ABB urged to withdraw from Malaysian dam project

Swedish-Swiss power and technology group criticized for providing key technologies to Sarawak’s controversial dam projects.

Zurich, Switzerland, 18 November 2013 – Swedish-Swiss technology group, ABB, is involved in a controversial dam initiative with vast environmental and social impacts in Sarawak, Malaysia. The human rights situation at the Murum Dam has been criticized for a while, but now the conflict spread further and reached the area of the planned Baram Dam. In both areas, affected communities are manning blockades.

Since 2009, ABB has deepened its involvement in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, where the government is currently realizing a series of at least 12 mega-dams. The planned dam programme would displace tens of thousands of natives and submerge over 1600km2 of rainforest and farmland. ABB’s business partner Sarawak Energy, the Malaysian dam developer, has systematically violated the rights of the affected indigenous people.

The situation is most urgent at the Murum Dam, for which ABB provides the turbine governor. The reservoir of the Murum Dam is currently being impounded and the resettlement is on going. Since mid-September, the affected communities, mostly Penan, have been blocking the dam site. They are determined to stay until Sarawak Energy and the government have agreed to compensate them fairly for the loss of their land, homes and livelihoods. So far, however, Sarawak Energy refused to engage meaningfully in negotiations and tried to dissolve the protests. When the police arrested the protest leader, Ngang Buling, protesting Penan community members were intimated by shots into the air.

In October, indigenous communities unexpectedly also set up two blockades against the planned Baram Dam. The Baram Dam would displace up to 20,000 people and submerge over 400km2 of rainforest and farmland. The native landowners are demanding a stop to all planning and construction works related to the Baram Dam and the immediate withdrawal of all construction equipment from their land in the Baram region.

Whether at Murum or at Baram, people criticize the lack of access to information and the weak consultation with the affected communities from the side of Sarawak Energy. At Murum, the consultation and the environmental impact assessment began after the start of the construction in 2008. The affected communities only heard about the conditions of their resettlement around one year ago thanks to a leaked copy of the resettlement plan – officially, the document was only released last May, around one month before the planned start of the resettlement.

ABB is currently building up a close business relationship with Sarawak Energy. Sarawak Energy is mentioned as a “Major Customer” on the website of ABB Malaysia. ABB Malaysia President and Manager Stephen Pearce poses with Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s long-time Chief Minister, on the company’s Facebook site.

Already in the 1990s, ABB led an international consortium in charge of the construction of the controversial Bakun Dam in Sarawak, but later withdrew from the project. Transparency International named the Bakun Dam, one of the largest dams in Asia, a “Monument of Corruption”.

Other international companies, such as Rio Tinto, Norsk Hydro or Hydro Tasmania, have recently withdrawn from Sarawak after an in-depth analysis of the human rights situation, the economic feasibility and the reputational risks involved.

The Swiss Bruno Manser Fund has asked ABB in a letter to clarify its role and involvement in Sarawak. ABB, however, has chosen to remain silent and did not answer to the raised concerns. The Bruno Manser Fund demands that ABB withdraws from all dam-related activities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) is committed to protect the threatened tropical rainforests and the rights of the indigenous forest peoples. The association’s focus lies on Sarawak, the Malaysian state in Borneo. The Bruno Manser Fund was founded by Swiss rainforest advocate Bruno Manser, who has been missing since his last trip to Sarawak in May 2000.