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Rules of inheritance and transfer of land by the Iban of Sarawak: land as an intergenerational resource.


This paper aims to describe rules of inheritance and transfer of land by the Iban, a native group in Sarawak, and to examine Iban concepts of natural resource management. Fieldwork was conducted mainly in one longhouse, although 14 others were visited for comparison.

Rules are examined by reference to a number of cases, including land inheritance from parents to children, land transfers upon divorce, and transfers upon remarriage. The findings of this paper are: the Iban recognize two types of land: 'new land' (tanah baru) and 'old land' (tanah lama) and in many longhouses land inheritance follows rules that are more systematic than reported in previous studies. For example, the proportion of land transferred from parents to children is relatively fixed; blood relationship is an important factor; and children have stronger land claims than parents.

The Iban believe that land belongs not only to an individual person in one generation, but to persons of the next and future generations. Therefore, a person should manage land well in his generation and pass it on to the next. The Iban way of thinking incorporates mechanisms that ensure that land use and land management decisions are made based on long-term benefits, over successive generations.

1) Background

Recent research concerning the degradation and loss of tropical forests has focused on institutions for natural resource management by local communities and peoples who subsist by using forest resources (Gibson et al. 2000, Berkes and Folke 1998). An objective of this research is to seek clues to solving the problem by understanding institutions adapted to natural and social environments in forest areas. This paper aims to examine the natural resource management of the Iban, focusing on their rules for inheritance and transfer of land.

The land described here refers not only to the ground itself, but also includes the trees and vegetation that grow on it. Iban land consists mainly of secondary forest in the form of forest left fallow after rice cultivation, and partly of rice fields, pararubber gardens and fruit-tree groves (Ichikawa 2004). These different land uses dot Iban territory and form a mosaic landscape.

Freeman (1955, 1970), Sutlive (1992), and others have reported on Iban's rules of inheritance and transfer of land. This paper points out, in contrast to these previous studies, that inheritance and transfer are based on more systematic rules than have been previously reported. The general conclusion of this paper is that the Iban have rules for, and ways of thinking about, inheritance and the transfer of land that support landuse decisions in terms of benefit over successive generations. These rules and ways of thinking support the sustainability of their secondary forest-fallow-based land use system, which may thus be positively evaluated for biodiversity conservation (Ichikawa 2007; Wright and Muller-Landau 2006).

It is known that the details of Iban customary rules vary from region to region and from longhouse to longhouse, and that these rules have changed in accordance with changing social and natural conditions (Cramb 1986; Cramb and Wills 1998; Ichikawa nd). The rules described in this paper, according to local informants, have not changed since the early 1900s. Therefore, the rules described here are not recent, but have existed for a relatively long period in the communities described.

The first section below briefly describes Sarawak, the Iban, and the findings of previous research. The next section outlines the methods used in the current study. The results of this research and the rules of land inheritance and transfer are then explained, and in the final section, some findings of this study are summarized in terms of Iban concepts regarding land as an intergenerational resource.

The Setting

The total area of Sarawak is around 120,000 square km, of which 95% is covered by forest, including fallow forests (Department of Statistics, Malaysia 2002). Total population is around 2.1 million, consisting of various ethnic groups such as the Iban, Chinese, Malay, Bidayuh, etc. Most Chinese and part of the Malay population live in towns and urban areas, while most of the other ethnic groups are found mainly in rural areas dominated by forests.

Living originally in the middle Kapuas basin in West Kalimantan, the Iban have spread over wider areas of Sarawak during the past 400 years (Pringle 1970). Today, they inhabit the lower and middle streams of the major rivers of Sarawak. They are the largest ethnic group in the state, accounting for a third of the population (Department of Statistics, Malaysia 2002). They are known for living in longhouses and growing hill rice, using swidden methods (Freeman 1955). However, they have recently diversified their economic activities, including growing rubber, pepper, and oil palm as cash crops, and also undertaking wage work in urban areas (Ichikawa 2003).

Rural Iban tend to reside in longhouses with 5 to 50 households. The longhouse community is an independent political unit, occupying a discrete territory of up to 10 or 15 square km (Cramb and Wills 1998). A longhouse consists of a number of bilek, each a compartment containing a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. The people living in the same bilek, usually a nuclear or stem family averaging 5 or 6 persons, comprise a single household. The bilek consists not only of a compartment, but also the bilek members and all their property, including land, rice, valuable jars (tajau), and plates (pingai).

