Court rules against Iban land rights

August 30, 2005

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The Malaysian Court of Appeal has overturned a 2001 High Court decision which recognised the land rights of the Iban people of Sarawak. Pulp and paper companies had cleared the Iban's land and planted acacia trees, and continue to be allowed to operate there.

While affirming that Indigenous peoples can claim rights to their land, the court ruled that the Iban do not have rights to the land in question because a 1951 aerial photo showed the land to be primary forest rather than cultivated land.

The Court of Appeal said in its judgement, ’The common feature which forms the basis of a claim for customary rights is the continuous occupation of land. The claim should not be extended to areas where the natives used to roam to forage for their livelihood in accordance with their tradition.

'Such view is logical as otherwise it may mean that vast areas of land could be under native customary rights simply through assertions by some natives that they and their ancestors had roamed or foraged the areas in search for food.'

The Iban are appealing against the court's decision.