After guarding a blockade against loggers for 16 months, a group of Orang Asli in Pahang is bringing their fight to the courts. The Kampung Mesau villagers have just filed a summons against the Pahang government and a developer for violating their customary rights. Part 3 of 3.
This story is produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.
Rice cooks in a soot-covered pot behind Rani Jilal. The 72-year-old man sits on bare ground in his hut. He is a senior member of the Temoq Orang Asli of Kampung Mesau in the Chini-Bera forests, Pahang.
Behind Rani, the boiling rice spills out of the pot into the wood fire. He ignores the sizzle. He is talking about his fear that his kin would be chased off the land they claim as their customary right. He has seen how swiftly developers can tear their world apart.
In December 2019, the Pahang government gave the land around Rani’s village and beyond to plantation company YP Olio Sdn Bhd on a 99-year lease. Within two years, loggers had cleared almost 2,600 ha and destroyed some orchards and graves that belonged to Kampung Mesau and the nearby Kampung Berengoi.
To stop the loggers, Kampung Mesau villagers built a wooden blockade on the main logging road in June 2021. They have been living by the blockade since.
Up until last weekend, the loggers have not returned, even as the villagers stand their ground and reject compensation from the company. But the situation is heating up.
On 21 September, the federal Department of Environment approved YP Olio’s project to clear and turn the site into an oil palm plantation. The site occupies about 83% of the Orang Asli’s claimed customary land.
Then, on 27 September, Rani and his kin filed a statement of claim with the High Court in Kuala Lumpur. They served summons against YP Olio, the Pahang state government, the Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA), and several other government agencies.
They accuse these parties of violating Orang Asli customary rights and failing to protect Orang Asli interests.
At the blockade or the court, a face off between the Orang Asli villagers and YP Olio seems imminent.
One meeting, many versions
In late 2020, Rani, his son Omar Rani, and fellow villager Maarof Abdullah met with YP Olio representatives and JAKOA officers at Kampung Berengoi. They sat within a thin ring of trees beyond which lies a barren landscape. The villagers, who could not read a single word, were shown some letters.
YP Olio came to the meeting with the state government’s approval for an 8,498 ha oil palm project there. The company registered the land title in December 2019 while the site was still part of a forest reserve.
The government excised the site out of the forest reserve only in November 2020. But the forests there were felled months before in logging projects with environmental impact assessment reports that claimed to be working on “private land.”
The villagers were unhappy with the project’s violation of their customary rights. In June 2017 — a month before the government approved the project — Kampung Berengoi and Kampung Mesau mapped out 4,223 ha of customary land.
However, the state government has not recognised their claim.
The Pahang Chief Minister and state executive council office did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions.
So between 2018 and 2020, the villagers protested against the logging. They filed two police reports, wrote to JAKOA and other agencies, and in 2019 erected a blockade which the loggers removed a few days later.
Despite these prior conflicts, the meeting in Kampung Berengoi ended with the 3 Orang Asli signing a consent letter. The letter says they agree with YP Olio’s project on the land and will each receive a house from the company.
Five other villagers had signed an identical letter a few days earlier.
But since then, 4 of the 8 signees have denied supporting YP Olio’s project.
“We didn’t know about the plantation, they only spoke about giving help, houses, solar power,” says Omar. He adds that he first learned that their signatures were used as consent to clear the forests when Macaranga interviewed him in 2021. “At first, we didn’t know, so we agreed. After we realise the problem, we disagreed.”
Mohamad Nor Suandi bin Rahmat, the most senior JAKOA officer at the meeting, refutes Omar’s allegation. Instead, Suandi tells Macaranga that he and YP Olio’s representatives explained everything to Omar and the villagers.
He remembers telling the villagers to “sign only if they understand and agree to the project.”
YP Olio did not reply to Macaranga’s questions.
In June 2021, Omar lodged a police report against YP Olio. A month later, a YP Olio manager lodged a police report on the company’s behalf refuting Omar’s allegation. The manager claimed instead that some of the villagers had changed their minds after signing consent letters.
