Indigenous people can lose language, culture once ancestral lands seized, warns activist


Gebril (right) sharing his community’s story together with Albert after the premiere screening of ‘Baliu Kano Kai’. – Photo courtesy of Freedom Film Network

KUCHING (Nov 26):  Indigenous people could lose not only the physical area but also their language and culture the moment their ancestral lands are seized, warned indigenous human rights defender Gebril Atong from the Punan Ba community.

“We must remember that the moment your lands are seized you are also losing your language and culture. For example, on the lands there are plants with names in Punan. My children, my grandchildren, will not know the names of these plants in my language because all these are gone, they have become oil palm and acacia.

“This is what a lot of people don’t understand. They think landgrab is just a common thing but it’s not. Indigenous people don’t own the land, they are part of the land. Our culture is attached to the land,” he said after the premiere screening of ‘Baliu Kano Kai’ (Ancestral Domain of the Punan Ba) in the Freedom Film Festival 2022 at Haus KCH today.

Gebril, who is with the Society for Rights of Indigenous People of Sarawak (SCRIPS), was featured in the short documentary, which showed how the Punan Ba community in Belaga defended their ancestral land against logging companies and plantations obtaining licenses to conduct activities on the land.

In 2014, Gebril led his community to sue the Sarawak government and seven timber and plantation companies for violating their native customary rights.

He told the festival audience that if he did not do anything, his race may be destroyed, living a life even lower than squatters on their own ancestral lands.

He said he used the terminology of ‘internal colonisation’ because 100 per cent of their ancestral lands were under logging companies’ licenses, and their existence was not recognised.

“At first I thought I was fighting the companies and the government that granted them the licenses, but it appears that I was also fighting my own relatives who supported the other side.

“Our people are fighting among ourselves, just like during the colonial times under the British and the Japanese but the only difference, during those times were external forces. This time it was our own people,” he said.

Gebril however refused to comment about the case, as it is still pending judgement.

“We will just have to wait,” he said.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker Albert Bansa shared that during the process of making this documentary, he learnt a lot of new things including what Gebril had termed as ‘internal colonisation’.

“To me, internal colonisation is when the lands are seized and the people living on the lands no longer have access to all the resources there. When they don’t have the resources, they cannot practice their beliefs and lifestyles.

“When the lands are under companies’ license, activities like hunting and fishing become unauthorised for the villagers so that leaves the villagers with no choice. Either they work for the companies or they move to the towns. In this process, there will be a loss of culture, traditional knowledge and identity in the long run,” he said.

Albert, who hails from Dalat, said it is his dream to make films about the indigenious people of Sarawak.

“Because you see on television there is nothing about us. Usually we are portrayed as clad in our traditional costumes and dancing away happily but the reality is that there are communities like Gebril’s that are impacted by logging and oil palm plantations.

“When I heard his story it became my inspiration to tell the story. My father used to work in a logging company and he was one of those who had cut down the trees of the Punan people in Kakus, so this film is my way of apologising,” he said, adding that he wants to tell more stories about the indigenious people in Sarawak.

To stay updated about the case with the Punan Ba community, go to website

The Freedom Film Festival 2022 is themed Pandemik Dua Darjat (Pandemic of Inequality).

It is about how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the inequality between the haves and have-nots, and between those in power and the disempowered.

The line-up consists of some of the most deep, difficult and daring films produced just before and during the pandemic.