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Still many unanswered questions
09/12/08 NST By Salleh Buang

Going by recent media reports, it would appear that the orang asli community can expect good times beginning next year. According to Rural and Regional Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, each orang asli household will be given agricultural plots of between two and six acres and another 553,820sq ft of land to build their own permanent dream home.

The move is expected to bring cheer to at least 20,000 orang asli families in the country. The surprise icing on the cake is Muhammad's revelation that the land would be freehold. Alienation of freehold state land to private citizens was not common over the last several decades but seems to be the fashion lately.

While that's good news, bear in mind that the Cabinet has only agreed to do it "in principle".

According to the minister, the matter has still to be referred to the National Land Council (NLC) which is scheduled to meet next year and to be chaired by outgoing Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

When things have not yet happened, but is only expected to happen in the future, anything can happen.

Assuming the NLC will meet early next year (before March) and will endorse the earlier "in principle" decision of the Cabinet, we still have to face the fact that land is a state matter.

It is up to each state in Peninsular Malaysia to decide when and where to give the agricultural plots and housing lots to the orang asli families resident in the state.

The alienation exercise is also subject to a catch. The agricultural plots, according to the minister, will be developed by a federal agency or a private company or an orang asli cooperative entity before they can be handed over to the orang asli families.

The handing over exercise is also expected to happen only five to seven years down the line "when the rubber or oil palm crops mature".

Again, anything can happen in seven years. In a nutshell, the orang asli head of the family (now ostensibly indefeasible owner of his own agricultural plot and building lot) can only deal freely with his small building lot. As for the agricultural plot, he can only look at it from a distance as the entrusted entity (agency or company or cooperative) begins the task of rubber/oil palm cultivation.

Does he have any power or choice in the selection of the entrusted entity? What if he decides not to participate in it but cultivate the land on his own? Will the land be taken back?

November news reports differ materially from an October report of a parallel move by the Perak state authority to give its 10,000 orang asli families titles to their own individual plots of land. We were then informed that under the alienation exercise, a total of 80,400 acres of state land will be given to these families.

Each orang asli family will get about eight acres of land, of which one portion (0.25 acre) will be the site of their newly built homes, another portion (two acres) to be cultivated as fruit orchards and a final portion (six acres) for planting commercial crops.

Unlike the November news reports, there is no indication that the orang asli families must hand over rights of cultivation of their agricultural plots to a third party for purposes of cultivation.

Emphasising that the local orang asli population merely owns a tiny fraction of the entire alienated land in the country (an insignificant 0.03 per cent), Perak exco member Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham hoped this alienation exercise will be a turning point for them.

"We are doing this to empower the orang asli and help them change their social economic status. By giving them land, they can increase their productivity and income levels and at the same time, we can alleviate the number of hardcore poor in Perak," he said.

One distinction between the earlier Perak state initiative and the recent federal initiative is the empowerment factor. It was a crucial factor in the Perak alienation exercise but it was missing in the federal initiative.

The National Land Code, the primary land legislation in Peninsular Malaysia, makes no distinction between Malays, Chinese, Indians and orang asli. As long as they are Malaysian citizens, they are all eligible to apply for state land and if they are lucky they can become indefeasible owners of their own properties.

This right to equal treatment is enshrined in the Federal Constitution and no one can take it away. Sadly, five decades after Merdeka, there are still some quarters here who continue to regard the orang asli families as mere second class citizens.

According to public literature, only 15 per cent of the 667 orang asli villages in the country are gazetted. Not being gazetted, in practical terms, means not protected. To aggravate the problem, some of these gazetted lands had been degazetted without their knowledge or concurrence.

In legal terms, the orang asli community has long been denied one universal human right � security of tenure in respect of their own land. What was once an orang asli settlement later became land schemes, plantations, mining concessions, highways, dams, townships, housing projects, university campuses, airports and such like.

When orang asli settlements are not gazetted, logging concessions can be given out. Joining these loggers will be others who poach and steal whatever forest products are available in the area, claiming that since these are in "no-man's land", they therefore belong to nobody and are up for grabs by everybody.

Commenting on the November news report, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas said the new plan by the federal government will not benefit the community, adding the land policy "will actually deprive the orang asli of their land".

Citing statistics from Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, he said 47,498 acres have so far been gazetted as orang asli land, while another 71,068 acres have been approved for gazetting. When these are added to another 196,977 acres (area pending approval), the total orang asli land in the country stands at 315,543 acres.

As against that figure, assuming the recently announced land policy is fully executed, the orang asli families will only get a total of 143,318 acres (worked out at 20,000 land recipients x 7.1659 acres each). This means that if the new federal initiative is executed, it will result in a shortfall of 172,224 acres for the orang asli community in the peninsula.

Putting aside the issue of land size, to my mind one major flaw of the exercise is the absence of public engagement, a necessary element of good governance.

My view is strengthened when Nicholas said the intended alienation exercise "was planned without the consultation or the consent of the communities that it would affect".

"In urban areas, three hectares (about seven acres) are a lot, but in the rural areas it is nothing. This really shows that the government doesn't know the orang asli," Nicholas added.


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