• A report by NGOs focused on forests and Indigenous rights in Borneo alleges that Malaysian timber firm Samling has appeared to log beyond the terms of the national forest certification scheme with minimal repercussions.
  • An auditor raised several issues with Samling’s FPIC process at certified timber concessions, including one concession that lost its certification and one that has so far retained it.
  • One of the report’s authors told Mongabay that they focused the report on auditor SIRIM QAS and Malaysia’s homegrown certification system, in the hope the government can reform the system.
  • The report, whose findings Samling and SIRIM QAS have both disputed, highlights ongoing debate about Malaysia’s timber certification process.

The biggest timber firm in Malaysia’s Sarawak state has been able to maintain sustainability certification despite clearing forests for oil palm plantations and skipping steps in informing affected communities, according to a recent report from NGOs focused on forest conservation and Indigenous rights.

The report, by the Borneo Project and the Bruno Manser Fund, is based on testimony from Indigenous residents and analysis of satellite images, and focuses on the practices of timber giant Samling Group and its subsidiaries. It’s also an indictment of the Malaysia Timber Certification Scheme, a national effort at creating a timber sustainability standard through an audit and certification system, and the country’s Forest Management Unit program, which was established to push logging companies to operate more sustainably and to monitor their behavior.

Senior staff from Samling told Mongabay the company has already addressed the issues related to its processes for informing communities impacted by its timber operations and for creating an avenue to address conflicts. They also dismissed concerns raised by Indigenous communities, saying that complaints were either made by a small and unrepresentative part of the population or by people making claims beyond their native customary rights.

Borneo Project executive director Jettie Word told Mongabay that this latest report showed a pattern of issues stemming from the MTCS, which the Sarawak government has been promoting as a solution to concerns that the timber industry is contributing to undue environmental damage and violating Indigenous rights.

Word also pointed to specific issues with SIRIM QAS, a Malaysian firm tasked with auditing the practices of timber companies, saying that SIRIM has no threshold for deciding when to revoke an FMU, and thus the entire MTCS lacks a guarantee that its standards are being followed.

“If you look at its entirety you can see a pattern through many years that’s indicative of a problem with the system,” she said, adding that Indigenous communities “have been protesting for years and there has been no change on the ground, and that’s reflective of the structure of the complaint mechanism, the structure of the timber industry and the policies in the accrediting body.”

SIRIM QAS said it and the Malaysian Timber Certification Council, the owner of the MTCS, have already responded multiple times to the “persistent allegations” against the certification system.

“Without prejudice to Samling, it’s important to note that in offering the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS) to clients, SIRIM QAS adheres strictly to accredited procedures, ensuring assessments and decision-making are conducted impartially and without bias,” the company said in a written response.

A Samling employee walks across cut timber inside the Dapoi camp within a Samling concession in the Upper Baram region on August 23, 2023. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Degradation and development

The report alleges that while Samling was developing a forest management plan (FMP) to set guidelines for sustainably logging its Gerenai FMU in the late 2010s, it was simultaneously clearing land for oil palm plantations that would be leased to smaller companies and excised from the concession, in a seeming violation of the certification process.

Using satellite data depicting tree cover loss over time, the report concluded that Samling extensively logged the southwest corner of the Gerenai concession, with forest clearance peaking in 2018 and 2019 — years during which the concession was not yet certified by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council but was already under review.

In order to get MTCC approval, Samling was required to produce an FMP outlining its 10-year plan to operate the Gerenai concession while avoiding environmental damage and taking into account Indigenous stakeholders. However, the company also specified in that plan that it would clear land on 47,859 hectares (118,262 acres) in Gerenai’s southwest corner to lease out 13 plots for oil palm plantations, which would be excised from Samling’s forest timber license, originally granted at 182,902 hectares (451,961 acres).

Satellite image analysis by The Borneo Project and the Bruno Manser Fund found extensive logging in 2018-19 in the southwestern corner of the land originally included in a timber license granted to Samling.
Satellite image analysis by The Borneo Project and the Bruno Manser Fund found extensive logging in 2018-19 in the southwestern corner of the land originally included in a timber license granted to Samling.

Samling’s chief forester, David Marsden, said this issue wasn’t a violation of an MTCC rule limiting forest conversion to 5% of the area of certified concession, as the report alleged. The forester said the oil palm area was not included within the certified 148,305 hectares (366,470 acres) of the Gerenai FMU. However, the area allotted for planned oil palm concessions exceeds the area cut from Samling’s original license by around 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres), or almost 9% of the concession.

Samling CEO Lawrence Chia added that it was the government’s decision to issue licenses for oil palm plantations.

“Are there oil palm plantations they’re talking about? Yes. But certainly not in the FMU. These are given by the government, the government decided to do that, so it clearly explains because we have no authority to do like that, to give licenses to anybody,” he said.

The report also notes that a proposed protected area, Sungai Moh Wildlife Sanctuary, previously overlapped with the Gerenai FMU but was later redrawn so that it didn’t conflict with the concession. Satellite imagery showed that both the proposed and new Sungai Moh sanctuaries had extensive logging roads from Samling, even when the company pledged not to log in spaces of high conservation value.

Representatives for SIRIM QAS, the auditing body, said the company didn’t endorse these clearings, but saw the audit process as the solution to reform these activities.

In their report, The Borneo Project and the Bruno Manser Fund found frequent overlaps between concessions granted to Samling and areas of forest claimed as customary land by Indigenous groups. These land claims are often unrecognized by the government.

