Malaysian politician under fire for suspect oil palm deal near UNESCO site that led to alleged illegal deforestation

Monday, May 13th, 2019

Sarawak Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud is accused of granting ‘extraordinarily favourable’ leases to an oil palm firm with close ties to his son which later allegedly carried out illegal deforestation of timber without licences or consent from communities.  

A senior Malaysian politician who awarded 4,400 hectares of rainforest for oil palm cultivation to a firm where his son had been a director in a deal which has led to widespread illegal deforestation and ignored the rights of indigenous communities should face a government investigation, a new report from Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) claims.

Abdul Taib Mahmud is named by the Swiss NGO as a central figure in a series of suspect lease agreements which proved highly beneficial for the firm Radiant Lagoon. Locals are now fighting to reclaim ancestral lands from being further illegally cleared for timber and oil palm.

Allegations stem from the 2008 awarding of two plots of land – 3,017 hectares and 1,423 hectares –  near the UNESCO-protected Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak – a region responsible for almost 27 per cent of all oil palm planted in Malaysia last year. Between 2001 and 2016, Sarawak lost more than 20 per cent of its tree cover, Global Forest Watch estimates.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest oil palm producer and along with Indonesia makes up 85 per cent of global trade. The Malaysia Palm Oil Board anticipates exports will top 17 million tonnes in 2019.

Taib, Sarawak’s then Chief Minister, Minister for State Planning and current Governor, awarded ‘extraordinarily favourable’ leases to the palm oil company in December 2008, BMF allege.

His son, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, was Radiant Lagoon’s majority shareholder and director less than eight months prior. Bekir resigned and Chung Soon Nam, his close business associate, became managing director when the leases were issued.

Documents obtained by BMF show that annual rent for the land was set at a meagre 2.5 Malaysian ringgit ($0.60) per hectare. The Land and Survey Department, then  overseen by Taib, also granted the firm two ‘Special Condition’ notices to extend the planting period from five to 15 years in August 2009.

Four months later, Bekir returned as director and Soo Nam soon transferred his shares to his friend. Bekir was director until Febraury 2018 when he shifted 99 per cent of shares to Onlyee Plantations – a firm owned by the Double Dynasty group that sells palm oil to brands including Nestlé, Unilever and P&G.

The Mulu land went untouched for nearly a decade. But in 2018 local Penan and Berawan/Tering communities, who had claimed the land under Malaysia’s Native Customary Rights ruling, were greeted by Radiant Lagoon workers clear-cutting the secondary rainforest around them.

As of April 2018, 16 per cent of the land had been illegally cleared for oil palm cultivation and timber with an estimated market value in excess of $10 million, the report states. BMF claim that The Sarawak Forest Department confirmed to them that Radiant Lagoon does not yet have a licence to extract timber.

BMF say that under lease deals planting must start within two years of a lease being awarded and that any breach ‘shall render the land liable to forfeiture’ under local law. No oil palm planting had happened by early 2019, the report claims.

Taib stepped down as Chief Minister and Minister for State Planning in 2014 but remains Sarawak Governor and BMF believe an investigation into his Mulu dealings is needed.

“We call on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to direct MACC (the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) to open an investigation against Sarawak Governor Taib Mahmud, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib and Chung Soon Nam over Radiant Lagoon’s dodgy leases,ˮ BMF Executive Director Lukas Straumann said.

The entire Penan community and a significant part of the Berawan/Tering community oppose the development and neither group gave their free, prior and informed consent to the deal, a violation of Malaysia’s commitment to the UN Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, BMF claim.

“We need the forest for our food supply and to pursue our traditional way of life,ˮ Penan leader Komeok Joe said recently. “The Sarawak government must intervene immediately and stop the destruction of the Mulu forest. Our Native Customary Rights… must finally be recognised.ˮ

Several community leaders were also bribed by Radiant Lagoon, according to local accounts given to BMF, but many residents have strongly rejected the deal. Locals set up blockades to prevent further encroachment – which has also destroyed several burial sites belonging to the Berawan – and as of March 2019 the land clearing had halted.

The Malaysian government has faced fierce criticism for allowing illegal deforestation to persist and in March, the European Commission agreed to phase out using palm oil-based biofuel from the country by 2030. Such a deal would heavily impact the sector and the Minister of Primary Industries, Teresa Kok, described the move as ‘a form of trade war by the EU against Malaysia’.

However, BMF want the minister and other government officials to prioritise averting further destruction of the Mulu.

“Instead of issuing implausible trade war threats to the EU, Malaysian politicians should focus on cleaning up Sarawak, which has become the dirty backyard of the Malaysian palm oil industry,ˮ Straumann added.

A Sarawak indigenous delegation travelled to Europe in May and handed a petition with more than 190,000 signatories to the Malaysian Embassy in Brussels demanding the leases are revoked.

Image on homepage shows the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. Courtesy of Creative Commons.