Malaysia’s Indigenous People Intensify Anti-Dam Battle

The strongest wave of indigenous protests since the 1990s is underway in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. On International Human Rights Day, December 10, hundreds of people across the state demonstrated against a series of 12 mega-dams planned by the government company Sarawak Energy.

Bakun dam on the Balui River, the world’s second largest dam, is complete and began operating in 2011, while the second in the series, Murum dam, is nearing completion.

If all the dams are built, says Peter Kallang, chairman of the indigenous anti-dam network SAVE Rivers, they will flood 26 indigenous villages, displacing an estimated 20,000 people, most of whom are subsistence farmers.

In a new documentary film released December 18 by the Swiss-based nonprofit Bruno Manser Fund, Kallang is shown intervening in this year’s meeting of the International Hydropower Association, an industry group, in May in Kuching, Sarawak.

Kallang emphatically informed the hydropower executives and government officials there, “The majority of the people affected by the mega-dams do not agree with the dams!”

The dam-affected people, who were kept out of the IHA meeting at the Borneo Convention Center, held a protest in front of conference building. Even Kallang, who had been expected to take part in a panel at the conference, was not allowed to participate.

Kallang says violation of natives’ human rights has escalated to an “alarming state.”

“Encroachment into the Native Customary Rights Land and paying total disregard for the rights of the indigenous people is common for mega projects that the Sarawak government is carrying out in the state,” said Kallang on International Human Rights Day. “We have been fighting to protect our lands against plantation, logging and now dams.”

Even though native landowners have won many land cases, the Sarawak government has continuously ignored Malaysian court rulings that have upheld the rights of indigenous peoples.

In the documentary, filmmaker Linus Chung followed the activities of SAVE Rivers. The film shows the strength of the growing opposition to the dams in Sarawak.


SAVE Rivers’ leader Peter Kallang intervenes at the International Hydropower Assn. meeting, May 2013 (Framegrab from documentary film by Linus Chung)

The protest in front of the International Hydropower Association meeting was one of an escalating series of demonstrations that gathered force on International Human Rights Day, December 10.

The rallies were held in rural areas such as the dam-threatened Baram area as well as in the major towns of Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Bintulu. Even the neighboring state of Sabah witnessed a protest in its capital Kota Kinabalu.

Mark Bujang, a spokesperson for the demonstrators, said, “Throughout the years, the customary lands of the indigenous peoples have been unjustly grabbed and their resources thereon destroyed deceptively in the name of development and poverty eradication through destructive projects and activities such as loggings, oil palm and tree plantations, mega-dams, quarrying and the establishment of large polluting industries.”

The indigenous people are demanding a complete turn in the government’s land policy. They say their ancestral lands should by now have been acknowledged by the government and should include not only land cleared for cultivation but also communal forest areas, which form an integral part of the indigenous communities’ livelihoods as these forests have done for centuries.

Furthermore, the indigenous peoples demand that their right to free, prior and informed consent must be respected in all projects and licenses issued by the state.

They are demanding that all licenses for logging, plantations and mega-projects such as dams, which have not been given consent to by the affected communities, should immediately be revoked.

Much of the profit from the dam construction is going into the pockets of Abdul Taib Mahmud and his family. Taib has been chief minister of Sarawak for 33 years and is now also the state’s financial minister and its resource planning and environment minister.

The Bruno Manser Fund is “dismayed” that Sarawak Energy under its Norwegian CEO, Torstein Sjøtveit, engages in “the corrupt practice” of favoring the family of Chief Minister Taib and his family.

“By granting contracts worth a grand total of over US$400 million to the chief minister’s son, Mr. Sjøtveit’s conduct has passed all levels of decency,” Bruno Manser Fund Director Lukas Straumann said in October. The foundation takes its name from Swiss national Bruno Manser an environmental activist who worked for rainforest preservation and the protection of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples. He disappeared mysteriously in 2000 in Sarawak and is presumed dead.

At the 2013 International Hydropower Assn. opening dinner, from left: IHA President Refaat Abdel-Malek, Chief Minister of Sarawak Abdul Taib bin Mahmud and his wife, Syrian-born Ragad Waleed Alkurdi (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

On October 30, Sarawak Cable, a company closely linked to the Taib family, was granted two new contracts to develop power transmission lines in Sarawak worth RM618.6 million (US$ 196 million). Sarawak Cable is chaired by Taib’s elder son, Mahmud Abu Bekir.

Between 2010 and early 2013, Sarawak Energy had granted over US$220 million in contracts to Taib family-linked enterprises.

On International Human Rights Day, the Peoples Movement of Sarawak, known as Gerakan Rakyat Sarawak – Sabah, or GRASS, issued a statement explaining the purpose of the new wave of demonstrations.

“The aim of these rallies is to demonstrate and to send a clear warning to the authorities in the two States that the Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak and Sabah are not happy and will no longer just stand by or tolerate but will fight with all our might the blatant violations of their native customary rights (NCR) to their customary lands, territories and resources by the State Governments and their cronies, the big companies,” stated GRASS spokesman Mark Bujang.

The GRASS statement demands that the government, “Stop or freeze and revoke the issuances of logging licences, LPFs and PLs to private sector companies over our lands, territories and resources, and for the companies to immediately halt all operations on our NCR [native customary rights] lands until a resolution and agreement can be found by all parties.”

GRASS demands that the government, “Stop and scrap all planned or existing projects and mega-development programmes especially the planned mega-hydropower dams including dirty industries i.e. aluminium smelter, throughout the State which will damage and destroy our environment and bring environmental catastrophe to the natives in the interior.”

Finally, GRASS urges the security agencies and the police “to act in a professional and just manner.”

Kallang of SAVE Rivers said, “The people in Baram do not want to leave their ancestral land and do not want the mega dam. But the community leaders and the authority totally disregard them. Instead they make public statements and hold Press Conference saying the people of Baram support the dam. They lie until they believe their own lies.”