Indigenous People Confront Industry on Sarawak Dams

Zachary Hurwitz and Kirk Herbertson
Wednesday, June 12, 2013


From June 2013 World Rivers Review

The Malaysian state of Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo, is rich with tropical forests bisected by powerful rivers. Five years ago, Sarawak’s authoritarian ruler Abdul Taib Mahmud announced that he will “transform Sarawak into a developed state” by building 12 large dams, mostly to power neighboring states. The forests are home to tens of thousands of indigenous people who have suffered human rights abuses for decades as Taib’s government has seized native lands for the benefit of his family’s timber and palm oil companies.

When the International Hydropower Association (IHA) decided to hold its biennial congress in Sarawak, indigenous people mobilized to ensure that visiting companies and investors learned the truth about the Sarawak dams.

Unprecedented Protest

On May 22, 300 Penan, Kenyah, Kayan, and Iban indigenous people arrived at the meeting site by bus from their longhouses in remote parts of the state. They had traveled long distances – and in some cases for days – to protest the destructive dams that are affecting their native lands. The protest was organized by SAVE Rivers, a local network of people who have already been affected by three existing dams, and others who would be impacted by nine more planned dams.

The demonstration was unprecedented for Sarawak. Here, public protest and critique of the government, especially when organized by indigenous people, is severely discouraged and often repressed. Local media is almost entirely controlled by the government. In the past, several indigenous rights activists have been jailed or harassed. Some have had their passports taken by the government to prevent them from leaving the country. Many have had their email and phone communications monitored by the government. An intelligence police force, called the Special Branch, track protesters or anyone who criticizes the government. 

On the morning of the May 22, the protesters gathered outside the IHA congress, chanting and delivering a statement of opposition to the dams. Special Branch officers took photos of the protesters for their database of citizens critical of the government. At an IHA networking event in the evening, ten indigenous activists organized a creative, peaceful act of resistance by lining the entrance to the event to welcome the IHA delegates with bracelets that read “We don't want mega-dams in Sarawak,” while donning shirts that read “Stop Baram Dam.” The ten protesters, singing traditional indigenous songs and filmed by a videographer, were monitored closely by five Special Branch officers. 

Earlier in the week, Peter Kallang, chairman of SAVE Rivers, was prevented from attending a “stakeholder workshop” organized by the World Bank Group, Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development, and the IHA, and supported by the Sarawak government. The workshop was held at the headquarters of Sarawak Energy, the government’s energy company. The order preventing Kallang from attending reportedly came from Sarawak government official, Torstein Dale Sjotveit of Norway, CEO of Sarawak Energy.  

The indigenous people’s protest made it clear that affected people would not tolerate companies’ superficial treatment of human rights and environmental obligations.

On the closing day of the IHA Congress, Sarawak Energy commissioned a front-page story on how the company has “placed its social obligations first.” During the Congress, the head of Sarawak's state planning unit claimed that Sarawak Energy held 80 consultations with the people affected by the Murum Dam. Yet construction on Murum Dam began before the project’s environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) even started, and the ESIA remains inaccessible to the public. As a result, indigenous people affected by the dam were forced to consult and negotiate the terms of resettlement without having access to information about how the dam would impact them.

Meanwhile, IHA paid a Penan leader and ten people from his community to participate in the session “Working with Project-Affected People” at the Congress, where the leader declared that the Penan supported Murum Dam as long as they were fairly compensated. Claims swirled during the Congress that the leader, after leading a blockade of Murum Dam in 2012, now receives a monthly allowance from the government in exchange for his tacit approval. Interestingly, leaders of indigenous communities are not selected by their own people, but are chosen by the state government. There is a risk that indigenous leaders will continue to be bought off by the government in exchange for compensation.

Sarawak Energy says it is learning and improving on past experiences, but no efforts have been made to fix past mistakes. SAVE Rivers has demanded that the Sarawak government clean up the mess it left at the notorious Bakun Dam and another dam built in the 1980s, called Batang Ai. More than 13,000 indigenous people were displaced by these dams, and years later, most struggle with unemployment, severe poverty, lack of farmland, and social tensions. Meanwhile, Bakun Dam’s reservoir is highly acidic due to pollution from industrial projects upstream, and the dam’s turbines are corroding. The reservoir’s potent methane emissions can be smelled kilometers away.