When an Iban opens a tract of virgin forest (kampong) to make, for example, a rice field, he and his bilek members hold usufruct rights to the land. After harvest, when the land becomes fallow forest, they continue to hold rights to the land. Other land uses are mainly as rubber gardens, pepper gardens, or fruit groves. The area of each field is less than 1 or 2 hectares.

The other ways to obtain land rights are: to open up land left by those who have moved from the longhouse (Freeman 1970:148-149). Today, land is sometimes bought and sold, although this was not the case before. (1) In Sarawak today, there is little virgin forest remaining to be opened.

Inheritance and the importance ofbilek continuity

According to Iban custom, one child remains in his/her natal bilek and takes care of his/her parents (Freeman 1970: 13). The other children marry into their spouse's bilek, or marry and become independent, founding new bilek of their own. The bilek is thus inherited by the child who remains in the natal bilek, and he/she normally receives much more property than the other children (Freeman 1970:31). For the Iban, continuity of the bilek is important. If there is no child to be the bilek successor, a bilek may be extinguished (punas). The Iban try to avoid this. If a couple has no children, they usually adopt a son or daughter, especially from close kin (Freeman 1970: 17).

A newly married couple usually stays for several years in the natal bilek of either the husband or wife. After that, if the couple wishes to be independent, they build a new bilek for themselves. According to Freeman (1970: 35), if a son/daughter marries into his/her spouse's bilek, his/her parents give him/her a minor inheritance called pemai, made up of objects such as Chinese jars (tajau), brass boxes (baku), or woven fabrics (pua' kumbu '). When a couple builds a new bilek for themselves, becoming independent from the natal bilek, the natal bilek parents give them valuable things and utensils necessary for their daily life, comprising a larger inheritance than the pemai (Freeman 1970: 53).

2) Methods and Study Area

Fieldwork was conducted by interviews with persons knowledgeable about customary rules, and by observation of real cases. My primary informant was Mr. K (72 years old) whom I interviewed in his longhouse in the Bakong River basin in the Miri Division (Figure 1). Mr. K had earlier been appointed by the longhouse members as the head of the land committee that settles land disputes and is recognized as a person knowledgeable about local village land issues. I also visited 14 other longhouses in the Miri and Sri Aman Divisions. In each longhouse, I conducted interviews with a person knowledgeable about land customs, in most cases with the longhouse headman. The fieldwork was done in April and May 2005.

3) The Results

Here, I describe the results of the study, mainly referring to explanations by Mr. K, but also adding explanations heard in the other longhouses. According to Mr. K, the principles of inheritance and transfer have not changed from his grandfather's generation. The interviews revealed differences, however, between longhouses, but did not find clearly recognizable differences between the Miri and Sri Aman Divisions.


Establishment of a new bilek

In the longhouse to which Mr. K belongs, after marriage, a couple usually resides for several years in the natal bilek of either the husband or wife. (2) Land acquired during their stay in the natal bilek is considered to belong to the natal bilek. Therefore, rights to it are mainly held by the head of the bilek. If the newly married couple living in the husband's natal bilek divorces after a few years of marriage, the wife has no claim to any of this land. If the wife has lived with the husband for many years, she has a right to receive some land. A couple can usually build an independent bilek after they have children and their married life is established.

According to Mr. K, a minor inheritance, called pemai, is given to a person who marries into his/her spouse's bilek, as reported by Freeman. The pemai consists of valuable things, such as Chinese jars, plates (pingai), and brass boxes (baku), and may include pieces of land if the person is marrying into a bilek in the same longhouse. The timing of the transfer of pemai is whenever married life becomes established after having children. The reason given for a transfer of pemai land is that it enables the new couple to gain subsistence longhouse a rice field on the land. If a person is marrying into a remote longhouse, land is not given, but only valuable goods. All bilek property left after pemai has been given to those children marrying out, is inherited by the child who remains in the bilek and takes care of the parents. This child generally gains much more property than the others.

Old land and new land

According to Mr. K, land held by a bilek is divided into 'old land' (tanah lama) and 'new land' (tanah baru), a distinction Freeman (1970) does not mention.