But while all parties stand by their accounts, there is no conclusive evidence of who said what. Nobody recorded the meeting. Even the meeting date varies between recollections to Macaranga, what more the details.
Farm over forests
Still, some villagers understood and agreed with what they signed. One such villager is 20-year-old Buyan Luka. Buyan says that YP Olio and JAKOA had explained the project to him and his father, and they agreed. He is ready to switch from relying on the forests to farming.
“I don’t want to quarrel with others,” he says. “Many people here are quarrelling over land.” He says he has also signed a separate agreement with YP Olio to receive 1.2 ha of rubber trees behind his future house. He believes JAKOA will keep him updated about his compensation.
Does Buyan not feel sorry to lose the forest from which he has collected damar to sell? “Why should we continue to be sad? [The forest] is all gone,” he replies. “If they want to make a plantation, give it to them. It’s futile for us to fight.”
As Buyan speaks, his elder brother Arip listens a few feet away. Arip has only recently returned to the village after 5 years. He is not on YP Olio’s list to receive any compensation. Unlike his family, Arip is angry with YP Olio and the destruction of the forest he “loves”.
“If it’s all bulldozed and left with oil palm only, it will be different,” Arip tells Macaranga. “With forest, I will be happier. I can find food there and hunt the monkeys. If it’s a plantation, and if they chase us away, where would we go?”
He thinks his family “has been lied to by YP Olio”.
More aid? No thanks
In July 2021 — a month after Omar’s police report — YP Olio proposed more compensation and aid for the Orang Asli. The company wrote to JAKOA that “after considering the long-term interests of the villagers”, it will add a monthly allowance of RM700 to each of the 8 signees for 20 years.
Furthermore, the company offered to support Orang Asli children’s education by providing scholarships, transport, stationery, and adopting their kindergarten. Buyan’s rubber farm is not mentioned.
None of the villagers said they knew of YP Olio’s new proposal until informed by Macaranga. Nevertheless, Omar and Rani remain unmoved.
“Definitely disagree, regardless of allowance [or] house. Let me work on my own,” says Omar over lunch with his family at the blockade. “Even if my life is tough, it’s mine.”
Even YP Olio’s offer to pay for their 4 children’s education is “definitely not good,” says Omar’s wife. His cousin, Aminah Tan, explains their distrust: their elders were “chased off” their ancestral land nearby after planters cleared the forests there.
“That was our original village,” adds Omar. “We suffered once, we have learned.”
Sincere developers welcomed
Suandi, the JAKOA officer, tells Macaranga he understands Omar’s concern. “I would be worried too if people come into my land.” But he vouches for YP Olio: “They always ask JAKOA to be a witness, and they make their promises in black and white.”
Furthermore, Suandi admits that JAKOA lacks the resources to develop small Orang Asli villages like Kampung Mesau and Kampung Berengoi. As such, JAKOA welcomes “sincere efforts” by developers to boost the economy of these villages.
Breaking the deadlock
For some time now, the villagers and YP Olio appear to be stuck in a tug of war, as Aminah describes it. To satisfy each side, Suandi suggests that YP Olio build the new houses at the edge of the site, so that the Orang Asli could easily go into the forests outside of the site.
But that is not the life that Rani, Omar, and Arip desire. They say they want a forest they can call their own and use as their ancestors did. They want to continue depending on the forest and rivers for meat, fish, resin, keruing oil, and medicine.
And they want to do it all on customary land recognised by the government and protected by law. They demand exactly that in their legal summons against YP Olio and the Pahang government.
While the court process unfolds, Kampung Mesau villagers face renewed tests. Last Friday, strangers came in a white car and asked for Omar and Rani. They lingered at one of the larger Orang Asli villages but have not reached Kampung Mesau yet.
Macaranga learned from the villagers that the strangers were loggers from Johor.
Edited by SL Wong.