12 NCR Landowners Lose Legal Challenge to Claim Ancestral Land

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Sarawak natives suffer yet another blow in their fight to preserve their ancestral land.

How the ethnic Iban natives lost their land:

  • 2005 – Villagers filed lawsuit to seek a declaration that they were the original title holders over the disputed land gazetted for development
  • 2011 – High Court ruled villagers entitled to their claims, ordered damaged be given to them
  • 2014 – Court of Appeal ruled in favour of villagers
  • 2017 – Five-man panel of Federal Court overturned previous decisions

Twelve native customary rights (NCR) land owners from Pantu Sri Aman lost their 12-year legal challenge to claim their ancestral land in the Sg Tenggang development area in Sarawak.

This follows a unanimous decision today by a five-man panel of the Federal Court led by Chief Justice Tun Md Raus Sharif in overturning the High Court and appellate court’s decisions which had ruled in favour of the villagers who are ethnic Iban natives.

The panel allowed the appeals brought by the Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA), Pelita Holdings Sdn Bhd and Tetangga Akrab Pelita (Pantu) Sdn Bhd and the Sarawak government to set aside the decisions of the High Court and appellate court and made substitute orders.

In the judgment delivered by Justice Tan Sri Suriyadi Halim Omar, who will retire effective tomorrow, he said the court found that the development order, the principal deed and the Joint Venture Agreement was valid.

The other judges were Tan Sri Zainun Ali, Datuk Balia Yusof Wahi and Tan Sri Jeffrey Tan Kok Wha.

Justice Suriyadi, however, said the “red area” (the 600 hectares of land area in dispute) were NCR land owned by some of the said landowners.

He said the landowners were entitled to compensation since the land had been compulsorily acquired under Section 15 of the LCDA Ordinance for development.

He made an order for the authorities to regularise the compulsory acquisition of the NCR lands from the rightful owners in that area and an enquiry to be held to identify the rightful NCR owners and compensate them according to the LCDA Ordinance.

Within an area that was gazetted for development, there were NCR owners who had agreed that their NCR lands be merged and consolidated for development and they entered into a principal deed dated Sept 3, 2004 with the Sarawak state government and PHSB.

For development of the plots of land, PHSB as trustee of the consenting NCR owners, entered into a joint venture agreement in 2004 with a joint venture company Tetangga Akrab Pelita (Pantu) which was incorporated by PHSB and Tetangga Akrab Sdn Bhd (TASB).

The area for development was a state government sanctioned development project described as “The Sungai Tenggang NCR Land Development Area” where an oil palm plantation project was undertaken.

The villagers led by Masa anak Nangkai filed the lawsuit in 2005 among others sought a declaration that they were the original title holders or NCR owners over the disputed land which were gazetted for development and they claimed they never surrendered or waived their NCR rights.

The High Court in February 2011 had ruled that the villagers were entitled to their claim to lands under NCR in the developed area and ordered damages to be given to them to be assessed by the deputy registrar.

The appellants were ordered to surrender vacant possession of the NCR plots of land and were restrained from entering or carrying out works on the land.

The Court of Appeal in 2014 also ruled in favour of the villagers, ruling that the villagers had been deprived of their NCR lands which were sources of their livelihood and they had lost the rights to their property in direct violation of the Federal Constitution.