Sarawak indigenous group bags UN award, cash prize

Kevin Tan

11:46am Thu Sep 5th, 2002

A Sarawakian local community has won the United Nations Equator Prize 2002 award for its outstanding efforts in reducing poverty and conserving biodiversity.

Picked from a pool of 420 nominations from 77 countries, Uma Bawang Residents’ Association (Ubra) was among the award’s five winners.

The association’s chairperson Jok Jau Evong said the members were excited and proud to receive the recognition.

"It has been more than a decade. It’s deserving [given] our hard work and sacrifices," he said when contacted yesterday.

The award, which comes with a US$30,000 (RM114,000) cash prize, was presented at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week.

The winners were outstanding examples of community-led partnerships in the tropics, which are best able to tackle the planet's most pressing development challenges.

Ubra, which has a membership of about 100 people, was said to have successfully used blockades and innovative mapping efforts to defend customary land rights and access to forest lands.

Income-generating skills

The group also helped residents learn a wide variety of cash-generating skills such as communal rice farming and milling, pig-rearing, growing pepper and fruit trees, and developing sustainable teakwood plantations.

All these were done without endangering forest resources and are complemented by work in reforestation and restoration of damaged forest lands.

Ubra’s projects are concentrated along Sungai Keluan — a seven-hour boat ride from Kuala Baram. The latter is a half-hour drive from state capital Miri.

The association’s humble beginnings can be traced back to1987 when a group of Kayan natives who resided along Sungai Keluan erected blockades to protect their land from being taken over by a logging firm.

According to Jok, the blockades were erected as a last resort since the firm refused to entertain the residents’ demand for compensation. The state government also failed to intervene in the matter despite pleas from the residents.

The stand-off between the residents and the logging firm culminated in the arrest of 42 people.

In petitioning for their release, Jok initiated two legal suits #&8212 against the Sarawak state government for failing to protect the native customary land rights and against the police for wrongfully arresting the residents — which dragged for 10 years.

The case against the state government failed but the Miri Sessions Court ruled in favour of the residents in the other case.

As a result of this, the residents received RM20,000 in compensation from the federal government.

Passport confiscated

In 1993, Jok’s passport was confiscated by the government when he was about to attend an international conference on indigenous peoples in Peru.

He is still unsure whether he is free to travel abroad although the Court of Appeal ruled this May that he was free to apply for a new passport since his old one has expired.

"My old passport has expired and I haven’t submitted an application for a new passport. I am not sure whether my application will be approved," he said.

Because of the uncertainty, Ubra was represented instead by youth co-ordinator Saging Anyi to receive the award in Johannesburg.

Jok also said that the logging company which laid the foundation for Ubra’s birth no longer carried out its work in the area.

However, he refused to name the company.

He said that since the incident, other logging companies would consult the local community before commencing work.

Mapping project

Asked about Ubra’s forest mapping activities, Jok said the effort is important in order to allow residents in an area to claim their right to the land.

He said the mapping project was started in 1995 with the help of some experts from the Borneo Project who are based in Berkeley, United States.

To date, they have managed to map an area of about 1,000ha near their longhouse settlement.

Questioned about Ubra’s plans for the cash reward, Jock said it would probably be used to improve and increase their projects.

He said that Ubra’s community projects — which involved 200 residents near Sungai Keluan — is completely independent and self-sustaining.