Local communities in Pitas are monitoring the area in order to prevent the project from expanding into the remaining 1,000 acres of mangrove forest. The sign reads: Future for indigenous peoples. Photo: Camilla Capasso / FPP.
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More than 2,000 acres of mangrove forest have already been cleared out without the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities. Photot: Camilla Capasso / FPP.
Olon Somoi and her community depend on the forest for their livelihood. With the expansion of the project and the destruction of the mangroves, Olon worries that she won’t be able to sustain her family. Photo: Camilla Capasso / FPP.
Good news for the forest: three years after the project was launched, only five ponds are operating, out of the 1,540 originally planned. Photo: Camilla Capasso / FPP.
'Poverty alleviation' shrimp farms destroy mangrove forest, grab indigenous land
17th November 2016
A government-led shrimp farming project meant to tackle extreme poverty in northern Sabah, Malaysian, won local support in 2010 by promising job opportunities for impoverished indigenous communities. Six years on, mangrove forests local people depend on for food, materials and income are closed off and being cleared - but the jobs have yet to materialise.
So far the company hasn't reached our village and we still have access to the forest, but it won't last forever. I am worried that the day will come when I won't be able to support my family anymore and we'll have to leave ... or starve.
The first time that Olon Somoi heard about the shrimp farm was at the opening ceremony, on a day like any other in April 2013.
She remembers feeling surprised and doubtful, as she attended the ceremony in the neighbouring village of Kuyuh.
She felt even more hesitant when government officials handed out job application forms, but she could understand why other people in her village were eager to sign up.
"We all need jobs", she thought. "Especially the youths." And yet she couldn't stop thinking that something wasn't right.
Olon's village - Kampung in the local language - lies in a vast mangrove forest on the banks of the Telaga River, in the district of Pitas, Sabah, Malaysia.
It's a territory of roughly 350,000 acres inhabited by six indigenous communities who have lived in the area for more than nine generations, spending half of their time farming the land and the other half in the forest.
From the mangrove trees, people used to extract a natural dark red tint, Olon explains, which they sold around the district. The wood was used to build traditional houses and boats and the seafood, of which the Telaga River is rich, was their main source of food and income.
Sitting on a log, the sun setting behind her, Olon describes how her life changed since that day in 2013: "Since the project started, more than 2,000 acres of mangrove forest have been destroyed to make space for shrimp ponds.
"Our land has been cleared out and we are not allowed near the ponds. The land clearing has also affected the local fauna and endangered a highly delicate environment, home to more than 300 proboscis monkeys and numerous kinds of birds, including rare birds such as hornbills and kingfishers."
As Olon found out after the ceremony, the project was a joint venture between a State government-linked company and private company Sunlight Seafood Sabah. It was part of the Malaysian Economic Transformation Programme, a new economic initiative launched by the Malaysian government in 2010 and aimed at turning the country into a high-income economy by 2020.
In Pitas, one of the poorest districts in Sabah, the project sought to tackle extreme poverty by establishing the country's largest shrimp farm and promising more than 3,000 job opportunities for local communities.
"The plan to alleviate poverty was a good one", says Olon while playing with her youngest child. "But the way they implemented it has caused even more problems for us. We were never consulted about this project and land clearing started even before the project had its EIA approved. The government and the company simply decided that they could take our land because they were doing it in the name of development."
The rapidly expanding shrimp aquaculture industry poses one of the gravest threats to the world's remaining mangrove forests and the communities they support. With shrimps becoming the most popular seafood in the world, it is estimated that over 3 million hectares of coastal wetlands, including mangroves, have already been destroyed to make room for artificial shrimp ponds.
Barbed wire and armed guards often stand between local communities and converted mangrove areas, making it impossible for indigenous people to access their harvesting grounds and sacred sites. In Pitas, members of the local communities, including Olon's brother, have reported being harassed and chased by company staff on a number of occasions.
After the initial curiosity and thrill at the prospect of new job opportunities, the communities in Pitas realised that development, as understood by the Malaysian government, could only happen at the expense of the mangrove forest and that no attention was given to the rights of the indigenous communities.
Three years after the opening ceremony, the project is operating only five ponds, each about an acre, out of the 1,540 originally planned. That's good news for the forests and those who depend on them, for now at least. But it also means local communities have seen none of the benefits promised to them. The ponds only employ about 40 workers, and most of them are foreign labourers from Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.
After finding out about the project, Olon started volunteering with the G6 movement, the local committee set up by the six Kampungs to work with the Sabah Environmental Protection Association, a local NGO based in Kota Kinabalu, on raising awareness on indigenous peoples' rights.
"We work with young people in particular", explains Olon. "It is important that they are aware of their rights and that they are involved in keeping our people, culture and traditions safe."
The G6 movement is currently working to stop the project from expanding into the remaining 1,000 acres of mangrove forest, a very sensitive area for the communities as it houses their traditional sacred sites. The G6 has also asked for the remaining mangroves to be managed directly by the communities and has appealed for Sabah's Chief Minister Musa Aman to take urgent action.
So far, however, all of the communities' complaints and calls for action have been unanswered: "The communities are asked to sell their lands", Olon says. "But if we do, we won't have anything left. We would become like refugees in our own land."
Olon breaths deeply as she stares into the night sky lit up by tiny fireflies. She closes her eyes for a long second before turning to look at the little girl sitting next to her. "I've got ten children, the oldest is 28 and the youngest eight", she says in a soft voice.
"So far the company hasn't reached our village and we still have access to the forest, but it won't last forever. I am worried that the day will come when I won't be able to support my family anymore and we'll have to leave ... or starve."
Camilla Capasso is Publications Officer at Forest Peoples Programme.
This article was developed as part of the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights. Launched in March 2016, the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights is a five year initiative to mobilize communities, organizations, governments, the private sector and individuals worldwide. It is a call to recognise that secure land rights are at the heart of building a just and equitable world and to work together to double the global area of land legally recognized as owned or controlled by Indigenous Peoples and local communities by 2020.
Join the movement at landrightsnow.org.
The dark side of development: Government's plan to alleviate poverty in Pitas, Malaysia, causes even more difficulties for local communities.
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