Sarawak’s Murum Dam: What Has Changed Since the Indigenous Blockade?

Kirk Herbertson
Villagers blockade the Murum Dam (Sept. 2012)
Villagers blockade the Murum Dam (Sept. 2012)
© SAVE Sarawak's Rivers Network

Last September, indigenous villagers living in a remote area of Sarawak, Malaysia shut down a large hydropower project that is being built on their native lands. The blockade of the Sarawak government’s RM4.3 billion (US$1.3 billion) Murum Dam lasted for over one month. The villagers’ efforts attracted extensive media attention and even led an Australian company involved in the project to announce its withdrawal. The Sarawak government continued construction, but promised to improve communications with the local communities.

By May 2013, the Sarawak government was using the blockade as an example of how it has learned from past mistakes and is committed to building a better dam. During a global hydropower conference in the capital city of Kuching, the government brought one of the blockade’s former leaders to make a speech and say that he was no longer opposed to hydropower. Sarawak Energy, the state-owned dam builder, also published a statement by a group of Sarawak indigenous people expressing their gratitude that the government has learned lessons from past dams.  

Recently, the government announced that the Murum Dam resettlement has commenced. In this article, we look back at what has happened in the 10 months since the blockade. Despite what the Sarawak government is saying, conditions for affected communities have not improved. In many respects, the situation has gotten worse.

Prior to the Blockade: A Rocky Start

The Murum project had a very rough start. Most of the 1,415 people who will be resettled for the dam are members of the Penan, Sarawak’s poorest and most marginalized indigenous group. Many of the Penan villagers living in the Murum area are subsistence farmers who live largely outside the cash economy and depend heavily on the surrounding forests for their livelihoods. 

The reasons for the Penan’s poverty are complex, but can be attributed in large part to the Sarawak government. Since the late 1980s, the government has provided licenses for timber and palm oil companies to access the forest lands traditionally used by the Penan. Government officials profited personally from many of these deals. According to the Murum Dam’s November 2011 resettlement plan, the government’s timber concessions led to “rapidly declining forest resources” and “a decline in fish catch and game.” Even where compensation was paid to the Penan in return for use of their land, it was “not regular” and “very low.” The Penan have also been overlooked in the government’s efforts to provide basic social services to Sarawak citizens, such as health care, education and identity cards.

Hydropower is the latest industry to affect Sarawak’s indigenous people. The Murum Dam is the first of nine to 12 large dams that the government plans to build on indigenous lands. In 2008, the government began quietly constructing the Murum Dam in a remote area of Sarawak. The developers did not conduct an environmental and social impact assessment before beginning construction, as Sarawak law and international standards require. The local indigenous communities were not consulted or even informed about the decision to begin construction, although the dam’s reservoir will flood their lands.

Murum Dam during the construction phase (May 2012)
Murum Dam during the construction phase (May 2012)
© International Rivers

In 2009, the government finally informed the villagers that they would be resettled. The negotiations took place under an extreme power imbalance. The government did not provide the villagers with access to information about the project’s impacts and instead presented the project as inevitable, approved and underway. The villagers had no access to independent legal and technical advisors. As a result, they were coerced into negotiating the terms of a resettlement with no option to refuse what was offered to them. 

The situation was documented in a 2009 investigation by the Malaysia Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), which reported that, “While acknowledging the inevitability of the construction of the dam, the general sentiment of the community is against the dam and the prospect of being resettled.”  

The Blockade

Tensions erupted in September 2012, after the affected villages received a leaked copy of the government’s resettlement plan.  Previously, the villagers were unaware that the plan existed. They were unhappy with the terms that the government planned to offer. On September 26th, several hundred villagers erected a blockade on the access road to the dam site, halting construction for over one month.  

The villagers issued a set of demands to the government. Some of the demands included compensation for lost customary land and forests, 25 hectares of agricultural land per household, rights to use the surrounding forests, compensation for flooded burial grounds, a share of the profits from the dam, and a development fund to support Penan education. The communities also asked that the government’s commitments be set forth in a legally binding contract, in order to ensure that all promises were kept.

Aftermath of the Blockade

By October 2012, the communities lacked the resources to continue the blockade after police forces announced that it was illegal to provide supplies to the protesters. The villagers returned to their homes after the government agreed to pay some of them for burial grounds that would be flooded by the dam. None of the other demands were met at this time.

After media attention on the blockade subsided, the project returned to normal. Australian company HydroTasmania quietly retracted its promise to withdraw from the Sarawak dams. Chinese companies Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro completed most of the dam’s construction. The Sarawak government continued making plans to resettle the villages.

