KOTA KINABALU: Sabah Forest chief conservator Datuk Sam Mannan has described Kampung Bobotong – scene of the demolition of some 16 houses last week – as an illegal settlement in a forest reserve.
He also said that many of those occupying the area, known as Kg Bobotong, in the Tongod district (village name taken after the Bobotong river) had refused the Forestry’s offer of occupation permits since 2004.
“The operation (to demolish houses) last week by our enforcement officers only involved vacant or empty structures,” Mannan was quoted as saying in the Star online Tuesday.
Mannan said the dwelling places were demolished as a last resort after the occupants failed to abide by the conditions to enable them stay there.
Some of the conditions are that the occupants were barred from carrying out any form of cultivation on steep slopes, except rubber trees and timber, and they are not to encroach further into the forest reserve.
“Various dialogues were conducted but to no avail,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Some settlers did agree and this helped to reduce the confrontation,” he said.
He said many settlers had demanded that the areas they had occupied be excised from the forest reserve and they be given land titles.
Mannan said those from outside of Tongod district such as Kiulu in the west coast and Keningau and Sook in the interior began settling in the logged-over areas of the forest reserve the mid-1990s.
“These non-native settlers who included retired and serving civil servants fell trees, burned the forests and cleared lands for rubber cultivation totalling some 1,000ha,” he added.
He said the department had since tried to get the settlers to leave the area by issuing notices.
“We did not receive support on our actions at most levels at that time. We were directed to stop enforcement activities,” Mannan added.
As a result, the department faced a “bizarre” situation when it was supposed to build an office in the area but was “forced out” by the squatters there.
Mannan said the environment around Sungai Babatong had been seriously affected after more than 20 years of human settlement with the river water tainted with high levels of E.coli bacteria.
“The area is also a green desert – there’s vegetation but no wildlife,” he added.
The Malaysian Human Rights Commission had said it would be conducting an investigation after some of the settlers lodged complaints about the Forest Department’s enforcement.