In Malaysia, street protests are rare. Indigenous-led street protests are even more rare. That’s why the sight last week of more than 300 Indigenous people wearing matching blue shirts reading “No More Dams” and holding signs demanding “Respect Free Prior and Informed Consent” and “Stop Baram Dam” outside of a major conference was so historic.
On May 22, people from nine different tribes from across the island of Borneo came to Kuching, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, to demand that the Sarawak government abandon plans to build 12 dams in some of the most remote regions of Borneo’s rainforest. The protesters were also demanding that dam-building proponents listen to the voice of affected communities. Their target was the biennial meeting of the International Hydropower Association, the group that represents the most biggest dam builders in the world.
The slogan of this year’s dam convention was “advancing sustainable hydropower.” But communities in Sarawak fear that the proposed dams would be an unmitigated disaster. If all 12 dams were constructed, they would flood more than 2,000 square kilometers of rainforest and displace tens of thousands of people, according to an analysis by International Rivers. Indigenous communities worry about a repeat of the Bakun dam experience. Completed in 2011, the Bakun displaced more than 10,000 people. Communities are deeply unhappy with the terms of the resettlement; many were promised land and cash compensation which they have not yet received. Of those that did receive land, some families only received three hectares of land – far too little to provide for the needs of a family.
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The SAVE-Rivers network was the driving force behind the protests at the International Hydropower Association meeting. Through the work of the SAVE-Rivers network, communities from across Borneo have learned about the impact that the Bakun dam has had, both on the communities who were resettled and the communities who now live on the banks of Bakun Lake. By sharing the lessons learned in Bakun, they have organized dam resistance across Sarawak.
While the state-run utility and host of the meeting, Sarawak Energy, boasted to conference attendees about the dams they intend to build, SAVE-Rivers aimed to ensure that the conference delegates understood that many people affected by the dams are firmly against them. But given that conference registration cost US $1,750, the IHA all-but-guarantee that the community point of view wouldn’t be represented.
Indeed, repression of Indigenous voices started even before the conference began. The IHA refused Peter Kallang, the chairman of SAVE-Rivers, access to pre-meetings and pulled him off the bus to the meeting location. After receiving pressure from international NGOs, the IHA later agreed to allow Kallang to attend the conference. During the opening panel, Kallang – who had not been given an opportunity to speak during any other programs or panels – stood up and presented his demands to the IHA congress. He demanded first that Sarawak Energy and the Sarawak government stop all work on mega dams in Sarawak; second, that all customary rights be respected in observance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; third, that the government resolve all outstanding problems from pre-existing dams; and, four, that the International Hydropower Association suspend Sarawak Energy’s membership in the IHA.
Kallang’s declaration and the outside protest were not the only way SAVE-Rivers shared its message. The network also held an alternative conference that brought together community members opposed to the dam construction. They stated in their conference declaration: “The 12 dams planned by the State Government of Sarawak and Sarawak Energy will spell an end to our culture, our livelihoods, and our future. Our homes, our ancestral lands, our forests, and our natural environment are gifts that our fathers and grandfathers have acquired and passed down to us, and they are the inheritance that we leave to our children.”
Attendees at the alternate conference were especially concerned about how political corruption influences all development in Sarawak. The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in power in Sarawak for 32 years. Through family owned businesses Taib’s extended family stands to make a fortune from dam expansion in Sarawak. In 2010 the good government watchdog group Transparency International called the Bakun dam a monument of corruption.
The Sarawak government has also failed to be forthcoming with environment and social impact assessments. Sarawak Energy has not made the environmental impact assessments public for any of the dams, despite persistent calls from affected communities. For example, construction on the 944 MW Murum Dam began last year before its environmental impact assessment had even commenced, leaving affected communities with few options to negotiate resettlement outcomes.
The protests against the IHA were only one step in what promises to be a long-term, grassroots-led campaign against dam expansion in Sarawak.