Members of an indigenous tribe in Borneo lost a case in Malaysia's top court Thursday challenging the state's seizure of land to build a massive dam.
The verdict capped a decade-long legal struggle by a group of villagers who claim authorities in Malaysia's eastern Sarawak state unlawfully wrested away land occupied by their ancestors for generations.
Land rights are a key concern for Malaysia's indigenous people, many of whom say they have been pushed from their homes with insufficient compensation by state governments to make way for development.
The Federal Court dismissed an appeal by tribal villagers who said the Sarawak administration violated their constitutional rights by taking over land in the late 1990s to construct the Bakun Dam, a 7 billion ringgit ($2.3 billion) hydroelectric project that created reservoir roughly the size of Singapore.
Many indigenous tribes in Sarawak and elsewhere in Malaysia do not formally own land, enabling authorities to easily acquire forest territories where they live, grow crops and hunt.
Rights activists insist the tribes deserve more protection in areas they have occupied for thousands of years.
The Federal Court's verdict left uncertainty over about 100 other land rights lawsuits filed by other indigenous Malaysians in Sarawak, said Mohideen Abdul Kader, an official with Friends of the Earth Malaysia, a nongovernment group.
"We are very disappointed that the court did not make a clear stand," Mohideen said. "This was a golden opportunity for the highest court to consider questions of constitutionality very clearly and clarify the issue."
One member of the three-judge Federal Court panel said the Sarawak government had not violated indigenous rights, while the other two based their ruling mainly on technicalities.
The Bakun Dam triggered wide criticism from the start from environmentalists because it displaced thousands of people and flooded an area of at least 260 square miles (680 square kilometers). Officials have defended the dam as necessary to handle rising power demand. It is expected to start operations within months following many delays in construction work.
Activists say that while numerous villagers forced out by the Bakun Dam had received monetary compensation, it was not a fair amount for the size and value of the land.