Malaysia: International NGOs take up plight of the Penans

Some 30 human rights and environmental non-governmental organisations have sent letters to 15 Malaysian missions worldwide calling for “good faith negotiations” with more than 100 Penan families who are displaced by the Murum hydroelectric dam project in Sarawak.

The organisations which represent national, regional and international civil society groups are also demanding that the Sarawak state government re-negotiate the compensation package which was offered to the Penan families.

The letters were delivered to Malaysian embassies in Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, The Philippines, Switzerland, Thailand, The United States, and Malaysian High Commissions in Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Editor of Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle-Brown, is delivering the letter to the Malaysian High Commissioner in London while Jenny Weber of Huon Valley Environment Centre in Tasmania, is helping to coordinate the delivery of the letter in Australia.

Since September 20, the 100 Penan families have set up a blockade on the access road to the dam site to protest the resettlement plan worked out by the state-owned power company, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB).

On November 11, NGO International Rivers sent a letter to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to “express urgent international concern about the forcible displacement of the Penans from the planned reservoir area of the Murum Dam”.

The letter urged responsible authorities, as well as SEB, to immediately negotiate with the Penans.

“Until now, neither we, nor the Penans have received a response to any of our demands,” said Tania Lee from International Rivers.

Peter Kallang of the local NGO, Save Rivers, said there are “many deceptive claims” made by SEB on the Murum Dam that had forced the Penans into accepting its construction.

“Even the environmental impact assessment was only completed when the dam was already about 80% completed, which means no baseline evaluation was done before construction started.

“The resettlement action plan, too, was completed at such an advanced stage of the dam construction that the affected people missed any opportunity to reject the project.

“The construction of the Murum Dam quite simply does not comply with the requirement for Free, Prior and Informed Consent as stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,” Kallang said.

Rewcastle-Brown said Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib and SEB had hoped that by shrouding their actions in secrecy, international scrutiny could be evaded and the Penans would simply comply by vacating their land.

“It is unacceptable that as reservoir impoundment begins, communities are still left in the dark, while the impact assessments and full resettlement plans remain undisclosed,” she added.

In the Sarawak state legislative assembly today, Second Resource Planning and Environment Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan said the communities affected by the dam were resettled at Tegulang and Metalun “after extensive engagement” with them.

“In fact, these consultations began in the early years of the project during the preliminary design,” he said when replying to points raised by the DAP assemblymen for Pujut and Kidurong in their debates last week.

“This is clearly shown by the fact that the dam design and location were altered based on the advice of the affected communities where the Penans’ sacred rock, Batu Tungun, is situated.”

He said despite “the unreasonable and illogical demands put forward by a very small group of the affected communities, their resettlement programme had been planned and implemented peoperly”.

“The affected communities were consulted on the site of the resettlement, design of the longhouse and the amenities to be provided.

“Therefore, it is unbecoming to allege that the affected communities were never consulted,” Awang Tengah said.

He also told the assembly that the people were provided with “much better living facilities than what they had before”.

“In fact, apart from better housing complete with water and electricity, the government also provided various other compensation benefits, facilities and livelihood restoration programme to assist them towards becoming self-sufficient,” Awang Tengah added.

He said to provide them with the facilities and schemes, the state government spent an average of RM1.2 million per household.