Malaysia: ending the secrecy of a major land deal in Sabah


(Bangkok) – Malaysia’s Sabah state government should immediately release the terms and status of a land deal that would hand over the management of 4.9 million acres of rainforest to a foreign company for a term up to 200 years, Human Rights Watch said today. The Government of Sabah is obligated to respect and protect the rights of the communities and tens of thousands of Indigenous people who inhabit the forest and derive their livelihoods from it, and to ensure that any agreement reached with the company respects these rights.

The interim conservation agreement, signed by the Sabah state government on October 30, 2021, gives Singapore-based Hoch Standard PTY Ltd. the exclusive right to monetize ‘natural capital’ in large areas of the world. ‘State. This includes the right to seek payments for ecosystem services provided by the forest – such as the absorption of carbon dioxide by trees and plants – from other companies seeking to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions. . Since November, when the media revealed the existence of the agreement, Sabah state officials have made conflicting statements about the binding nature of the agreement and the need or existence of prior consultations with the indigenous communities living in the areas covered by the agreement.

“The lack of transparency over the deal with Hoch Standard, which has the potential to seriously harm the lives of tens of thousands of Indigenous people in Sabah, is simply outrageous,” said Richard Pearshouse, director of the Environment and human rights at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials should publicly respond to concerns raised by Indigenous communities in the state and commit to a course of action that protects, rather than undermines, their rights.

On February 28, 2022, Human Rights Watch sent letters to Hajiji Noor, chief minister of Sabah; Jeffrey Kitingan, Deputy Chief Minister; and Frederick Kugan, the Chief Conservator of Forests, asking a series of questions about the status and scope of the agreement. Human Rights Watch also sent similar letters to Hoch Standard and Tierra Australia, which reportedly brokered the deal. More than a month later, none of those contacted had responded.

The land deal raised many issues that the government and participating companies have not addressed publicly, Human Rights Watch said. For example, it is unclear how the agreement will affect the management, use or access rights of indigenous and other communities who live or depend on the lands covered by the agreement. The exact areas covered by the agreement were not disclosed.

Indigenous peoples do not know whether traditional knowledge and other relevant knowledge will be financially compensated if natural capital associated with indigenous peoples – such as medicinal or food plants – is monetized. It is not publicly known to what extent the state government or affected companies have identified and consulted with communities likely to be affected by the agreement and obtained their free, prior and informed consent.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically recognizes the need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources. It calls for good faith consultations with indigenous communities whenever their rights to their lands may be affected, including in the context of environmental conservation. Malaysia voted in favor of the declaration when it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. In addition, the Sabah Biodiversity Enactment (2000), enacted by the Sabah State Legislature on December 29, 2000, requires financial benefit-sharing agreements with “indigenous and local communities” for any use of biological resources on land to which these people have rights or relevant knowledge associated.

Sabah is Malaysia’s second largest state, covering nearly 724,000 square kilometers at the northern tip of the island of Borneo. Unlike most other states in the country, the population of 3.5 million is overwhelmingly indigenous, with more than 33 recognized indigenous groups accounting for approximately 54% of the population.

Proponents of the Hoch Standard agreement have argued that the free, prior and informed consent of the affected indigenous people is not required because the land subject to the Nature Conservation Agreement (NCA) is already land. protected, and consent was obtained when the land was first protected status. However, in a February 9 press release, Sabah’s Attorney General said that “no carbon trading scheme will be agreed to or implemented without the free and prior informed consent of indigenous communities whose customary rights may be affected by such programs”.

Conservation initiatives meant to protect the world’s forests and address the climate crisis must not undermine the rights of forest peoples, Human Rights Watch said. Through various certification mechanisms, carbon naturally stored in forests can be claimed as avoided carbon dioxide emissions and then sold as “credits” to companies seeking to voluntarily offset emissions from their own operations. It is seriously questioned whether these mechanisms lead to a real reduction in global emissions.

“The Sabah state government should publicly disclose how the Hoch Standard agreement was negotiated, what it is supposed to cover and details of all parties to the agreement,” Pearshouse said. “The many unanswered questions about the impact of this agreement mean that the government must be extremely vigilant to fulfill its obligation to respect and protect the rights of the indigenous communities concerned.


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