Defender of native rights and environment

MAHATMA Gandhi has had a strong presence in Sarawak this week.

Attending the World Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrated in Kuching with members of the various indigenous communities from Sabah, West Malaysia and Sarawak over the weekend, the guest of honour Dr Victor Karunan, a social policy specialist and deputy representative at UNICEF Malaysia, began his opening speech with this famous line of Mahatma Gandhi: A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

Four days later, I was at the workshop on Environmental Protection in Sarawak – The Way Forward.

The Right Honourable Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak, in his customarily forceful speech laced with humour and sarcasm, issued a stern warning that our courts will be harsh to would-be environmental offenders.

To lay emphasis on the need for deterrence sentences, participants were ‘forced’ to watch a short documentary on human destruction of the environment. Towards the end of the film, it flashed out this other famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi: The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.

As I owed my presence at this exceptional workshop to the Advocates Association of Sarawak, I took the opportunity to proudly remind everyone that Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer all his life.

Indeed, Gandhi was an expatriate lawyer practising in South Africa for 21 years, his exasperation and disgruntlement towards the racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa caused him to join others to pioneer the anti-apartheid movement before he returned to India to continue his civil vocation as an pre-eminent leader of the Indian independence movement.

From a student to a practitioner, the legal training and practising makes one conscious of the injustices not only to oneself but the society he or she is in and spur them to right the wrongs.

But, of course, there are Dr Xavier Sim with his huge gang of REACH doctors and nurses from our hospitals in Sarawak, architects like Pang, engineers, journalists, all other professionals and growing number of civil servants who are increasingly vocal and visible in standing up for their consciousness to help the weaker of our society too.

As I clarified at the workshop, I singled out the lawyers because we have many lawmakers, particularly our Chief Minister, who is also a lawyer. Their legal callings are necessitous to address the violation of rights of the indigenous people and the discriminate environmental destruction in Sarawak.

After all, our chief minister has strongly advocated integrity of the administration, and by integrity, it is to ensure transparency, accountability and to allow citizens to participate in and influence policy design and implementation, to improve administration and delivery, and in the process, weed out corruption and corrupt practices.

With his enthusiasm on environmental conservation and striving for the rights and interests of the weaker members of society, there is no doubt that had he lived in Sarawak today, Gandhi would be a defender of native rights and environment in the state.

The quotable quotes were extracted from Gandhi’s writings and speeches delivered almost a hundred years ago. Time has changed and the struggles are now more complicated.

In his time, the civil political movements in South Africa and India were largely the resistance against colonial powers and liberation from these foreign masters.

Today, evinced by the number of native land rights cases being filed and litigated in our courts almost daily, with no end in sight, it is not wholly wrong to portray those indigenous peoples who struggle to safeguard their land and livelihood as the weakest members in our society.

However, there are numerous cabinet members, both at the federal and state levels, elites, successful entrepreneurs and senior officers in the state and federal administrations who are native by definition of the Federal Constitution.

I will save the discussion on the quandary of class struggle for another day.

Ironically, the battles that Mahatma Gandhi had fought, through civil disobedience or non-violent resistance, bear a resemblance to the struggles for indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental conservation today.

During colonisation, indigenous peoples were marginalised while natural resources and environment are exploited by the European powers. The trend continued after colonisation ended as the successive governments very much retained and followed the previous policies. It follows that the biased western worldview and ignorance of indigenous beings dominate governments after colonisation.

In addressing the subject of environmental protection in Sarawak and looking for the way forward, it is inevitable that we must deliberate matters concerning the very peoples who are an integral part of the environment.

“The indigenous peoples, and all of us, are a part of the environment,” our Right Honourable Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak has reminded.

I have always been heartened that courts are on the forefront in our societal concerns for environmental conservation and rights of the indigenous peoples which are intertwined. A learned Judge had written this in one of Her Ladyship’s judgments:

“When I finished the first draft of this judgment, it was on 21 March 2011. The significance of the date was not lost to me for it was World Forestry Day which was first celebrated on 21 March 1972. The Minister of Natural Resources & Environment was quoted in the New Straits Time, published on the same date in its Advertorial on page 11, that this year’s theme is ‘Forest For Community Livelihood’ and that 2011 had been officially declared as the International Year of Forests with another appropriate theme ‘Forests for People.’ Thus, it would appear that the plaintiffs’ struggle for the recognition of their communal rights over and the preservation of the two Forests also has an international face and a name.”

Never mind the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat (UNFFS) has launched the Forest Heroes Programme and Awards that year (2011) to recognise the efforts of people who work tirelessly to sustain, protect, and manage our forests, honouring them in the posh UN Headquarters in New York.

Our very own forest heroes fought their battles, returned to their villages happy to have quiet enjoyment of their ancestral land, practised their customary land tenure and preserved the forests for the future generations, the environment of our collective future, in fact.

We have to move forward in tandem with the many international conventions and instruments that have been devised and posited to address and rectify the injustices occasioned by the earlier legal regimes created by the biased and prejudiced worldview of the western world which have marginalised the indigenous communities and caused the suppression of valuable knowledge of the conservation of the environment that belongs to indigenous peoples throughout the world.

Gandhi, if he lived in Sarawak today, would have brought his frail body in his simple peasant loincloth dhothi to see our chief minister to ask for the repeal and re-enactment of our Natural Resources and Environment Ordinance (NREO) to ensure there are proper and meaningful public consultation and participation in the approval process of social environmental impact assessment study.

Our NREO was a colonial legislature in 1949, resurrected to render the provisions of the Environmental Quality Act 1974 unenforceable, thereby curtailing public participation and effective review and scrutiny of the Bakun dam detailed EIA studies, back in the 90’s.

Hence, while the federal court of Queensland in Australia last week overturned the government’s approval of purportedly Australia’s largest coalmine project, due to its potential impact on two vulnerable species – the yakka skink (a lizard) and an ornamental snake, the majority of the 20,000 people of 26 indigenous communities in Sarawak can only pray the Baram Dam will not go ahead and they be displaced.

If he lived in Sarawak today, Mahatma Gandhi would be the lawyer fighting for the indigenous peoples of Baram.

If he lived in Sarawak today, he would join the Bersih crowd in Kuching at the end of this month. Anyone to doubt it?

(Comments can reach the writer via [email protected])

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