Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Bidayuh’s hard good-bye to their native land

Despite the challenges and difficulties of living in their rural villages, the move to Bengoh under a resettlement scheme meant heartbreak for many.

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Whenever Tim Anak Kawen feels like having some fresh vegetables, all he needs to do is head to his backyard and pick some from the hydroponic farm he tends to behind his house in Padawan, some 40km from Sarawak’s capital.

There, on a plot of land spanning about three hectares, he also grows a variety of herbs and other leafy greens.

Every morning, he checks the water level for the fertigation system while waiting for his customers to pick up their vegetable orders.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he said his venture into vertical farming came as a welcome relief after three decades of working as a salesman.

Even after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he was still able to work on his land at the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme (BRS).

“Life is easier now,” he said. “When I worked as a salesman, I had to drive 40km back and forth every day from Kuching to Bengoh.”

But his newfound ease came at a price.

Tim Anak Kawen and his wife at the hydroponic farm at the back of their house in Padawan.

Tim is among 204 Bidayuh families who used to live at four villages near what would become the Bengoh dam – Kampung Taba Sait, Kampung Pain Bojong, Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Semban in Upper Penrissen.

Some 1,600 Bidayuh in all eventually relocated between 2010 and 2014, leaving behind their farms, fishing and burial grounds and their native customary rights.

At BRS, each family was allocated a detached concrete stilt house on 25 points or a quarter of an acre of land. Each unit is outfitted with three bedrooms, a kitchen and two bathrooms.

The RM192 million settlement is also equipped with standard amenities such as treated water and electricity supply, and facilities including houses of worship: one Anglican church, one Sarawak Injil Borneo Chapel and four community halls for each village.

Difficult decision

The decision to move was not easy for the Bidayuh, whose very name means “inhabitant of lands”.

They are believed to have originated from an area called Sungkong, a mountain region located in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In the mid- to late 19th century, they ventured into the forests of Sarawak, including Padawan, Bau, Penrissen and Serian, and established new settlements.

One of the streets in the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme in Padawan.

While many have moved to BRS, some 12 families remain in upper Bengoh, refusing to leave their ancestral land.

Such land is known as native customary rights (NCR) land, that is land inherited from generation to generation with no title issued.

Under “adat” or customary law, NCR land is divided into three: “termuda”, “pulau galau” and “pemakai menoa”.

“Termuda” refers to cultivated or farmed areas while “pulau galau” is a reserved area kept for communal use. “Pemakai menoa” meanwhile is an area used for hunting and foraging by the Dayak community.

But on such land which is only accessible by foot, basic amenities are limited although some homes in villages might have solar power or generators.

To reach his ancestral home in Kampung Rejoi, Tim must travel by foot on constantly uphill terrain and over 20 bamboo bridges – a trip that would take about five hours in total.

“Back in my village, I used to carry villagers, walking through the jungle to bring them to the hospital.

“I had to walk for four hours, crossing bamboo bridges along the way,” he said, recalling an incident in which he had to carry a pregnant woman through the jungle to help her get to hospital.

Upon arrival in Bengoh, he would then have to find transportation for the villagers to reach the town area. Everything from refrigerators to fuel and furniture would be carried by porters across the rough terrain.

Life is easier for Tim and his family now but they miss their home in their ancestral village.

Now, at the settlement with infrastructure and amenities at hand, the villagers have better access to education and healthcare facilities.

But it was a difficult decision to make.

“At first, I was not happy,” Tim said. “But we have to move on. I accepted it because I knew this was the only way for me to provide a better life for my children.”

The adjustment also proved difficult for some of the more elderly villagers as they had to start farming again from scratch.

Tim said the state government had promised to provide land for the villagers as compensation, but that the land given was not suitable for growing padi and pepper.

As a result, the villagers had to look for other crops that could grow on the land, for sale as well as their own consumption.

NCR Land Code 1958

Tim still recalls the day that the villagers had to leave their homes.

“They cried that day when they had to move out from their villages,” he said. “I cried, too.”

A banner in Serian protesting the construction of a quarry.

But there was little else they could do as without a title, the government retains the right to the land.

The issue of NCR land has been the subject of a long-standing dispute between natives and the government.

The enactment of the Land Code 1958 is the biggest hurdle as it only recognises NCR land classified as such before Jan 1, 1958 and/or gazetted by the minister since then.

In Serian, about 46km from BRS, banners protesting the construction of a quarry on such land have been put up along the Tebedu-Serian road.

Villagers living nearby said the banners were put up after they received news that a new quarry would be built behind the Sinmajau mountain.

They fear that if stones are taken from the mountain for the construction of the quarry, it might pollute the river which they use as a water source for their padi fields.

Henry Ahguk Anak Nyandeng, the spokesman of Kampung Tubih Mawang, said the matter had been raised to Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg.

But still, activities have been carried out even during the lockdown periods.

“We held a protest about a year ago,” he told MalaysiaNow. “Then we organised a meeting with the head of the community and invited the political secretary to bring up the matter.”

In this case, the story appears to have a happy ending.

He said Abang Johari assured the villagers that the project had been cancelled.

“We hope the company will no longer conduct quarry activities in our area,” he said.

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