During the first half of 2013, resettlement negotiations continued, but the villagers were carefully monitored by the Sarawak government. Although the Penan had previously set up their own committee to negotiate the terms of the resettlement, the Sarawak government instead decided that the villagers would be represented by a committee created and controlled by the government. According to Sarawak Energy, the Murum Penan Development Committee (MPDC) is “officially recognized by the Sarawak Government as the valid representative body for the Murum communities affected by the Murum Hydroelectric Power (HEP) Project.” The government closely monitors MPDC meetings, and the committee is formally advised by representatives of the government’s ruling party coalition. 

Sarawak Showcases Murum to the World

In May 2013, the Sarawak Government hosted the global hydropower industry’s “world congress” in the city of Kuching. The meeting brought together hydropower developers and investors from across the world to discuss best practices in building large dams. 

Indigenous groups protest during hydropower conference in Kuching (May 2013)
Indigenous groups protest during hydropower conference in Kuching (May 2013)
© SAVE Sarawak's Rivers Network

On the opening day of the conference, around 300 indigenous people gathered to protest the Sarawak dams. Nevertheless, the government showcased Murum and the other proposed Sarawak dams as an example of best practice for the hydropower industry to follow.

To demonstrate community support for the Murum Dam, the Sarawak government brought representatives of the Murum villages to the conference to speak about their experiences. It became clear from their remarks that resettlement negotiations were still underway. One of the invited villagers, Mr. Labang Paneh said, “We know that Murum Dam will bring development, that’s why we accept it because we want development. But we ask that our requests be met.” 

Mr. Labang reiterated the demands of the September blockade and said that the Sarawak government had not yet responded to these requests. 

Government Discloses a New Resettlement Plan

While the hydropower conference was still underway, the Sarawak government publicly released its new resettlement plan for the Murum Dam. The plan is shorter than the November 2011 version leaked to the villagers and sets forth the bare minimum support that is generally expected during an involuntary resettlement. Meanwhile, it's clear that the government has refused to meet almost all of the villagers’ demands.  

The government has promised to provide the communities with new longhouses at the two resettlement sites, as well as access to social services such as healthcare, education, training and identification cards. The government will also provide monthly food and supplies to the communities during the first four to six years of their transition.

Although the resettlement plan contains a number of promises, none are set forth in a legally binding contract. There is no way for the villagers to enforce these promises if the government changes its mind.

Each resettled household will only be provided with 14 hectares of farmland, instead of the requested 25 hectares, which means that land might not be available for future generations. Most of the land is designated for cash-cropping projects, which the villagers may develop “in conjunction with private companies or government agencies, whichever they feel more comfortable.” Experience shows that such cash-cropping schemes often push villagers into deep indebtedness as they are forced to buy supplies at high prices and sell their produce at low prices. Meanwhile, the government has not indicated if the villages will have Native Customary Rights, leaving future ownership of the farmland in doubt.

Villagers' shelter during the Murum blockade (Sept. 2012)
Villagers' shelter during the Murum blockade (Sept. 2012)
© SAVE Sarawak's Rivers Network

The government has also promised to provide the villagers with access to forests, but the forests are located hours away from the resettlement sites. The villagers are not allowed to sell any forest products that they catch or hunt, which could leave some families in a difficult situation if their farms are not as profitable as expected. With six villages clustered together in two resettlement sites, competition for natural resources will also grow, making the forests less reliable as a source of livelihoods. Nor are the villagers provided with ownership rights to the forests. As a result, the government still reserves the option to license the forests to timber or palm oil companies. 

Significant Uncertainty As Resettlement Begins

Last month, the Sarawak government announced that the resettlement has begun, and that flooding of the old villages will soon take place. One village has already been resettled. With no legally binding commitments in place, the resettled communities will soon become completely dependent on the goodwill of the government. After resettlement takes place, the villagers will have little leverage left to negotiate and ultimately will face pressure to accept whatever the government offers. 

There are several indications that the government is not fully committed to supporting the Penan’s long-term path out of poverty. The resettlement plan acknowledges that the villagers’ transition into a “modern cash-based way of life” will take around one generation or 30 years. During this time, the plan emphasizes that “access to forest resources is critical as a fall-back for their everyday survival.” Yet the government has committed to provide only four to six years of support, and it seems unlikely that the forests will be a reliable fall-back.

The government also indicated that it might allow support for the resettled villages to end “when the communities can establish a steady flow of cash income, no matter how small and without cash subsidy.” In other words, the government reserves the right to withdraw its support even if the villagers are still living in poverty.

The Penan communities have demonstrated great resilience in the past and have found ways to survive in Sarawak’s challenging and rapidly changing environment. Whether they will be better or worse off in their new homes, however, is still an open question. It appears that the Sarawak government has not learned from its past mistakes, after all.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013