New land is land which a couple acquires by themselves after they have founded their own bilek. Old land is land inherited from parents. This land was first acquired by the parents or by earlier generations. Secondary forest and planted rubber trees typically grow on old land. Some old land is called 'heritage land' (tanah pesaka), where fruit groves (pulau buah) and registered rubber gardens (tanah ikar) are established. Fruit groves, or land on which various kinds of fruit trees grow, were created by the ancestors at sites of former longhouses or field huts (langkau). Some fruit trees were planted, while some germinated from the dropped seeds. Registered rubber gardens were surveyed by the government in the 1930s and an Identity Card of Ownership of Rubber was issued. Although these cards are no longer legally valid in the studied longhouse, longhouse people still recognize their value in verifying land claims.

Looking at old land reminds the longhouse people of their ancestors who created it. For longhouse people, old land is evidence of bilek continuity, which they are proud of. They also remember their ancestors through valuable heritage objects (barang lama), such as Chinese jars, plates, and brass boxes.

Shares (ungkup) of land

Iban use the concept of 'shares' (ungkup) when explaining their inheritance rules. For example, after a couple (husband and wife) constructs a new bilek and becomes independent of their parents, (3) land acquired by them belongs to the couple. They recognize two shares of land, one share for the husband, the other for the wife. If they divorce without clear fault on either side, the land is divided according to their shares: half for each. When they have a child, they recognize four shares of land. Two shares are for the husband and wife, one share is for the child, and the other share is for their bilek. The bilek share is to cover whatever expenses occur as a result of activities of the bilek. As an example of bilek expenses, people sometimes cite funeral expenses. The share for the bilek appears after a child is born and the continuity of the bilek becomes secure.

The partition of new land

Here, we shall consider, as shown in Figure 2, an example of a bilek consisting of a husband, wife and three children, to explain the process of land partition. In this example bilek, the husband inherited his natal bilek from his parents and his wife married in from the same longhouse. Therefore, she received Land 3 as pemai from her parents. Although Figure 2 shows land 1, 2 and 3 as single blocks, the land actually consists of several plots of dispersed land of less than 1 or 2 hectares scattered around the longhouse territory. The timing of handing over land to children varies, but is usually after the children marry and a son or daughter is born who will inherit the bilek.

In the case of the bilek shown in Figure 2, the land is principally shared as follows. Regarding the new land, six shares are recognized: 1 for the husband, 1 for the wife, 1 for each of the three children, and 1 for the bilek. For example, if there are 12 pieces of new land and each of them is almost equal in size and value, one share is equivalent to 2 pieces of land. Supposing that Child 1 will succeed to the bilek, Child 2 and Child 3 will each receive 1 share of land when they become independent from their natal bilek. However, if they marry into their spouse's natal bilek in the same longhouse, they receive only smaller portions of land as pemai.

Here, after Child 2 and Child 3 have established independent bilek, in principle they no longer have any rights to inherit land acquired after they left the bilek. This is because rights apply only to land acquired while they are bilek members. (4) Child 1 remains in the natal bilek, takes care of the parents, and manages the funeral ceremony after they die. Child 1 receives four shares of land: 1 share of his/her own, 2 shares of the parents, and 1 of the bilek. He/she will be responsible for handing over the bilek and its property to his/her child.

The above case shows that land is partitioned for inheritance based on more systematic rules than reported previously.

It is difficult to open new land in Sarawak today, because few virgin forests remain. In the case of Mr. K, he has 6 pieces of old land and 12 pieces of new land, and has already given some land to his children. The area of each piece is uncertain, but it is presumed to be around 1 hectare. Mr. K was born in the study longhouse, becoming independent and making a new bilek after he married. In this longhouse territory, cutting of virgin forests continued until the mid 1980s. Today the people of the longhouse cannot open any new land because no virgin forest remains. New land is acquired just by buying land.

