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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

NameSabah conflict, Malaysia
ProvinceSabah state
SiteTongod 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)Land acquisition conflicts
Plantation conflicts (incl. Pulp
Specific CommoditiesPalm oil

Project Details and Actors

Type of PopulationRural
Start Date2004
Company Names or State EnterprisesHup Seng Consolidated Berhad from Malaysia
Asiatic Development Berhad from Malaysia
Tanjung Bahagia Sdn Bhd
Relevant government actorsDeputy Chief Minister of Land, Malaysia
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersSeveral local NGOs

The Conflict and the Mobilization

Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Orang Asal or Indigenous people of Malaysia
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Street protest/marches


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-economic ImpactsVisible: Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of livelihood


Project StatusUnknown
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCourt decision (undecided)
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.As of March 2012, the court case was still undecided. Recent data needed!

Sources and Materials


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


WRM Bulletin N°86 (September 2004)


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

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

Media Links

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

ContributorJ.-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