Fight over Sarawak rain forest heats up
In February 2007, the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei signed the tripartite "Heart of Borneo Declaration" in which they committed themselves to protecting the rainforests of central Borneo. However, the declaration has not been followed by much action on the ground. In December 2009, Sarawak's Director of Forests, Len Talif Salleh, even condemned the Penan Peace Park as an "illegal" project that "tainted Sarawak's image".
In another controversial move, the Sarawak government also announced plans in December to convert one million hectares of land into oil palm plantations within the next 10 years. Most of this land is currently covered by secondary rainforests, yet it also includes fruit and rubber gardens as well as hitherto untouched primary rainforests, including peatland swamp forests.
According to Sarawak's Land Development Minister, James Masing, the government needed to look into a "more aggressive" conversion of native lands into oil palm plantations. He said that the state government intended to double its oil palm plantation area from the current 920,000 hectares to two million hectares by 2020, and stated that his ministry had requested funds from the Malaysian federal government for this purpose.
Masing's announcement comes as a shock to human rights and environmental campaigners who are increasingly concerned about the ruthless alienation of native lands and the rapid degradation of Sarawak's rainforests, one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. Last year, Malaysia's indigenous organizations called for a moratorium on the development of new plantations due to the blatant disregard of native rights by the state authorities.
EU puts timber talks on hold
Sarawak's failure to enforce its forest legislation policies and its unlawful handling of the native rights issue have recently caused the European Union to stall timber trade talks with Malaysia over a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA).
While the state's logging policies have been controversial for more than two decades, the root cause seems to be the massive corruption under Taib, who has been in power since 1981. Taib has recently come under fire over land deals attributed to his family members and a large number of overseas properties belonging to his family, whose wealth is of unaccounted origin
Taib is also linked to another recent scandal regarding the Borneo forests under which the much maligned logging tycoon who heads up Samling was revealed to be involved in running a Malaysian World Heritage Site.
According to research by the Bruno Manser Fund, an activist group vying to protect the Borneo forests, Yaw Teck Seng, the controlling shareholder of the Samling timber group, was recently revealed to hold a significant equity stake in Borsamulu Resorts, a company that manages all the tourism activities in the Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak's UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
Norwegians dump Samling after illegal logging probe
One of the world's largest institutional investors, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, has sold all its 16 million shares of Samling Global, worth USD1.2 million, as a consequence of a ground breaking decision by the Norwegian Ministry of Finance in August last year.