I asked 14 persons from different longhouses how to divide the shares of land, assuming the composition of a bilek as shown in Figure 2. Five persons gave clear explanations based on the principle of dividing the shares between bilek members and the bilek itself. Three of the five divided the shares the same way as Mr. K. One person divided the new land into five shares: 1 share for husband and wife, 1 share for each child (total 3 shares), and 1 share for the bilek itself. In this case, Child 1 gained 3 shares (1 share of his own, 1 share from his parents, and 1 share for the bilek). The other person divided the new land into 6 shares, as did Mr. K, but he divided these shares differently: 3 for Child 1, and 1.5 each for Child 2 and Child 3.

The other nine persons could not give a clear explanation about the allocation of shares. Seven persons, however, said that they would roughly divide the land in the following proportions (Child 1: Child 2: Child 3): 4: 1: 1 (3 persons), 3: 1.5: 1.5 (1 person), 2: 1: 1 (2 persons), and l: 1 : 1 (1 person). The other two persons said that there were no clear rules for partition and that it was discussed and decided by each bilek.


The partition of old land

In Figure 2, the pernai land brought by the wife is normally inherited by Child I. If the wife passes away before her husband, the latter has no right to herpernai. Those who would have the right are Child i, Child 2 or Child 3, who are connected by blood with the wife.

For the Iban, old land is considered to be inherited by Child I without partition. Since old land is proof of the continuity of the bilek, preferably, it should be managed by the bilek as a unit. In particular, heritage land should be inherited by Child I without partition. However, if old land other than the heritage land is abundant, or there is little new land, some of this land may be inherited by Child 2 and/or Child 3.

Conceptually, it is thought that heritage land does not belong to Child l, but is managed by him. For example, after Child 2 and 3 marry out, they still hold the same level of rights as Child 1 for tapping rubber and taking fruit from heritage land. In case Child 1 wants to sell heritage land, he must get the agreement of Child 2 and 3 in advance.

Ten of the 14 persons responded similarly to Mr. K that it is in principle better to hand over old land without partition to Child l, although actually some parts of it may be divided between Child 2 and 3. Some explained that Child 1 just manages the old land, while others said that the rights of Child 1 are strong and that he can use or dispose of the land however he wants. Four of the 14 persons said that old land can be divided and handed over to any of the children. Two persons explained that partition of land is arrived at after discussion within the bilek. Two persons said that old land can be divided with Child 2 and 3, but that Child 1 gets more land than the others.

It is thought in almost all longhouses that Child 1 can basically receive all, or a major part, of the old lands. It is understood that one of the reasons why the amount of land Child 1 receives is larger, as already pointed out by previous studies, is that a major portion of the new land as well as the old land goes to Child 1.

Strong rights of children in the event of divorce and remarriage

The existence of children is important when the Iban consider inheritance. As mentioned above, parents begin to consider partitioning their land to their children after the latter have married and have children of their own. They are then considered to have formed a full-fledged bilek with a high probability of succession. Furthermore, as Mr. K explained, the transfer of land in divorce cases shows the strong rights that children have in land. For example, if a wife divorces her husband because of his fault, her children in many cases remain with her. All of the new land will go to her and her children. In this case, land rights belong principally to the children, not to the mother. This is because the children have blood ties to both the father and the mother and one will succeed to control of the bilek, including its land. In some divorce cases, the husband should hand over his old land or pemai land also to the wife and children. That land belongs totally to the children, although it is managed by the wife when they are still small. The wife, who has no blood relation with the husband's family, has no right to the pemai or old land that originated with the husband's parents and earlier generations.

In the previous studies, a bilek has been recognized as a rights-holding unit. But Mr. K described how the rights of a mother and children in a single bilek have different strengths. The results of interviews conducted in the other longhouses are shown next.

Of the eleven persons I asked about divorce cases in which the husband was at fault, six persons answered that old land should be handed over to the wife and children. Five of these six persons insisted that the child held the rights. Another said that the wife also has rights, but that, if she remarries, her rights are transferred to the child.

Regarding new land, three of the 11 persons explained that the child held all the rights or had much stronger rights than the wife. The other eight persons said that the wife has the same rights as the child. But three of the eight pointed out that if she remarries, her rights are transferred to the child.