Different views of consent, native customary rights

The revelations via satellite imagery align with claims made countless times by Indigenous communities, who have said Samling encroached on their native land and never sufficiently asked permission or informed residents of its timber operations.

The Borneo Project and the Bruno Manser Fund analyzed prior evaluations to granting MTCC certification, as well as follow-up monitoring, all conducted by auditor SIRIM, finding that Samling consistently had flaws in its attempts to gain free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous residents who share their land with concessions.

The Gerenai FMU was again a site of contention: the report cited multiple issued flagged by SIRIM in 2021 and 2022, showing that in several villages Samling had never established conflict resolution committees to allow Indigenous communities to raise concerns — a requirement of the FMP — and overall failed to properly inform multiple communities of the conflict resolution process. The report also noted that several Indigenous groups — the Penan in Ba Jawi village and the Kenyah Jamok people in Long Moh, Long Suit and Long Tungan — had complaints of encroachment they had tried to raise to Samling, with inadequate response. The report lists additional Sarawak Indigenous communities’ complaints in three other Samling Group FMUs in various stages of certification, including the Ravenscourt FMU, where SIRIM revoked Samling’s certification over similar issues to those flagged at Gerenai.

The Penan in Ba Jawi village are among the Indigenous groups who reportedly raised encroachment complaints against Samling.

The report called for SIRIM to revoke Samling’s certification at Gerenai, but the audit firm responded that it had seen “valid evidence presented to close the nonconformities” at Gerenai, which it had not seen “within the given time” at Ravenscourt.

Marsden, Samling’s chief forester, said he believed SIRIM would resolve the nonconformities it had identified with Samling’s consent process, because the company had hired a number of “community liaison officers” to meet with and inform the 25 villages they’ve identified in the concession.

He added that nonconformities in the 2021 and 2022 monitoring reports at Gerenai were mainly due to Samling’s limited ability to visit villages while COVID-19 movement restrictions were in place across Malaysia. He said the company continued logging operations at this time but claimed they either didn’t affect communities or that the company would inform residents via mobile phone.

When asked about Samling’s loss of certification at the Ravenscourt FMU, Marsden added that this would be reinstated soon, saying the auditor had revoked it over Samling’s failure to inform two nomadic Penan villages. He said SIRIM had set a number of conditions for the company to resolve this issue and seemed pleased with the results so far.

“Part of the problem is how to deal with and address these nomadic people that are moving around all the time,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to you anyway, and so how do you engage with them. That is the issue, that was what we are learning.”

Samling’s COO, James Yk Ho, said only a small population have been in dispute with Samling.

“[Residents] know that without Samling they will not have bridges, they will not have roads,” he said. “They know that, and all the time, whenever we talk to them there are a handful of them who for some reason or another we have not done enough for them. This is not true.”

Road signs made by Samling and the Sarawak government inside a Samling concession in the Upper Baram region on August 23, 2023. Image by Danielle Keeton-Olsen for Mongabay.

Some of the same complaints listed in the report were the subject of a recently settled defamation lawsuit: Samling filed a legal complaint against the Sarawak-based grassroots environmental NGO SAVE Rivers over seven articles on its website identifying issues in Samling’s FPIC process. The lawsuit was settled hours before it went to trial.

Residents of Sarawak’s Upper Baram area recently told Mongabay that they noticed some attempts to inform them and ask their permission to log, but they felt Samling was largely set on taking what they could from the forest, even on Indigenous land.

When asked how the company surveys Indigenous claims to the area, Marsden said the responsibility for surveying and determining land ownership falls on the government. The company, he said, follows the guidelines and boundaries set by the government. He added that “native customary rights” land was defined by the Sarawak government as dating back to 1958, and primarily consisted of shifting agriculture areas.

However, Indigenous residents have long raised issue with the government’s definition of native customary rights via campaigning, court cases, and by working to create their own maps to define their customary territories. While the government generally defines native customary land as villages plus agricultural land and burial grounds, Indigenous residents say their traditional homes stretch beyond those boundaries. That’s especially true for the Penan people, who were traditionally nomadic and thus left little trace of their existence in the forest.

Shukri Mohamed, a retired forestry expert involved in both the formation of the MTCS and evaluation of the program, said he found it had proven sufficient, but was also receptive to changes. But, he said, the governments needs to be careful in surveying land use in order for the system to work.

“Anyone, or any group of people, can go claiming that the land in question is theirs, but such claims must be supported by whatever legal evidence as accepted/practiced by the relevant state authorities,” he wrote in an email. “Having said that, those lands that are under dispute should have not been included in any logging concessions until their rightful owners are determined.”

While Samling maintained that it had compensated Indigenous villages for the use of their land, Komeok Joe, CEO of the Penan Indigenous rights group Keruan, said the company followed “bad practices” and that MTCS did little to resolve it.

“Samling has created a lot of complication among communities by throwing some money there, making those of us who are against logging complain,” he said.

He said he felt that a better practice would be for Samling to come to Indigenous villages with the intention of genuinely listening to the communities’ concerns, adding that both timber companies and monitors need to take a more proactive approach to working with Indigenous peoples in Sarawak, even among the groups who are actively against all logging in the Upper Baram.

“The MTCC and SIRIM have never consulted or engaged with us until we make complaints about it,” he said. “And then they come just to carry out [the process of] the consultation.”

Banner image: Samling Group logging trucks operating in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak in July 2018, courtesy of Fiona McAlpine/The Borneo Project.

Malaysian logger Samling’s track record leaves Indigenous Sarawak questioning its plans

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