Sarawak Energy Floods Villages After Penan Renew Blockade of Murum Dam

Zachary Hurwitz

September has been an alarming month for dam-affected communities in Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. During the week of September 9th, 100 Penan indigenous people decided to renew a blockade of the gigantic Murum Dam. The dam, developed by state-owned company Sarawak Energy, supervised by China Three Gorges Corporation, and constructed by Sinohydro, was going to impound the Murum River, physically displacing the Penan from their traditional lands. Sarawak Energy had repeatedly promised the Penan that negotiations would be held over the terms of their resettlement and compensation paid. Yet the compensation had not come, the Penan lands were about to be flooded, and these Penan had had enough.

Penan villages have already been divided by Sarawak Energy's promises. In September 2012, Penan from the Long Wat village led a blockade that stopped the construction of the Murum Dam for one month. In October 2012, Sarawak Energy offered to compensate the Long Wat Penan with 10,000 Malaysian Ringgit— about 3000 US dollars— to each Penan family. The Long Wat Penan lacked the resources to continue their blockade, and were forced to withdraw. In 2013, the promised compensation had yet to materialize, until the Long Wat Penan begrudgingly accepted an additional RM10,000 per family and began to move to a resettlement site.

Western Penan blockading the access roads to Murum Dam on the night when the protest began.
Western Penan blockading the access roads to Murum Dam on the night when the protest began.

In contrast, leaders from Western Penan villages said they had never even been invited to the negotiating table. As a result, a year after the first blockade, these 100 Western Penan took to the access roads to Murum Dam, and stayed there in protest. According to local sources, the Western Penan are not willing to accept the RM10,000 per family that were offered to Long Wat. They want the government to meet their demands, insisting that each family receive not 14 but 25 hectares of land, a 10 per cent share in the profits from the Murum Dam, and full compensation for their lost land among other cultural resources. In the video above, a Western Penan leader underlines that the current resettlement site is swampy, full of stone, and unsuitable for farming.

Rather than entering new negotiations with the Western Penan, on September 23rd, Sarawak Energy abruptly decided to impound the Murum River. The company did not give prior notice to the six affected Penan villages of Long Wat, Long Luar, Long Tangau, Long Menapa, Long Singu and Long Malim. According to community sources contacted by Sarawak's SAVE Rivers network, the outlet river diversion tunnel was closed, and the surrounding forests and lands of 1500 Penan and 80 Kenyah indigenous people started to inundate. All in all, the Murum Dam is projected to flood 24,500 hectares.

Just before impoundment began, the longhouses of Long Wat— the village that Sarawak Energy promised to compensate last year— were burned to the ground by Sarawak Energy workers. According to the SAVE Rivers network, no prior notice was given to the people of Long Wat who remained, and the act has been considered an arson. Villagers were left to watch their home in flames before the impounded waters of the Murum River washed it away.

Desperate but hopeful, the 100 Western Penan continue to blockade the site of the Murum Dam, as its reservoir continues to fill. In the photo below, a sign reads, "Open your eyes wide for us. We demand our rights because we are not satisfied with the decisions that have been taken. Pay attention to our precise demands!"

One hundred Western Penan blockaded the Murum Dam after promises of negotiation never materialized.
One hundred Western Penan blockaded the Murum Dam after promises of negotiation never materialized.


More information: 
  • Join in solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak blockading the roads! Call on Sarawak Energy and the Malaysian Government to meet their demands by signing the petition here.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013