of the community regarding areas it wants to conserve, like for water catchments.

“Often, the joint venture company will destroy the village’s only source of water or pollute their river, despite promising earlier that it will not.

“These companies just want to exploit the community’s NCR land for profit under the guise of ‘poverty eradication’,” Anne said, calling it a “new form of land grabbing”.

“And this is facilitated by the state government, which chooses which company gets the right to enter into the joint venture in state-planned communal title land.”

She said another main concern about the state-planned communal title land is that the titles allow for villagers to be excluded from their own land.

Communal land not for government to ‘give’

Anne also “corrected” Shafie on his statement that “when we give you the land, it won’t be just empty land” and will come with seedlings and expertise to grow various crops.

She said no one can possibly “give” to the community what already belongs to them.

“The communal title is a recognition of an existing right, not the creation of something new that can be ‘given’ out like a handout.

“Furthermore, for Shafie to say ‘it won’t be just empty land’ also shows that he does not understand the concept of NCR.

“Sometimes, what is perceived by some as ’empty’ land is actually NCR land that a community does not want to open or develop by choice because it is the community water catchment, hunting ground or source of non-timber forest produce.”

She reiterated the fact that communal title land, based on NCR, should not be abolished because this title cannot exclude a person who has already proven his right to be there through the NCR claim process.

Additionally, she said an NCR-based communal title also puts the decision about the development back into the hands of the community.

“Whether or not a community wants to develop an area of their territory or to conserve it, thus remaining ‘empty land’, as Shafie puts it, should be decided by the community itself, not forced upon by the government.

“When that decision is made by the community, only then should the state government step in to see how it can support the community’s decision.”

2009 amendment to Sabah Land Ordinance

Nevertheless, Anne said while Pacos Trust is glad that Shafie had identified the current land development schemes as problematic, the Semporna MP’s counter proposal will not solve the real problem.

“As long as the 2009 amendment to communal titles of the Sabah Land Ordinance stands, it provides power to whichever party in control of the state government to simply declare an area as state-planned communal title, with the same or worse weaknesses as the current scheme.”

In the special terms of the amendment to Section 76 of the ordinance, the “anak negeri” (indigenous people) are deemed beneficiaries of the communal native title, and not as owners according to their native customary rights (NCR).

Pacos Trust is a community-based organisation dedicated to supporting indigenous communities in Sabah. – FMT