Limits to Voluntary Accountability

The Sarawak government and the IHA claim that the dams are being built responsibly, and as proof, they say that the dams have been assessed using the IHA’s Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP). But HSAP is proving an ineffective indicator of “sustainability” in a context with poor state and national governance, and very little independent oversight of the dam’s human rights and environmental performance. 

In the case of Sarawak, pessimism runs high. The dams cannot be separated from Sarawak’s Chief Minister Taib. Corruption is rampant in the Sarawak government. Taib is not only Chief Minister but also Sarawak’s Minister of Finance, Minister of Resource Planning, and Minister of the Environment. All changes to investment plans or environmental policy must be approved by him. Taib also tightly controls the project developer, state-run Sarawak Energy, by keeping family members and political allies in majority control of the company’s board of directors. The ruling party of the Malaysian national government, which itself has been in power for 53 years, will not hold Taib accountable for any corruption allegations because the country’s leaders depend on his political support to remain in power at the national level. Such a kleptocratic governance structure will likely prevent Sarawak Energy from incorporating any real reforms that could prevent dams from being built in a way that harms indigenous people’s rights.

Sarawak is not the only place where HSAP has proved to be a weak substitute for strong laws and policies on human rights and environmental protection. So far, none of the companies that have committed to use HSAP have done an assessment during the early preparatory stages of dam building, which would allow them to identify human rights and environmental gaps in national and local planning systems. To date, five official HSAP assessments have been made publicly available, and another six are reportedly in the pipeline. Yet, developers are fearful of publishing official assessments that have yielded low scores. This was the case with the Murum Dam, whose 2012 HSAP assessment has not been published, reportedly after receiving quite low scores.

What's Next?

The Sarawak government was thoroughly embarrassed at the IHA Congress – not only because affected communities told the truth about the government’s bad practices, but because delegates from around the world were exposed to the stark contrast between government public relations efforts and the truth on the ground. 

Meanwhile, IHA is faced with the challenge of promoting its HSAP tool in the face of the limitations brought to light in Sarawak. The IHA approach is dangerous, because it advocates for having companies self-police their own human rights and environmental performance, without being accountable to independent monitoring. In places such as Sarawak, where domestic laws are undermined by corruption, this leaves local people without any real form of justice. International Rivers will continue to support dam-affected people whose rights go unprotected, whose grievances are being unmet, and who receive little more than payments and industry discourse to attempt to assuage their concerns.

Background on Sarawak Dams

Once covered in lush forests, Sarawak, Malaysia now suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation due to the rapid spread of logging and palm oil plantations. Only five percent of the state’s primary forests remain. This rapid deforestation has placed great stress on the indigenous people who live in Sarawak’s forests. Over the past three decades, their traditional lands have been taken and sold, often without their knowledge. Many have been displaced from their homes and lost access to the natural resources on which they depend.

Now Sarawak’s rivers are on the auction block. In 2011, the Malaysian and Sarawak governments finished the controversial 2,400 MW Bakun Dam after nearly five decades of delays. The Sarawak government plans to complete 10-12 more dams by 2020 with the help of two Chinese state-run companies, China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro. The dams will produce 450% more electricity than Sarawak currently needs. The government claims the extra electricity will attract heavy industry to Sarawak.

In 1998, the government evicted 10,000 indigenous people from their homes to make room for the Bakun Dam. Today, most of these people’s livelihoods remain in limbo. In 2013, the government will complete the 944 MW Murum Dam, which will displace around 1,500 indigenous people. The project has already resulted in numerous human rights violations. The next project will be the 1,200 MW Baram Dam, which will displace up to 20,000 indigenous people.  Together, the dams will flood 2,300 square kilometers of forest. The dam boom will cause irreversible damage to the people and biodiversity of Sarawak’s forests.

Doing business in Sarawak requires buying the favor of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Corruption is well documented. The Sarawak government carefully controls information that reaches the public, and journalists are forbidden from scrutinizing Taib. During his 30 years in power, Taib has used his position to become one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest men. His family now controls most of the Sarawak economy and has a controlling ownership stake in many of the local companies involved in the dams.  

Lacking a voice in the government, Sarawak’s indigenous people have started to protest. In 2011, indigenous leaders formed SAVE Rivers Network to raise awareness of how the dams will harm forest-dependent communities. The network has helped to raise awareness of the risks the dams bring, and has challenged the government’s claim that the dams are necessary for Sarawak’s development.

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