Strong rights of the first wife's child

Mr. K also described a case about a bilek shown in Figure 3, which actually occurred in the longhouse. In this bilek, after the husband and wife had three children, the wife passed away. If the husband had not remarried after his wife's death, he as head of the bilek would have managed both the old (1) and new land (2), although he would have no rights to his wife's pemai (3), which would go, instead, to the children. The husband, however, remarried. In this situation, the husband's rights in the new (2) and old land (1) should, in principle, be transferred to Child 1. If the husband remarried into the bilek of his new wife, only land equivalent to his one share would have been given to him aspemai by Child 1. Actually, the new wife, in this case, joined the husband's bilek, where Child 4 was born. Child 4 has no right to the new land (2) or even to old land (1), although he may have a right to the new land (2) equivalent to his father's I share. Child 4 will be able to inherit new land (4) that the husband and new wife acquire after their marriage and pemai land (5), if any, brought by the new wife.


Here, it is not necessary that bilek members strictly practice these rules in actual inheritance situations and daily use. I heard from the members of this bilek that in the use and management of new (2) and old land (1), the influence of the husband after remarriage is still strong, and they believed that the husband would decide how to partition the land. According to the husband and Child 1, Child 4 can use the new (2) and old land (1), and can also inherit part of this land when he becomes independent, if there is sufficient land. Mr. K. explained, however, that if a land dispute occurred between the children, it would be settled based on the principles explained above.

I conducted interviews with five persons, each from a different longhouse. Two persons gave an explanation almost identical to Mr. K's, namely, that the husband's land rights after remarriage moved principally to Child 1. The other three persons explained that Child 4 also has potential rights to both old (1) and new land (2).

4) Summary and concluding remarks

The author examined Iban customary rules of land inheritance and transfer based on the results of interviews and observations mainly in a single longhouse, but adding information from several other longhouses in the Miri and Sri Aman Divisions. As already pointed out, customary rules have changed with changing social and natural conditions, and vary over time and between regions and longhouses. These rules are likely to continue to change as a result of the commercialization of land (Cramb 2007: 196-210, Ichikawa n.d.) and the absence of virgin forest. Therefore, the rules revealed by the study vary in details. However, some rules appear to be common throughout both divisions.

There are two types of land recognized in terms of inheritance and transfer: "new land" and "old land." In many longhouses, shares of new land are parceled out to bilek members and the bilek itself, and the proportions of land partitioned between children are largely fixed. Also, in many longhouses, the Iban think that, preferably, old land should not be divided, but inherited by the child who succeeds to the bilek. Therefore, the child succeeding to a bilek obtains much more land than children who marry out.

The child succeeding to the bilek is expected to manage the land properly and to hand it over to the next generation. He may not use the land selfishly or dispose of it by his own decision. One of the findings of this paper is the importance of blood relationships. A person without a blood relationship has no right to succeed to land as shown in this paper. It has also been found that the land rights of children are often stronger than their parents' rights. This appears to be related to the value the Iban place on bilek continuity.

Fallow secondary forests are significant for biodiversity conservation (Ichikawa 2007; Wright and Muller-Landau 2006). They are also indispensable to the Iban for short-term rice fields, which are important both physically and spiritually (Freeman 1970). Mr. K explained that Iban pioneers cleared virgin forests to make rice fields not only for themselves and their bilek families, but for future generations. Therefore, it is important that the Iban manage their land well and hand it over to the next generation. Land does not belong solely to the individual, but also to his/her descendants. The bilek, for the Iban, should continue eternally. The Iban way of thinking and society incorporate mechanisms that ensure that land use decisions are made not only based on considerations of short-term benefit, but also on long-term benefits, through successive generations, past and future.


This paper is the result of Research Project 2-2 at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN). The fieldwork was funded by the project.


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Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN)

457-4 Motoyama, Kamigamo, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8047, Japan

(1) Freeman (1955), who conducted his fieldwork in Baleh in the late 1940s and early 1950s, did not observe any buying and selling of land.

(2) In recent years, however, after marriage many couples stay in urban areas where the husband works. In such cases, it is not clear whose natal bilek they belong to, or if they are considered to have founded their own independent bilek.

(3) Although a couple normally constructs a new bilek for their independence alter their children are born, as already pointed out, there are bilek consisting of only a husband and wile.

(4) However, this principle is not applicable to children born to the parents later. For example, a child born in the 5th year after his/her parents built an independent bilek has rights to land acquired by the parents in the 4 years before he/she was born.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Ichikawa, Masahiro
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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