Sarawak’s State Level Conference Against Mega-Dams
16th to 18th February 2012
Wealthy but underdeveloped
Sarawak is the most undeveloped state in Malaysia; it lacks infrastructure and basic amenities compared to the West Malaysian states. But Sarawak is arguably Malaysia’s wealthiest state; that is in as far as natural resources are concerned. As an example of this, timber from Sarawak has been contributing a major share to the Malaysian economy for the past couple of decades. However the billions of dollars earned from this industry, is contributing very little in the long term improvement of the living standard of the locals; it does not seem to be contributing towards building good infrastructure in Sarawak, which should at least be at par with the states in West Malaysia or the neighboring East Malaysian state, Sabah. But now, after about 30 years of the reckless timber exploitation and which was later quickly followed with the grabbing of Native Customary Right land (NCR) for oil palm plantations, the government is launching a programme of building mega-dams for Hydro Electric Power Generation (HEP). With the construction of dams for the HEP, there is a very real danger of total inhalation of Sarawak’s vast natural habitat, rich heritage and the relocation of the population and posing formidable challenge to the natives’ way of life.
In 1986, the Malaysian government gave approval for the construction of a major dam to be built at Bakun in Balui, the upper part of the Rejang River in Sarawak. Bakun dam is the biggest in South East Asia; it has flooded an area of 60,000 Ha, a land area as big as Singapore Island. A concrete rock filled dam was built at 205 M high. It is the biggest dam of its kind in Asia outside of China. After years of delays and change of ownership the cost of construction doubled. The first turbine for the Hydro Electric Power in Bakun was commissioned and running only towards the end of 2011 or 25 years after the approval. The anti graft watchdog, Transparency International termed the Bakun dam one of the world’s “Monuments of Corruption”. However, even before the Bakun HEP at the Balui river is on full load operation, another dam is already under construction at Murum, on the Balui, upstream of Bakun dam. Murum is the first of the 12 dams which the government is building in Sarawak which is supposed to be completed by 2020.
The River & the people
The rivers have always played a major part in the livelihood of the people in Sarawak and that is why there are a lot of settlements and villages located along the rivers in the state. The construction of mega-dams will diffidently have adverse and irreversible impact on the livelihood Sarawak’s people. Since the focus of having the HEP is theoretically for powering industries and factories in the urban areas, it is not for the benefit of the people who have to sacrifice in order to make ways for it. The projects will eventually be impoverishing rather than enriching the population who are resettled to give way for the dams. Those who are worst affected by the HEP projects will be the indigenous population who are also the minorities in the state and who are unique to the state and not found anywhere else in the world. The people affected are generally called Dayaks comprising the Ibans, Bidayuhs and the Orang Ulu groups. The term Orang Ulu refers to a group of indigenous who are Sarawak ethnics. One of the racial communities in the Orang Ulu group is the Penan, the last nomadic group who roam the rainforest of Borneo. Most of the indigenous people living in the rural villages are generally poor. They are traditional subsistence farmers or shifting cultivators, people who for generations have relied heavily on the land and the forest for their livelihood. The construction of mega-dams will unavoidably force the population to move out from their traditional land, which is a significant part of their heritage and lifeline.
The dam will destroy a unique culture
In the normal Orang Ulu villages, even the very structures of the longhouses are traditional in nature, reflecting the social structure of the communities and thus keeping them united. With their social structure, order and solidarity is possible in each community. These social structures have been keeping the Orang Ulu in general like the Kenyah and Kayan, together from time immemorial, enabling them to face famines, wars, epidemics and natural tragedies. These structures are delicate and are now facing a lot of challenges from modern lifestyle and globalization. Mass relocation of the people will no doubt spell the end of the traditional social structure. This has been one aspect of the Malaysian scene which contributes unity and harmony through cultural uniqueness of the nation.
The original home is the real home
In a traditional Kenyah or Kayan community, each longhouse normally comprises a group of people who are of the same dialect and custom. For the Kenyah they could be Lepo Tau, Badeng, Lepo Agak, Jamuk, Long Sebatu, Uma Kelep, Lepo Kulit etc. For the Kayan they could be Uma Baluvuh, Uma Pu, Uma Bawang etc. The people of each dialect have, from generation to generation, their bonds to each other making it possible for them to live with a family like attitude towards one another. Even in the face of the present large rural-urban migration the Kenyah and Kayan consider their ancestral villages as their real home. For them towns and cities are work places. Most of them maintain their houses in their ancestral villages, along the Baram or Belaga rivers and they normally go back home on festive occasions like Pusau Anak, Petakau Anak, Christmas or Suen. Relocating the people to make way for these mega-dams will pose a direct challenge to this bond that is part of their social structure.
Anxiety over dams
The construction of dams inevitably raise a lot of justifiable anxiety, some of which are the environmental concerns relating to them which include the destruction of numerous endemic plants and animal’s species. In constructing the dams, there is a definite, unavoidable and massive ecological damage resulting from the deforestation and flooding of thousands of square kilometers of natural tropical rainforest. The threat from the dams collapsing is also very real, since upstream sedimentation could shorten the useful lifespan of the dam. Another tradeoff is the health issues, such as increase in diseases like shistosomiasis and malaria which are real. The viability of large dams is also nowadays increasingly called into question in light of climate change, which undermines the water supply to the large dams.
