Sarawak’s Indigenous Groups Celebrate Conservation Victories Against Timber Giant

Indigenous advocates in Sarawak successfully repel defamation suit, as Samling loses crucial sustainability certification amid persistent controversies of illegal logging and human rights violations. 
In a prolonged standoff reminiscent of David versus Goliath, Indigenous activists in Sarawak, Malaysia, recently celebrated significant, albeit incremental, triumphs against the timber titan, Samling. These milestones in their decades-long struggle symbolize not just legal victories but also a beacon of hope for preserving their cherished forests and traditional territories from corporate encroachment.


Small Triumphs in a Massive Battle

Against the backdrop of ongoing legal and environmental strife, Indigenous groups in Sarawak have recorded two pivotal victories against Samling. Established in 1976, the corporation has since become a behemoth in the timber industry, controlling substantial forest concessions and reportedly exporting timber valued at 544 million ringgit ($115 million) in 2022. However, the shadow of the company’s ascent looms over Indigenous lands, disrupting traditional living and economies, notwithstanding Samling’s attempts to integrate corporate social responsibility practices into its operations.
Tensions escalated when Samling brought a lawsuit against SAVE Rivers. This grassroots organization has been vocal about the corporation’s questionable treatment of Indigenous communities residing around the Ravenscourt and Gerenai forest management units. After 25 tension-filled months and multiple rescheduled trials, an amicable settlement was reached on the eve of the trial. Samling decided to withdraw its 5-million-ringgit lawsuit while allowing the contested articles to remain online.

Forest Certificate Withdrawn

The recent settlement of a contentious defamation suit marks a significant chapter in an ongoing conflict, with implications rippling through the corridors of environmental advocacy and corporate responsibility. This legal détente follows months of escalating local and international pressure bearing down on Samling, a prominent timber company. The pressure-cooker scenario encompasses the revocation of management rights for the Ravenscourt Forest Management Unit (FMU) and an active investigation spearheaded by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a notable entity championing sustainable forestry practices. This investigation into Samling’s operational conduct was initiated in response to concerns raised by a consortium of civil society organizations.
A map of the Ravenscourt Forest Management Unit in Lawas, Sarawak. Image: Sirim Qas International / Public Summary of the Recertification Audit (2021) on Ravenscourt FMU for Forest Management Certification
In a development that sent ripples through environmental and corporate circles, it was disclosed that the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) rescinded a forest management certificate previously awarded to Samling. The certificate authorized the company to oversee the sustainable management of approximately 117,941 hectares within the protected expanses of Ravenscourt, situated in the secluded interior district of Lawas in Sarawak. Samling, which has been renewing this license since 1985, was granted stewardship until 2025 under the most recent issuance.
Nonetheless, the audit and certification authority, Sirim, detected Samling’s failure to execute corrective measures addressing several violations unearthed during a 2021 recertification audit. Sirim’s findings painted a picture of a company that fell short of engaging adequately with local communities within the Ravenscourt unit. The audit report highlighted a deficiency in communication regarding conflict resolution procedures and a lack of transparency in disseminating reports and pertinent information to the communities. It was also noted that indigenous Penan villages were conspicuously absent from Samling’s operational maps, with no representatives from these communities included in relevant committees.
The Borneo Project, which brought the certificate withdrawal to public attention, stated that it remains uncertain which specific non-conformities and absence of corrective actions precipitated the withdrawal. The organization further noted in a statement that logging activities within the Ravenscourt FMU have currently ceased.
The Penan communities residing in Ravenscourt have expressed their approval of the certificate’s cancellation, having historically voiced their opposition to logging activities in the region. “Samling’s evident reluctance to institute effective corrective actions, in compliance with certification standards, underscores their unwillingness to adhere to established requirements,” remarked Komeok Joe, the CEO of the Penan grassroots organization, Keruan. He added that the Penan community would regard any logs sourced from the area as illegally logged.
In a separate but related development, persistent pressure from civil society has catalyzed an FSC investigation into Samling’s operational practices. Days before the scheduled court hearing for Samling’s case against Save Rivers, the FSC announced its decision to launch an inquiry into the company. This decision was in response to a complaint lodged the previous October by a coalition comprising The Borneo Project and Save Rivers.

Indigenous-Led Conservation’s Voice Amplified

The coalition’s complaint accused Samling of engaging in illegal logging activities, wreaking havoc in areas designated as having high conservation value, and converting significant forest areas for plantation or non-forestry uses. The complaint also cited violations of traditional and human rights. Presently, the FSC is contemplating whether to pursue alternative dispute resolution measures, conduct further investigations, or arrive at a direct decision.
Moreover, civil society groups under the umbrella of the Clean Up The Tropical Timber Trade campaign have voiced their dissent against the elevation of Samling’s rankings in the SPOTT assessments conducted by the Zoological Society of London. These assessments gauge the transparency of companies’ environmental and social policies. The campaign advocates for enhanced scrutiny by the United Kingdom on tropical timber imports from Malaysia and demands that Samling’s assessment takes into account field evidence, not merely corporate declarations on paper.
In reaction to the withdrawal of Samling’s lawsuit against Save Rivers, both Malaysian and international organizations have expressed their approval. Meenakshi Raman, who serves as the president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, emphasized that corporations should exercise caution before initiating lawsuits against environmental defenders. “The objective should not be to muzzle critics but to earnestly work towards placing people and the environment above profits,” she asserted.
“Samling is beginning to comprehend the formidable power wielded by the communities, derived from their deep-rooted presence in their territories,” observed Giovanni Reyes, the chair of the Global Environmental Facility’s Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group. Having attended the court hearing in Miri, Reyes expressed confidence that Samling would not prevail in its case against Save Rivers and the local communities.  
Jenny Weber, a campaign manager at the Australian forest protection organization the Bob Brown Foundation, also witnessed the trial, which was ultimately cancelled. “The global community has been attentively watching as a logging company in Sarawak attempted to silence SAVE Rivers. This attempt has failed,” Weber stated, adding that “Indigenous-led defenders of human rights and the environment can take pride in their steadfastness and in upholding the community’s right to free speech. The ongoing deforestation in Sarawak will continue to be scrutinized and opposed both locally and globally.”

Lead image courtesy of Bruno Manser Fonds : Community members celebrating the withdrawal of the lawsuit against SAVE Rivers