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Sabah conflict, Malaysia


Oil palm is today the fastest growing monoculture in the tropics. Indonesia is the world's largest producer. The country has witnessed a massive conversion of customary (adat) land to oil palm (and fast-wood) plantations. Between 1967 and 2007, oil palm monocultures have increased about 50 times and the government is planning to expand the area under plantation.

In 2004 in the present case, representatives of the three villages and some 30 more tribes coming from the region of Tongod met Sabah’s Deputy Chief Minister of Land in Kota Kinabalu. The group demanded the government to recognize customary rights and to halt reallocation of lands to logging and plantation corporations. In Tongod and across Sabah, entire villages have been resettled against their will. Important areas of rainforests and farms have been clear-cut. Replanting in oil palm monocultures is causing erosion, contamination from agrochemicals and loss of livelihoods. Peaceful protests have resulted in both government silence and police repression. With the assistance of NGOs, villagers have filed a court case against the State and two plantation companies. The case is the first deliberate test of Sabah’s land tenure laws with regards to indigenous peoples.

After a long legal battle that involved different appeals, residents of seven indigenous villages of the Tongod region are now closer to their goal of benefiting from the recognition of their ancestral land. In March 2012, a High Court decision to allow their case to go to trial.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sabah conflict, Malaysia
State or province:Sabah state
Location of conflict:Tongod region
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Plantation conflicts (incl. Pulp
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Palm oil

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:2004
Company names or state enterprises:Hup Seng Consolidated Berhad from Malaysia
Asiatic Development Berhad from Malaysia
Tanjung Bahagia Sdn Bhd
Relevant government actors:Deputy Chief Minister of Land, Malaysia
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Several local NGOs

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Orang Asal or Indigenous people of Malaysia
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Street protest/marches

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality
Potential: Soil erosion, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of livelihood


Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:As of March 2012, the court case was still undecided. Recent data needed!

Sources and Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Sabah Land Ordinance, Sabah Land Acquisition Ordinance (1950), amended in 2009

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

WRM Bulletin N°86 (September 2004)

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

The Star, "Court dismisses companies’ appeal over Tongod NCR land claim"

New Sabah Times, "Federal Court allows Tongod villagers’ application of leave to appeal"

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Facebook page about the case with pictures

Other documents

A plea by the Tongod villagers "Dont take away our customary land" from

Leaving the court-room

Watching the deliberation from a live feed outside the court room.

Meta information

Contributor:J.-F. Gerber
Last update26/05/2014



Leaving the court-room

Watching the deliberation from a live feed outside the court room.

A plea by the Tongod villagers "Dont take away our customary land" from