Oil palm and timber companies received permits to continue work in Sarawak despite national lockdown – indigenous leaders criticise the government’s decision
(MIRI / SARAWAK / MALAYSIA) From last Wednesday, Malaysia has been under a two-week-lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19. All non-essential businesses have shut down. The Sarawak Government, however, gave out permission to the timber and oil palm industries to continue their operations. While indigenous communities are told to stay home, logging and plantation companies can continue grabbing their forests and lands.
Komeok Joe, the CEO of the Penan organisation KERUAN, is in close contact with communities and was in the field when the government announced the lockdown last week: “Most logging companies have continued the timber extraction as usual since the lockdown. Only few workers stopped their work. Ongoing logging will help spread the virus and is, therefore, an immediate health threat to the communities. Many Penan villages, furthermore, disagree with logging in their forest. It is unfair that the villagers have to restrict their movement as much as possible, while timber companies can still enter all areas. How can the communities check whether companies illegally encroach on their lands?”
Peter Kallang, indigenous leader and chairman of SAVE Rivers, questions the government’s rationale: “Why should the oil palm and timber sectors be different from any other industry? Of course, supermarkets remain open because people would go hungry otherwise. But there is no immediate urgency in processing palm oil and extracting timber for our society. The health risks for workers and the communities are too high. The logging and oil palm industries are not isolated. We have to break the transmission chain of the virus. The government is not reasonable and has misjudged the risk of spreading the virus further through logging and palm oil processing activities.”
The Bruno Manser Fund demands the revocation of the special permit given to the timber and oil palm sectors to continue their activities under the current lockdown. The serious challenge of stopping the spread of the virus should not be undermined by the timber and plantation companies’ interests and should not be abused to grab any further forest and land from indigenous peoples.