Indigenous Leaders File Corruption Complaint Against Malaysian Dam Builder

Simone Adler
Peter Kallang, Chariman of SAVE Rivers, holding a copy of the report lodged to MACC
Peter Kallang, Chariman of SAVE Rivers, holding a copy of the report lodged to MACC
Photo Credit: SAVE Rivers Network

On 5 September, indigenous leaders of the SAVE Rivers Network filed an official complaint to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) addressing the corruption surrounding the controversial dams being developed by Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) in the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. The complaint specifically named the company’s CEO, Torstein Dale Sjotveit of Norway, for having abused his position by awarding massive contracts related to SEB’s dam projects to the family members of his employer, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud.

SEB is a public energy utility wholly owned by the Sarawak government, which has been controlled by Chief Minister Taib for over 30 years. The Chief Minister’s cousin, Hamid Sepawi, is the Chairman of SEB. As CEO, Mr. Torstein acts as a go-between business partner for the Taib family.

SEB is spearheading the development of 12 large hydropower dams in the forests of Sarawak, part of a government initiative called “SCORE” that aims to rapidly develop the state’s industrial sector within the next 10-20 years. Although the Sarawak government controls the local media, the SAVE Rivers Network has worked over the past year to raise awareness among Sarawak’s indigenous groups of the risks of the dams. An estimated tens of thousands of indigenous people live in the forests near the dam sites and will be displaced from their lands if the dams go forward.

Concerned Sarawak citizens lodging the report with MACC officers
Concerned Sarawak citizens lodging the report with MACC officers
Photo Credit: SAVE Rivers Network

SAVE Rivers has compiled evidence to present to the MACC that they allege proves extensive corruption and conflicts of interest in Sjotveit and Taib’s promotion of dams. Most notably, Chief Minister Taib’s immediate family members are major shareholders of several companies that have received contracts from the projects. SAVE Rivers alleges that this favoritism, in turn, has led Sjotveit and Taib to pursue projects in violation of constitutional protections guaranteed to Malaysia’s indigenous peoples.

Such protections include Native Customary Rights in accordance with Native Customary Land as identified in the Sarawak Land Ordinance and the Sarawak Land Code of the Federal Constitution; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to which Malaysia has committed to uphold, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples Rights, which has been ratified by Malaysia. The UNDRIP and ILO Convention 169 require adhering countries to incorporate these rights into national legislation or the constitution.

SAVE Rivers was founded in 2011 in order to unite all affected communities and coordinate the campaign against the Sarawak dams. Since then, SAVE Rivers has raised concerns that the dams will not benefit the affected indigenous communities and that SEB has denied affected people their right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) as upheld by the UNDRIP. “The abuse of power and abnormal practice by Mr. Torstein Dale Sjotveit is very obvious,” says Peter Kallag, Chairperson of SAVE Rivers Network, in the complaint presented to the MACC.

Take a look at this visual “Family Tree” that illustrates the web of ties between the beneficiaries of the dam projects:

The MACC complaint occurs while the Sarawak government prepares to host the 2013 International Hydropower Association (IHA) Congress, in which the government will promote the Sarawak dams as an example of “sustainable hydropower” and a best practice in the industry. SEB has used the IHA’s voluntary assessment tool, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) on the controversial Murum Dam, but this has not proved adequate in addressing the main concerns that SAVE Rivers has raised:

  • Corruption needs to be assessed in large hydropower projects
  • Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) need to be made public
  • Indigenous peoples rights need to be respected as called for through international policies like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and Malaysian national law

Clearly, Mr. Torstein’s and Chief Minister Taib’s self-policing through tools such as the HSAP is not enough to prevent pervasive corruption. It is time for the Malaysian national government to uphold its commitment to the UNDRIP and respect basic human rights. This will demonstrate to the Sarawak people, to foreign investors, and to the international community that such corruption will not be tolerated.

SAVE Rivers and concerned Sarawak citizens await the response of the MACC on how to move forward with the corruption allegations. In the meantime, they can be rest assured that greater international concern is growing around the conflict-of-interest and abuse of power in the development of the Sarawak dams.