The Sandakan High Court has ruled that the Sabah government and the Lands and Surveys Department have a fiduciary duty to the state's natives in safeguarding their native customary land.
This is after the court declared the department's move alienating a parcel of land measuring 500 acres in Kampung Ansuan, Telupid as null and void.
Part of the alienated land was native customary land.
Judicial Commissioner Douglas Cristo Primus Sikayun delivered the decision on grounds that Sabah Lands and Surveys Department, before the land alienation, failed to abide by due process under Section 13 of the Sabah Land Ordinance.
Under this, a notice must be issued calling for any claimant to native customary rights before land is alienated.
Native land rights activist Galus Ahtoi hailed the decision as a landmark judgment.
"In the past, massive acreage of customary lands was lost due to a stroke of the pen because insufficient notice or no notice of land application was brought to the attention of the natives whose ancestral and customary lands were affected.
"This decision of the High Court is a milestone because the High Court has given the true intent, purpose and effect to the requirement of such a mandatory notice under Section 13 of the Sabah Land Ordinance," he said in a statement.
The Sabah Land and Surveys Department had in 1995 alienated the 500 acres of land to Sudi Kembang Sdn Bhd and a land title with a 99 year lease was issued to the company in 2001.
The company began clearing the land for oil palm cultivation in 2004 and found a portion of the land, 15 acres, was being claimed as native customary land by the defendant Yahsu Linggis and his children.
It subsequently sought an eviction of the occupants with the Sandakan High Court and Yahsu's children, Marsius and Alfred filed counter claims based on their native customary right. Yahsu had since passed away.
They were represented by Kong Hong Ming.
The judgment is expected to give Alfred a peace of mind as he had been facing troubles with the police for defending his native customary land against the company.
He was arrested in 2011, detained for three days and charged for theft under Section 379 of the Penal Code.