From: En-Lai Yeoh, Associated Press
Published December 14, 2006 12:00 AM

EU Says Malaysia Must Focus More on Preserving Tribal People in Rainforests

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia must focus more on preserving the tribal communities living in its rainforests than on sustainable logging, the EU's envoy to Malaysia has said.

"The living conditions of the indigenous people need improvement with full respect to their cultural habits and traditions," Thierry Rommel said in a speech posted on a Web site run by the European Union.

He is scheduled to deliver the speech on Friday in Sarawak state on Borneo Island, where much of the land is covered by one of the world's last remaining rainforests that environmentalists worry are being cut down by loggers.

Rommel noted that the focus in the past has been on sustainable forest production. Nonetheless, the social and environmental values of the forest and its dwellers are critical and cannot be ignored, he said in the speech to be delivered to a joint EU-United Nations forests program discussion.

The EU is providing Malaysia with a euro900,000 (US$1.18 million) grant to promote tropical forest management. Of the 130 such projects funded by the EU in Asia, 20 are in Malaysia, Rommel said.

The funds are set aside for the "preservation of indigenous traditions and cultures and forest conservation," Rommel said.

Environmental groups say several plant and animal species in Borneo are critically endangered because of development and land clearing for palm oil estates. Indigenous tribes are also in danger of losing land and hunting grounds because of forest clearing, they say.

The national news agency, Bernama, reported earlier this week that Malaysia intends to fly in an EU delegation to Sarawak in January to "showcase its sustainable logging system" and to prove that its timber for export was legal.

Malaysia wants to clinch an agreement that could possibly allow more timber into the EU once it verifies the timber has not been sourced illegally. Malaysia exports around 2 billion ringgit (US$564.33 million; euro425.43 million) of timber annually, Bernama said.

Rommel said the EU would prefer if indigenous communities were more involved in timber production decisions.

"Local communities are no obstacle to economic growth, rather they can help ensure growth is sustainable," he added. "The living conditions of the indigenous people need improvement with full respect to their cultural habits and traditions."

The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund has accused the government of ignoring the rights of the indigenous Penan tribe, who have blockaded logging roads in Sarawak.

Plantation Industries Minister Peter Chin said his ministry planned to take the EU delegation to the blockades, according to Bernama.

Source: Associated Press

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