Indigenous Communities Take Charge with Dam Blockades in Borneo

Tara Holmes
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Anti-dam protests in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo continue to heat up over the proposed 12 megadams that will devastate the local ecology and destroy indigenous livelihoods. In mid-November,  13 indigenous people from Malaysia's eastern state of Sarawak travelled thousands of kilometers from their home in central Borneo to the capital Kuala Lumpur to protest being thrown off their land for the Murum Dam. The affected communities say they will take the state to court if their demands are not met.

Since September, more than 200 Penan leaders have blockaded the site of the 944MW Murum Dam in a last-ditch effort to get the government and the state owned-power company, Sarawak Energy Berhad, to respect their rights and provide appropriate compensation for the loss of their lands and homes. The Murum dam would flood 245 square kilometers (95 square miles) and resettle approximately 1,500 Penan and 80 Kenyah people. 

Police recently dismantled the blockade and arrested 10 Penan who were protesting at the dam site. At this writing, 100 community members remain at the site and will continue the protest against the dam’s construction. Many of the indigenous families forced from their longhouses at Murum have found replacement housing to be unacceptable, with as many as three families crowding into one single-family sized apartment. The Murum blockade is the second that the Penan people erected; the first was in September 2012, when a blockade Long Wat village delayed construction of the dam for over a month

Raymond Abin, of the NGO Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network, said: “The authorities just find that this is the only way to deal with the people — refusing to deal with their demands. The easy way is to arrest them in order to intimidate and threaten them.”

On November 25, 2013, Malaysian ambassadors in 15 countries received a letter signed by over 30 organizations (including International Rivers and the Borneo Project) warning them of possible human right violations arising from the blockade, and calling for good faith negotiations with those who are being displaced to make way for Murum Dam. Lawyers, human rights groups, medics, media personnel and convoys carrying basic supplies of food and water for distribution all have reported that their access to the site has been blocked. The letter was delivered to Malaysian Ambassadors in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, UK and the US. 

In addition to the Murum dam protests, indigenous protestors have successfully halted construction at the site of the 1,200MW Baram Dam, another mega dam in Malaysian Borneo slated to destroy pristine land and livelihoods. Two road blockades have been erected to prevent construction: one near Long Lama, on the shores of the Baram River and a second near the proposed dam site.  The dam will flood 400 square kilometers of rainforest (154 square miles) and displace an estimated 20,000 indigenous people.

Sarawak Energy is relocating the Penan to swampy areas that are unable to support their traditional agricultural practices and way of life.

Peter Kallang of SAVE Rivers said: "You cannot say this is a Sarawak problem – this is our national problem. If you look at the impact of a dam on the environment, this is an international problem, because it will drown one of the most biodiverse parts of the world.”

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Tara Holmes is the Communications and Outreach Manager at The Borneo Project