Malaysia: Borneo Indigenous Blockade Mega Dam as Penan Struggle With Relocation

Indigenous activists in Malaysia have erected two strategic road blockades to prevent the construction of the 1,200 megawatt Baram Dam, the fourth planned as part of the Sarawak government’s plan to build 12 mega-dams, Borneo Project is reporting.

The Baram Dam would displace up to 20,000 people and submerge a rainforest area of over 400 kilometers. Construction of the access road is ongoing, and workers have already started preparing the dam site.

The indigenous communities of Kayan, Kenyah and Penan have installed camps near the blockades and intend to stay as long as necessary to protect their rights and their ancestral lands reports the Borneo Project, an organization that has worked with indigenous communities to protect the rainforest and support fights for land rights for over 20 years.

These latest blockades were intended to put pressure on the Malaysian government ahead of a key October 24 United Nations meeting in Geneva, where the Human Rights Council discussed Malaysia’s human rights records.

The Malaysia Chronicle reported that following Malaysia’s review by UN-member states at the meeting, Amnesty International said Malaysia’s recent pledge to “keep pace” its “development of civil and political rights in the country” with “progress made on economic, social and cultural rights” appears like an empty promise.

The Baram blockades come after recent news that 300 Penan began protesting September 17 against their forced resettlement from the construction of the Murum dam, another project by Sarawak Energy.

The hunter-gatherer Penan live in the rainforests of the interior of Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. Traditionally nomadic, most of the 10-12,000 Penan now live in settled communities, but continue to rely on the forest for their existence. Some still live largely nomadically.

The displaced Penan families were forced from their longhouses at Murum only to find any replacement housing unacceptable, with as many as three families crowding into one single-family sized apartment, according to statements by Borneo Project and the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an organization that works to protect tropical rainforests and the rights of the indigenous forest peoples. BMF’s founder Bruno Manser lived with the nomadic Penan for several years before he disappeared in 2000 in Sarawak’s rainforest.

Last year in October 2012 the international human rights organization Survival International reported the Penan had blockaded the controversial Muram Dam for 36 days, until they were told the government would only consider their demands if they stopped protesting.

Then, in a move that shocked observers Survival said, the impoundment (flooding) of the dam was started without informing the Penan, whose homes and ancestral forests were submerged.

Later that same month Survival reported leaked plans had surfaced to resettle the Penan. The leaked ‘Resettlement Action Plan’ obtained by Sarawak Report revealed how the government was using the negative effects of rampant logging of the Penan’s forests to justify the tribe’s resettlement.

It stated, “as the surrounding environment has been degraded due to logging and plantation development … the Penan now need to spend more time planting crops for both subsistence and sale.” It advocated moving the Penan to “sufficient arable land…to provide for transition into cash crop agriculture,” despite evidence showing that the Penan rely on the forest for 75 percent of their sustenance.

One Penan told Survival, “We are being cheated by the government, a lot of what we were hoping for and what the government said to us, they have never given to us, this makes us angry.“

The Borneo Post recently reported October 18 that 133 Penan families in Lusong Laku, Belaga will be the beneficiaries of a pilot project initiated by Sarawak Malaysia Advisory Council, “which in the long run, will change public perception on this normally nomadic tribe.“

The council chairman, Datuk Joseph Salang, told the newspaper the project would involve encouraging the Penans to plant wet padi, fruits and possibly commercial crops such as rubber and pepper just like other ethnic groups in the state.

“We are going to make it an example that the Penans are not seen to be nomadic anymore,“ Salang was quoted. “The project is expected to commence as soon as possible.” With this project, Salang told the Post he hoped the Penans would be planting wet padi, as well as other commercial crops, so that they could earn some income and eventually give up their nomadic lifestyle.