The indigenous communities, who make up about 60 percent of the estimated 2.6 million based on 2000 Census) total population of Sabah, comprise 39 ethnic groups. They speak more than 50 languages and 80 dialects. The Dusunic, Murutic and Paitanic groups are the larger of the ethnic groups. The indigenous communities live in the rural areas where about 70 percent of Sabah's population resides. Some ethnic groups occupy distinct geographical areas of settlement. A large percentage of the indigenous communities from Murutic family reside in the southwest interior of Sabah (Districts of Keningau, Tenom and Pensiangan, along the Sapulut and Padas Rivers.

The Paitanic family resides on the north-eastern part of Sabah Labuk-Sugut), whereas the Bajau and Malayic families predominantly occupy the coastal area. The Dusunic family, the most dominant group occupies the Western, northern and central Sabah. The Rungus ethnic group dominates the areas in the Districts of Kudat and Pitas, on the northern part of Sabah. The diverse landform, soils, climate and vegetation provide a diverse agro-ecosystem for the many indigenous communities, who are mostly subsistence farmers, utilizing traditional farming practices.

Apart from subsistence farming, many of the land-based indigenous communities rely on the diverse plants in the forest for their food, medicine, fuel, building materials and other household needs. Along the coastline and river mouths, there are many fishing communities. Their cash income is derived from surplus food crops, cash crops, jungle produce and fish sold in the market.

 The Marginalization of Indigenous Peoples

The land laws which were introduced by the British underwent a series of changes that further tightened the control of land in the hands of the government of the day and further benefited the elites including native’s elites. Haphazard policies, intended to maximize exploitation of local resources, had socio-economic elements to improve the standard of living of the indigenous people, but were overtaken by commercialization.

The centralization of education, complete control of mass media, and the introduction of oppressive laws, have also served to destroy people's control over their own cultural tradition. Similarly, continuing efforts by various religious bodies to convert people from what is seen as "pagan" beliefs have also undermined indigenous beliefs and tradition. The introduction of the Village Development and Security Committee to act as the eyes and ears of the government discourage people's freedom of expression.

 Legal Status

On the status of land ownership, the real problem began with the series of land laws which were adapted from Indian Acts and Ordinances of the Straits Settlement and imposed by the British North Borneo Company in1881. Because the motivation behind these laws was based on materialism and opportunism, they do not serve the interests of the community. Land and resources are now considered merely as commodities, devoid of spirituality and life. It can be bought and sold, exploited upon and profited from. Rights to land are based on a documentary title which is the indefeasible right of ownership.

All land is now owned by the State and claims to ownership have to be registered and approved by the State. This control by the State is in contrast with the traditional system of control from within the community. The communal system of land use and ownership has been overtaken by the capitalistic system of complete State control over land ownership, and individual ownership by lease or title. Although some protection for Native Customary Rights (NCR) has been provided for in the land Ordinance of Sabah these were found to be inadequate and seldom adhered to. These NCR in land include:

· Land possessed by customary tenure;

· Land planted with 20 or more fruit trees per acre;

· Fruit trees, sago, rotan and other plants of economic value that are planted, upkeep and regularly enjoyed as personal property;

· Grazing land stocked with cattle or horses;

· Land that has been cultivated or built on within 3 years;

· Burial grounds and shrines;

· Right of way for people and animals.

 Current Situation: Loss of Indigenous Lands

As mention earlier, the provisions for NCR under the Land Ordinance do have shortcomings. For example, land which is lying fallow cannot be claimed under NCR. Considering the fact that many farmers still practice rotational agriculture, there is a need to recognize fallow period as part of the agricultural process and for claims to be validated. Also, despite the recognition of NCR by law, they are not taken into consideration when the government or companies open up land.

The government reserves land for plantations, logging, reservations and industries without apparent regard to the procedures set out by authorities themselves. For example, although the Forest Enactment clearly provides for notices to be posted to the communities where the forest reserve is to be gazetted, to allow objections, this procedure is never followed. Very often, native communities are not aware that their customary land has been included in a reserve until the logging companies come to log the area. Many argue that native communities do not lose their land to the logging companies as the land will revert to the State once it is logged.

This has been rejected by communities who do not regard land as separate from resources therein, such as the trees and animals. After all, as a result of logging, part of their farm lands, and forests compacted, rendering it uncultivable. This has effectively reduced their access to farm land. Crop harvests have been reduced on which people depend for water have been muddied and polluted and wild game, which in the past have been collected or hunted for food and for sale, have become scarce.

 Status in Society

Although dominant in number in Sabah, many indigenous communities living in the rural areas are still being discriminated against-in terms of health and education attainment. The poor are being gradually left behind socially. This continued cultural impoverishment and observed low quality of life in most rural communities throw doubts on official statistics which puts the poverty figure in Sabah for 1989 at 39.8 percent. Although schools have been built in some kampongs (villages), the conditions are usually deplorable, and the schools are often lacking in facilities and understaffed.

There are frequent outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid in the congested squatter areas as well as in the rural areas, partly due to the lack of clean water supply and the lack of attention to preventive health measures. Dengue and malaria are also recurrent diseases. Remote kampongs are visited about once a month by flying doctor service, but this is not enough to meet the health needs of communities.

 Response of Indigenous Communities

Wary of the unconcern by the government towards their loss of land to large plantations and logging activities, some of the communities have organized themselves to protest and erected blockades to stop logging companies from extracting timber in their areas. Many others, indigenous and non-indigenous, are beginning to see the exploitative systems that prevail and are struggling to restore their rights. Discussions among affected villages have also been on going, as communities realize the need to work together for a common solution. Some villages are also looking for alternative ways of securing their right to land such as applying for communal title.

Nevertheless, many natives are also facing conflicts as they are drawn into the consumerist and individual onslaught of the dominant culture. Although initially the system of land registration was not popular with natives, they were gradually pressured to accept it as land became scarce resource with more land being alienated for plantations; forest reserves especially commercial forests, and towns. Some people also began to accumulate land for profit-making. With the increasing land pressure, and the impact of cash economy and its accompanying individualistic and capitalistic values, experienced by native communities, their perception of land has inevitably changed.

Many communities still feel the bond with their land, especially those who cultivate it and reap the fruit of the land. They fear losing their land if it is not titled. At the same time, more and more of them leave farming to go out to work for wage; and even those who do not, aspire for their children to go to school and to work in town. All these factors are influencing and altering their perception of land. Thus, land is beginning to be taken as individual property with titles giving permanent ownership. Farmer households have started to claim permanent rights over land they cultivate, i.e. such land is recognized as belonging to the family and their generations by the such a perception is not yet apparent to many communities.

 The Future

The majority of indigenous peoples of Sabah, who are oppressed, basically aspire to be regarded as human beings, having the dignity and rights fit for human beings. They want to have control over the land which has been for their generations. They want to enjoy the benefits of social institution and services such as schools, hospitals and roads. They should be given a say in type of economic development which will benefit them directly. They also want their cultural beliefs and adat to be respected. Studies on the problems related to land have been conducted by various government bodies and non-governmental organisations.

There is a need not only to translate the findings of these studies to affected communities but also to lobby for changes in the laws and policies that are exploiting these communities. Legal action to prove the legitimacy of native customary land rights is also one of the options for these communities as exemplified by the natives of Sarawak. There is also a need to support communities who are struggling against the erosion of the traditional concept of land due to the onslaught of colonizers and dominant society.

To these communities, land is still valued as communal resource that should be kept within the family and the community and, if possible, cultivated. A provision for communal titles that is found in the Land Ordinance could be one of the means to maintain such values.

Indigenous Peoples of Sabah

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