ICCA Consortium Member SAVE Rivers continues uphill struggle for accountability and Indigenous rights in Malaysian timber industry
By Bruno Manser Fonds (ICCA Consortium Member)
In June 2021, the timber company Samling Plywood filed a lawsuit against Malaysian NGO SAVE Rivers (ICCA Consortium Member) and its directors for publishing allegedly defamatory statements as part of its “Stop the Chop” campaign. Since 2020, this campaign has supported local communities in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, who have expressed serious concerns about consultations conducted by Samling as part of the certification process for the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS). MTCS is endorsed by the international timber certification body Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
The logging company is seeking an apology, an injunction to stop SAVE Rivers from reporting community claims, and damages in the sum of RM5,000,000 (EUR1,000,000). This is clearly a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Globally, SLAPPs are an increasingly common strategy for companies to attempt to silence activists, journalists and civil society organizations who expose wrongdoing and voice criticism.
In various media releases, SAVE Rivers highlighted the lack of transparency, proper consultations, and free, prior and informed consent regarding the affected communities within Samling’s Gerenai and Ravenscourt Forest Management Units in Sarawak. Samling Plywood is suing SAVE Rivers for statements such as the following:
- Certification without compliance: Flawed timber certification process violates indigenous rights: “Samling conducted inadequate consultations with most communities in the Gerenai concession and failed to consult two objecting communities entirely” (23 June 2020)
- Bogus Consultation Process for Timber Certification: “Samling and MTCC are correct in pointing out that we do not understand the complaints process, and this is our point entirely” (6 October 2020)
- Absent From Their Own Seminar: Samling continues to ignore Indigenous Voices: “Samling clearly failed to follow requirements of the MTCS such as obtaining free, prior and informed consent (9 October 2020)
It is a worrying sign that a stakeholder of a PEFC certification process has resorted to a SLAPP suit instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue with the affected communities and civil society when concerns arise. Communities submitted formal complaints about Samling to MTCS in May 2021, however, the SLAPP suit against SAVE Rivers has interrupted the dispute resolution process opened by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC), the custodian of the MTCS, in response to the complaint. Thus, a SLAPP suit against a local CSO has effectively prevented dialogue and legitimate community complaints from moving forward, even though the communities themselves are not part of the SLAPP suit.
Because the SLAPP suit derailed the complaints process with the MTCC, community organizations filed a formal complaint with PEFC. In response, PEFC International has simply referred back to MTCC to deal with the issues and the SLAPP suit. Since the MTCC has bowed to the pressure of Samling, which requested a deferment of the dispute resolution process, the logging is continuing without addressing community grievances. SAVE Rivers has been silenced from speaking publicly about the matter and the communities are at a loss for where to turn next. There is a considerable risk that this SLAPP suit will harm the credibility of the PEFC label as Samling can avoid accountability and continue selling its timber under the label while the court case is pending. Firm action is needed by PEFC International and MTCC to condemn the SLAPP suit, to urge Samling to withdraw the suit, and to engage in meaningful dialogue.
For more information, refer to the following reports in international media:
- “Malaysia’s Indigenous people question timber sustainability” – 30 October 2020, Amy Wong, Al Jazeera
- “Threat of legal action against Indigenous Borneans protesting timber company” – 1 June 2021, Daniella Keeton-Olsen, Mongabay
- “Indigenous lives matter: Reflections from an encounter with Borneo’s forest defenders” – 30 June 2020, Fiona McAlpine, Eco-Business