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
Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak.
A senior Malaysian politician who
awarded 4,400 hectares (ha) 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
Allegations stem from the 2008
awarding of two plots of land – 3,017ha and 1,423 ha – near
the UNESCO-protected Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak – a region
responsible for almost
27% of all oil palm planted in Malaysia last year. Between
2001 and 2016, Sarawak lost more than 20% of its tree cover, Global
Forest Watch estimates.
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,
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.
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% 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
As of April 2018, 16% of
the land had been illegally cleared for oil palm cultivation and timber with an
estimated market value in excess of $10m, 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
However, BMF want the minister
and other government officials to prioritise averting further destruction of
“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