Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

From Frontier Region to Genturung Pendiau: Dual Residency and the Making of New Iban Settlements in Peri-Urban Kapit

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

From Frontier Region to Genturung Pendiau: Dual Residency and the Making of New Iban Settlements in Peri-Urban Kapit

Article excerpt


Prior to and during the Brooke era, the Kapit region was one of several frontier areas in Sarawak. For a number of reasons, it seems to have been a magnet in the old days, drawing pioneering Iban from resource-depleted territories (menua kusi or menua lama') (1) Undoubtedly, such migration was livelihood-related, with its sole purpose being to open and acquire a new territory (mubuk menua baru). Menua baru is a socio-cultural construct referring to a resource-rich frontier region where wildlife, fish and forest resources are plentiful and exist in an undisturbed state that guarantees food security and an assured livelihood.

However, during the Brooke era, migration from one district to another required permission from the Rajah, who, without any hesitation, imposed the Fruit Tree Order of 1899 to discourage pioneering Iban from opening new territories. This law required an out-migrant to relinquish his rights to land and fruit trees in the area he leaves behind. Pioneering Iban from resource-depleted regions of the time interpreted the law as a "penalty" for migrating and opening virgin jungle for establishing new settlements in another district. The Iban community saw this form of penalty as unfair if the original cultivator was not compensated for his efforts and those of his ancestors in clearing the land. For this reason, adat tungkus asi' was instituted by pioneering Iban communities as a remedy, by compensating the original cultivator upon his move to another district. Such compensation was given in the form of tungkus asi', a token payment, so that the original cultivator or his children would not go empty-handed.

Adat tungkus asi' (2) is a cultural construct that is meant to keep inheritable property intact within family circles and/or under the jurisdiction of a longhouse community. Social control is essential for curbing opportunism in resource utilization and agricultural production, and more importantly, to safeguard a family's estate (including both real and movable property) within a longhouse. Even if an individual or family were to decide to migrate to another place or to a different district, rights of land ownership would be transferred to a close relative or family member who maintained residence in the longhouse. However, in the absence of the latter, such land can be transferred to any kaban belayan (relative) who may not necessarily reside in the same longhouse, but within the same district.

The movement of pioneering Iban from over-cultivated and infertile territories (menua kusi) in the Second Division, regardless of whether such migration was to the Kapit or other regions in Sarawak (such as the Bintulu, Baram and Limbang areas) was commonplace. Scholars writing about the colonial era, like Freeman (1955) and Pringle (1970), echoed much hatred towards Iban migratory shifting cultivation, and even portrayed the Ibans as "forest destroyers" because of the environmental consequences of this farming system. This scenario gives us a glimpse into the collision of two cultures and/or different value systems. Such a farming system was viewed as detrimental to the environment, but pioneering Iban saw it as a cultural mechanism for creating customary rights to land within a longhouse territory. On the other hand, cutting commercial timber could deny the nation-state a huge amount of revenue (in terms of foreign exchange)? These conflicting interests have fueled suspicions, mistrust and ill-will down to the present day.

Employing elaborate rituals unique to traditional Iban agrarian society, Iban migrants established longhouse settlements along the Batang Rajang, Mujong and Baleh Rivers and staked their claims over territorial domains (pemakai menua) in this frontier region. However, establishing new settlements in the frontier region of Kapit was not without conflict; competition for land and forest resources between pioneering Iban and already-present Orang Ulu communities resulted in resource conflicts, compelling the Brooke regime to call for a peace treaty between the communities in 1924. …

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