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Malaysian Forest Certification Process Fails to Address Indigenous Rights
By M.C. Wong
2001-10-20 | In recent years, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has made large strides in creating an international eco-timber certification system. The FSC has 10 principles that are meant to hold true anywhere in the world. In addition, local regions or countries are required to come up with their own principles to better match the local situation. But these national principles must be consistent with the 10 principles, and all stakeholders must have a role in creating the regional or national standards.
The Malaysian government established the National Timber Certification Council (NTCC) in October, 1998. Dato' Dr. Freezailah bin Che Yeom, former Malaysian Executive Director of the ITTO (International Tropical Timber Organization) in Yokohama, was appointed as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the NTCC (now recently renamed the MTCC - the Malaysian Timber Certification Council). At first, the NTCC wanted nothing to do with the FSC. The Malaysian Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in a report issued in late November 1999, called the FSC a U.S.- backed plot to impose foreign values on Malaysia.
Malaysian government claims to accept FSC process
Two years later, the NTCC changed its mind and decided to develop an FSC compatible Malaysian Criteria and Indicators (MCandI). The reason for this change is because timber companies apparently realized that the Western market demand for a credible green label could not be ignored. The timber industry in Malaysia is running out of profitable wood to cut, and is turning to the idea of creating furniture for the Western market, instead of just selling raw logs. Selling wood products in Europe especially is likely to get increasingly difficult without FSC certification.
A workshop was conducted in December 2000 with the attendance of the various stakeholders, including Malaysian NGO's working on indigenous issues (as distinguished from other social and conservation NGO's such as World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF-M), Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and the Yellow Union of woodworkers. The workshop resulted in the formation of a working group composed of three chambers to look into the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainable forest management. However, the real objective seems to be furthering high timber industry profit margins instead of being sincere about sustainability. The government and corporate dominated workshop actually compartmentalized the concept. A fourth chamber for the foresters was pushed ahead after a long debate.
Today, the Minister of Primary Industries Dakuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik argues that the Malaysian Criteria and Indicators (MCandI) for sustainable forest management developed by NTCC is as good a standard as the FSC's, and that it should already be accepted as the FSC's national standards for Malaysia.
A collision course over indigenous issues
However, Malaysia and the FSC appear to be on a collision course, because these standards do not appear to be consistent with the FSC's 10 principles. At the opening of the International Conference on Forestry and Forest Product Research in Kuala Lumpur on October 1st, 2001, Lim Keng Yaik expressed disappointment that the government's effort to promote the Malaysian National Certification process was being hampered by the non-cooperation of the FSC itself and other developing nations. "All this indicates that the FSC does not want to lose its monopoly in certification," said Lim in his usual tone (New Straits Times, October 2nd, 2001).
NGOs involved with indigenous concerns had earlier expressed concerns during the NTCC meeting to formalize the MCandI in October 1999. Their concern was that the welfare of indigenous communities has not been safeguarded in Malaysia, since legislation fails to provide due recognition of the customary rights of the local people. The NTCC however, regards the present state law as a sufficient.
But this is clearly not the case, because current Malaysian law requires the setting up of a Forest Management Unit (FMU) for each forest concession. When an FMU is given for a particular area, logging becomes the only land use allowed there. So under the current rules it is impossible for reconcile logging and indigenous land use, because the two activities are legally mutually exclusive. In essence, the government legally wipes out all indigenous land claims, and then says there are no longer any land claims to hold back timber certification.
Practically all the native forests in Sarawak, except those set aside for conservation purposes, have been given as concessions to logging companies. According to Forests Monitor, at least 80% of all of Sarawak's total land area has been given as concessions. There have been numerous disputes between the indigenous community claims and the concession holders. Certification through the MCandI would only further justify the extinguishing of indigenous rights over their ancestral domains. Many people absolutely depend on these lands for their livelihoods as well as their cultural and spiritual wellbeing.
Many NGOs questioned the process used in the December 2000 NTCC workshop. These NGOs have criticized the process, saying it gave little or no opportunity for sincere dialogue and discussion. They have requested transparency and accountability for better communication, information and the participation of community people.
In the first quarter of 2001 these NGOs held four community consultations in the three regions of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. Recommendations and demands from these consultations have been compiled. These call for particular attention to FSC principles 2 and 3 that concern ownership, tenures and rights of indigenous people. These two FSC principles would be very good if they were actually applied, but the NTCC seems to have no intention of following them.
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