Native Customary Right Land (NCR) in view of the dams
At the moment, one of the problematic issues between the Sarawak state government and the Sarawak natives is the interpretation of the law concerning the Native Customary Right (NCR) land. The government’s interpretation of what NCR is, does not comply with the natives’ custom. But the natives’ custom was recognized by the Sarawak’s government under British colony and the Sarawak’s Rajah Government which governed before the British and that law is still binding. In spite of losing cases after cases of land disputes resulting from this interpretation, the present Sarawak state government continues to lease out the land which are claimed by the natives to various big plantation developers, claiming that the land belongs to the state. As a result there are hundreds of court cases resulting from land claims; a lot of them are still not resolved. The proposed construction of these dams will no doubt exacerbate the situation.
Compensation made and promises not kept for the relocated
In the case for the people who were relocated to make way for the Bakun dam, they were given three acres of land per family, as part of the compensation. There it was a case which brought change from bad to worst. Rather than an improvement to the standard of living for the people, when at one time they were able to cultivate, plant, harvest, gather, hunt, fish freely in their vast NCR which is recognized by the Malaysian court, now they have a piece of land which is just a negligible size compared to their former land. So after the relocation they could not maintain the same way of life since the three acres land is inadequate and insufficient for economic purpose, to cultivate even as subsistent farmers in the rural areas. Due to this reason there is a large migration to towns and plantations where a lot of them end up as unskilled or semi-skilled laborers.
In view of these facts I would say that the construction of the dams will not bring development to the people directly affected but it does bring severe and permanent damages to the whole environment and the community at large.
Mega-dams don’t benefit the people
Development for the people must be for the immediate and above all, long term good of all the people and not just a few, who own shares in power generation and big corporations. Sustainable development should not result in negative environment impact or major and harmful irreversible bad consequences. Sarawak needs development and I believe that the people in the rural areas all want to have better living standard but building mega-dams will destroy the rivers and submerge the very land which the people need for development. When looking at the available power generated after Bakun dam and Murum dams are fully on line building more mega-dams will not benefit the general population of Sarawak or Malaysia as a whole.
Approach in building the proposed mega-dams is unethical and immoral
When any major projects in general are proposed, every opinion voiced, especially by the affected communities must be heard. The affected people must be able to determine their own future and know exactly where they are standing protected by a legally endorsed, internationally recognized process before any major move is made. No one can speak for another person in this type of major decision making. It does not matter if those who talk are the headmen of the community or influential politicians, unilateral decision must be avoided. No coercion or bullying is to be employed, when the decision has a permanent and destructive effect. At the moment, not many of the indigenous communities are aware that they are affected directly or indirectly by these dams. They are not properly informed and consulted. So looking at the proposed construction of the 12 dams there is a lack of compliance to mandatory or natural civility, where humane and even basic requirements should be met. All these requirements are spelt out in the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).The UNDRIP is meticulous in this aspect and Malaysia is a signatory of the document. Instead of being open and responsible, the proponent of the dam seems to play hide and seek with those affected. From the secretive approach they are taking, no one could be blamed for thinking that the proponents of the dam have something to hide. There are plenty of humane and viable ways to achieve development so that the end result will be a win-win situation when everybody and the nation could wins.
Formation of Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers)
At the moment, there is no coordinated effort by the indigenous communities and civil societies to campaign against the construction of these destructive mega-dam projects. Therefore there is an urgent need to initiate a state, national and international campaign against these mega-dams. Having this in mind a group of us, concerned individuals and a few Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) have decide to start a network of those who are against the mega-dams. We had our first meeting in October 2011. The network is called the Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network (or in short: SAVE Rivers) and I am the chairman for the steering committee. Beside the steering committee we aim at extending the network further to include more of those who can support the cause, especially from those who are directly affected.
The objectives of the network are:
(1) Campaigning against the construction of mega-dams
(2) Gathering all affected communities and concerned individuals or NGOs to work together as a team
(3) Building up network for easy communication, gathering and relaying of information
(4) Sharing or disseminating information concerning the destructive nature or adverse effects of mega-dams
(5) Supporting activities or event opposing the construction of mega-dams
Last year we started with the campaign from a booth set up in Marudi during the Baram Regatta. This was closely followed with a dinner organize in Miri for fellowship and to create awareness.
Our first project this year is a state wide conference on the impact of mega-dams which will be held as follows:
(1) Registration at Telang Usan Hotel Miri and opening session for participants: 5 pm on 16th February
(2) It will begin with a sharing session after dinner at 7.00 pm on 16th February (You will be informed of the venue)
(3) The conference will be full day on Friday 17th to 18th February. (You will be informed of the venue)
(4) Actual venue for the conference proper will be made known to the participants at the registration desk
(5) Delegates at the conference will be from various places in Sarawak, especially from the proposed dams localities
(6) There are 8 speakers who will be presenting papers at the conference. All of them are knowledgably individuals, professionals, University professors, environmentalists, human right groups including a speaker from Suhakam, the government instituted, Malaysian Human Right Organization.
At the conference we expect to come up with resolutions and fine tune our approach. The highlight of the conference is the resolution which will spell the course of action to be initiated for stopping the construction of mega-dams.
To date, the Conference Secretariat has started receiving registrations via phone calls and the email from various places in Sarawak. From these respond we are confident to draw interest from the people affected. As we have limited resources and room, the conference will be on “first come first served” basis. Those who need further information can contact me, Peter Kallang on my hand phone,– 013 833 1104 or contact Mr. Mark Bujang on 014 877 6685.
Chairman of SAVE Rivers
Chairman of Persatuan Kenyah Miri (PKM)
Chairman of Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA – Miri)
Hand Phone: 013 833 1104