Latest: Penan rape
International pressure is mounting on Gilles Pélisson, Europe’s leading hotelier, over business ties between Accor, the group of hotels he leads, and Interhill, a Malaysian logging company.
Disquiet over the Accor-Interhill partnership has increased following accusations of sexual abuse, criminal intimidation and environmental degradation in the logging concession operated by Interhill in Baram, Sarawak.
Pélisson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Accor, one of the largest hospitality groups in the world, jointly commissioned an independent fact-finding mission with Interhill to investigate these allegations.
Forestry Consultant Hugh Blackett conducted the mission and released his report on Sept 10.
The Blackett report details alarming social and environmental threats to the communities of Baram, and to the forests these communities call home.
Accor and Interhill are partners in a 23-floor five-star Pullman hotel project in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital.
Accor operates over 4,000 hotels in 90 countries, including the Pullman, Novotel, Mercure, Ibis and Sofitel chains.
Accor says its hotels champion social and environmental responsibility. Accor hotels run a A Plant for the Planet tree-planting campaign, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme.
Logging ‘not sustainable’
The hotel and adjoining shopping centre built by Interhill was announced in 2005 as a Novotel. It now appears to be slated to be run as a Pullman hotel, the second in Malaysia after Putrajaya.
Interhill’s core business is logging, but it has diversified into construction. The company, registered in Miri, Sarawak, has come under fire by its own fact-finding mission. Logging in Interhill’s concession was found to be “definitely not sustainable”.
“The future of the forest is already threatened,” the report warned.
The mission found that the area under the timber licence Interhill is operating, T/9089, had already been logged by another company from 1989 to 2000.
Interhill began logging the concession area in 2002. According to the report, “responsible logging” in the mountainous terrain would be extremely difficult.
“The Sarawak government permits logging in such areas and it also permits short cycle re-entry.
With much of the area having already been logged twice in ten years the forest is inevitably suffering degradation.
“This is clearly indicated by the reduction in harvested volumes from 2.2 million cubic metres by the previous logging contractor during the 1990s at an average of 60 cubic metres per hectare to the estimated 940,000 cubic meters that will eventually be harvested by Interhill at a rate of 20 cubic metres per hectare,” the report pointed out.
Interhill did not comply, as required by Malaysian law, with the National Resources and Environment Board’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report Approval for the timber licence T/9089.
According to the report, “field observation indicated that full compliance was not being achieved and in some cases compliance was minimal or absent.”
The EIA concerned has not been made public, despite repeated calls from civil society for greater transparency.
Interhill is the contractor for timber licence T/9089. The licence is owned by a company called Damai Cove Resorts Sdn Bhd, closely linked to the Sarawak Government.
‘Married’ after rape claim
Logging has also brought Interhill workers into contact with local indigenous tribes, including the Penan.
The report of the National Task Force to Investigate Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Penan Women in Sarawak, released on Sept 8 this year by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, described accounts of an Interhill worker having raped a Penan girl at least twice, causing her to bear two children.
Interhill claims the logging camp worker and the alleged rape victim are “now living in a married state” but has no documentary proof of this.
According to the ministerial task force report, the Penan woman, known by the pseudonym ‘Bibi’, had been raped after refusing the advances of the Interhill employee, known as ‘Johnny’ or Ah Heng, because he already had two wives.
‘Bibi’ made the report in a Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) safe house in Petaling Jaya a year ago. Despite lodging a police report at Bukit Aman in Kuala Lumpur, no police action was taken against her alleged assailant.
Local indigenous rights Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) activists claim Ah Heng intimidated the victim after she returned to Baram from the WAO safe house in Peninsular Malaysia, and forced her to deny that she had been raped.
The Blackett mission, conducted between June 21 and Jul 2 this year, made no mention of the findings of the ministerial report. The Ministry had in fact, released its findings two days before the Blackett report was published.
“No conclusion is drawn on the allegation of sexual harassment as the joint investigation by the police and NGOs is pending,” the Blackett report stated. The police have now announced they will not support a joint police-NGO mission.
Communal land rights
In April this year, 77 Penan leaders, including 25 village chiefs from all over Baram, sent a letter to Pélisson, protesting against the partnership between Accor and Interhill.
The leaders said “Interhill is extracting timber from our forest against our declared will and without our consent. Interhill does not respect our boundaries, continues to encroach on our land and disregards our native customary rights. Many of us are affected by severe health problems caused by logging and have suffered because we have lost our fishing grounds and hunting has become much more difficult.”
The Accor-Interhill report noted that the Sarawak Land Code 1958 recognises Native Customary Rights (NCR) to land. The report quotes Interhill’s timber licence T/9089 as stating that “it is the licensee’s responsibility to acquaint himself with the boundaries of any such lands falling within his licence area“.
Therefore, it is Interhill’s responsibility to ask local communities where logging may be allowed, before starting work.
However, Blackett could not verify any agreements negotiated between Interhill and local communities. Interhill was unable to provide adequate objective documentation of compensation payments.
“Communities visited said that Interhill’s logging operations encroached areas that they consider to be theirs and that neither operations nor compensation were in compliance with agreements as understood by the Penan,@” the report pointed out.
There were “obvious contradictions” between the Penan testimonies and Interhill’s claims that they had paid compensation to local communities.
Intimidation by ‘gangsters’
According to the report, Penan victims allegedly raped by logging workers say they “have been threatened with violence by gangsters if they give damaging testimony”.
These claims echoed those publicised by the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an NGO based in Switzerland that supports the Penan. The BMF has been running a campaign against Accor’s business links with Interhill.
The Blackett report said “the Penans claim they are badly treated by some Interhill workers and are frequently threatened that they will be attacked by gangsters if they try to oppose the company”.
Penan communities said that they had not reported the threats because the police would not listen to them.
The report described a collision on June 21 this year, between an Interhill vehicle and a local motorcyclist from Long Item.
As a result, the local villager was “badly hurt”, and his motorcycle was wrecked. The Interhill employee took the villager to the nearest clinic. But he warned the villager not to implicate the Interhill employees in the incident, or else the villager “would be visited by gangsters”.
The report concluded, “if the accusations are true, some of Interhill’s employees clearly do the company no credit”.
Following a request for comments from Malaysiakini, Accor replied, “The report written by Mr. Hugh Blackett was commissioned by Interhill and Accor jointly. This document is a major step towards transparency and Accor can be satisfied that it has put no issues aside”.
“It is our understanding that BMF’s call for Accor to terminate the partnership has evolved into a call to improve the situation on the ground. This is something Accor is working on with its partner,” said Evan Lewis, Vice President (Communications), Asia Pacific.
Interhill has not disputed the findings of the Blackett Report. An Interhill statement said it “respects the findings of the Mission and the contents of the Report” but called for “better context and greater understanding”.