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Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia

Native Struggles Over Land Rights

In 1990, shortly after a Malaysian politician announced that the boundaries of Kinabalu Park, a primary tourist destination, were to be expanded to include the species-rich tropical forest known locally as Bukit Hempuen, most of the area was burned to the ground, allegedly by local people. What would motivate the people who had for generations hunted and gathered forest products there to act so destructively?

In this volume, Amity Doolittle illuminates this and other contemporary land-use issues by examining how resources were used historically in Sabah from 1881 to 1996 and what customary rights of access to land and resources were enjoyed by local people. Drawing upon anthropology, political science, environmental history, and political ecology, she looks at how control over and access to resources have been defined, negotiated, and contested by colonial state agents, the postcolonial Malaysian state, and local people.

The study is grounded in methodological and theoretical advances in the field of political ecology, merging the traditions of human ecology and political economy and looking at environmental conflicts in terms of the particulars of place, culture, and history. Doolittle assumes that environmental problems have causes that are complex and changing and that solutions must be specific to time and place. Using a political ecology perspective allows her to focus on the root causes of environmental degradation, exposing the underlying political, economic, and social forces at work. The challenge in the twenty-first century, she writes, is to move beyond blaming local people for resource degradation and to find ways to achieve equitable access to natural resources and more sustainable land use practices.

Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia has great relevance to development studies, political ecology, environmental planning, anthropology, and legal studies in natural resource management.

About the Author

Amity A. Doolittle is program director of the Tropical Resources Institute at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.


"I regard this book as an excellent discourse on aspects of land rights and of immense value for its comparative perspective and lengthy time horizon, which makes it indispensible for anyone researching property issues, unequal power relations, and the interests of indigenous peoples."—American Historical Review

"This book provides an extensive view of the human ecological dynamics in one of the most biodiverse locations in the world. The author…provides a preliminary formula for a meta-approach to community conservation strategies which international institutes and NGOs would be wise to note."—The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"This very welcome book offers important insights into the logic of development in Malaysia, as well as its impact on local struggles for land rights. Amity Doolittle has written an exemplary work that utilizes ethnography, political economy, and historical analysis. An impressive, well-written, and well-researched book."—American Anthropologist

"The book is remarkable because it not only concentrates on land rights aspects, about which little information has been available to date concerning Sabah, but furthermore includes aspects regarding the use of resources and the goals of the state and its policies. The author's work is unusually fruitful."—Quarterly Journal of International Agriculture

"Using a multi-disciplinary approach that straddles the disciplines of anthropology, political science, environmental history and political ecology, Doolittle explores changes in property relations and rights of access to land and natural resources in Sabah over the period 1881-1996."—Pacific Affairs


"Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia presents solid empirical research on a relatively under—researched geographical area (northern Borneo), addresses key issues surrounding property rights, discourse, and unequal power relations, and adopts a pertinent theoretical framework."—Raymond Bryant, Kings College London

"Property and Politics in Sabah, Malaysia has important lessons for NGOs and others working with or representing the interests of peoples marginalized by resource expropriation. The case study is specific, but the themes it brings out have much wider significance."—Philip Hirsch, University of Sydney

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