Sarawak, Malaysia: Infringement of the Rights of Indigenous People by Continuous Illegal Logging Practices

Sarawak, Malaysia

Infringement of the Rights of Indigenous People by Continuous Illegal Logging Practices 

Human Rights Now (HRN), a Tokyo-based international human rights NGO, released a report “Sarawak, Malaysia: Infringement of the Rights of Indigenous People by Continuous Illegal Logging Practices”m Industry in Japan” (Japanese) on January 14, 2016.

This research report elucidates the reality of the illegal logging of rainforests in Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, and the infringement of rights of indigenous inhabitants caused by it. It calls for effective countermeasures by logging companies in Sarawak, the Sarawak State Government, Japanese companies, and all other stakeholders of illegal logging including the Japanese Government to end illegal logging.

Tentative translation of the report in English: Report on Illegal Logging in Sarawak Malaysia* [PDF]

Please note that the original report is in Japanese, and while this English translation has been prepared in good faith, we do not accept responsibility for the accuracy of the translations. Reference should be made to the original Japanese language texts.

Download the Japanese report here: マレーシア・サラワク州 今なお続く違法伐採による先住民族の権利侵害 報告書 [PDF]

Sarawak, Malaysia

Infringement of the Rights of Indigenous People by Continuous Illegal Logging Practices 

1. Overview of the Research Report

A) Infringement on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by Illegal Logging in Sarawak and Responses by the Malaysian Government

The indigenous inhabitants of Sarawak have long depended on forests to support their livelihoods in accordance with traditional laws and customs. The land rights of these indigenous peoples are legally recognized under the Malaysian constitution, which define the rights as native customary rights (“NCR”). The Sarawak state and Malaysian logging companies have depleted Sarawak’s once abundant natural rainforests, impinging greatly on the lifestyles of the native populations that have lived in the forests for centuries.

In Sarawak, deforestation is regulated by the Malaysian government’s licensing system, and NCR should be protected under this licensing system. However, due to corruption and the collusive relationships between local logging companies and the state government, licenses for logging projects have been issued arbitrarily, and many of these licenses have gone to projects with complete disregard for NCR. In addition, even in cases where NCR is actually infringed upon, governmental regulation is significantly inadequate because of corruption and a lack of resources at the state government level.

In order to address the situation, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) conducted field surveys and  revealed, in a 2013 report, that NCR has not been properly recognized in legal terms, and that therefore many licenses for logging and forest development projects have been granted despite violation of NCR. According to a news release, the Malaysian government set up a task force to analyze the 2013 report and accepted the task force’s recommendations to obtain preliminary consent from indigenous peoples; however, the situation remains critical and it remains to be seen that reforms will be truly made for the sake of the indigenous peoples.

B) The Facilitation of Illegal Logging due to Lenient Japanese Regulations

Japan is a major importer of Sarawak timber and wood products, and various wood products made from illegally logged timber are widely used in Japan. Japan’s lenient restrictions against illegally logged timber can be pointed to as the true source of this influx. While Japanese legal restrictions on the importation of illegal timber do exist in the form of the Green Purchasing Law and other guidelines published by the Forestry Agency, there are no laws or regulations banning private sector actors from importing illegally logged timber, nor are there laws or regulations providing for the criminal punishment of private importers of illegal timber. Although the “Goho-Wood System”, created based on Forestry Agency guidelines, is a voluntary initiative for private actors, it is ineffective in stopping illegal logging. This is because there exist loopholes, such as approval documents issued by the state of Sarawak being accepted as proof of timber legality, despite the identification of the Sarawak government’s collusive relationships with logging companies. The leniency of Japanese regulations and the reliance of Japanese importers on them are worsening the situation in Sarawak.

Based on the facts above, Human Rights Now (HRN) calls for an immediate cessation of illegal logging by local logging companies, and also demands that Japanese importers implement an immediate suspension of imports from companies logging illegally.

Additionally, HRN asks that the Malaysian government amend its laws and improve its legal practices in order to protect NCR in accordance with the proposal by SUHAKAM, and that the Japanese Government prohibit the import of illegal timber and impose criminal punishment on offenders. (See VII. “Proposal” for more details about our proposal.)

2. Composition of the Report

This report consists of the following sections.

Section II provides an overview of the structure and effects of illegal logging in Sarawak. It focuses on five stakeholders of illegal logging: 1) indigenous peoples, 2) local logging companies, 3) the Sarawak state government, 4) Japanese companies, and 5) the Japanese government, examining how they are involved in and affected by illegal logging.

Section III analyzes the causes of illegal logging. It specifically looks at the licensing system in relation to logging and the legal status of NCR in order to depict the extent to which NCR has been violated by illegal logging in Sarawak. It also explains how laws and regulations restricting illegal logging are not being properly administered, as well as the role of corruption enabled by the collusive relationship between the state government and the local companies in bringing about the current situation.

Section IV examines infringement upon NCR and the resulting destruction of the livelihood of indigenous peoples.

Section V focuses on a report published by SUHAKAM regarding Malaysian domestic laws governing the land rights of indigenous peoples, including common law. It also looks at international human rights standards on the land rights of indigenous peoples.

Section VI discusses the situation in Japan, the largest importer of Sarawak timber, and its use of illegally-logged timber. It demonstrates how the regulation of illegally logged timber in Japan is lenient compared to US, EU and Australian regulations, and that because of that leniency, the wide-spread usage of illegally logged timber in Japan is overlooked and tolerated.

Finally, Section VII offers recommendations that local companies, Japanese companies, the Japanese Government, Malaysian and Sarawak Government should implement in order to end illegal logging and ensure that indigenous people properly enjoy NCR. 

3. Research Methodology

This report was drafted based on the results of an investigation conducted by HRN researchers on Japanese, Malaysian, and international laws related to illegal logging, surveys of staff at NGOs working to prevent illegal logging, and interviews with indigenous people and local stakeholders conducted while they were visiting Japan. For Section VI.1 (Usage of illegally logged Sarawak timber in Japan) HRN made inquiries to the Japanese companies mentioned in this report and the section reflects their responses. HRN did not conduct a field survey in Malaysia as the focus of this report is on presenting the problems of the Malaysian and Japanese legal systems which enable illegal logging.