A massive tract of Borneo jungle, an area the size of Singapore, will soon disappear under the waters of the Bakun dam, a multi-billion-dollar project nearing completion after years of controversy.
The dam, which forced thousands of indigenous people off their ancestral lands, has struggled through setbacks and delays since its approval in 1993, as well as fierce criticism over its environmental impact.
But even before the turbines of the US$2.2 billion hydro-electric facility begin to turn, activists have sounded the alarm over plans for 12 more mega-dams on Malaysia’s half of Borneo which it shares with Indonesia.
Balan Balang, an elderly chief of the Penan tribe, sighs as he talks of the Murum dam, the first of the dozen dams envisioned for Sarawak state, which will drown the hunting grounds and burial sites of his people.
“This government is very bad. In the old days people would fight us using machetes or spears. But now they just sign away our lives on pieces of paper,” said the headman, who sports the elongated earlobes distinctive to his tribe.
“My people never want to leave our place. We want to die in our place,” he said, after a long journey from his rainforest home to seek help from indigenous lawyers in the town of Miri.
Human rights activists are intent on avoiding a repeat of the botched relocation of some 15,000 indigenous people in the Bakun area who they say have made an unhappy transition to life in resettlement areas.
Balan Balang’s village is outside the Murum resettlement area, but some 1,500 people — mostly Penan but including another of Sarawak’s tribes, the Kenyah — will be forced to abandon their homes for an uncertain future.
The chief, who is not sure of his birth date but reckons he is “between 70 and 80 years old,” has seen much hardship during his long life.
As a young boy he watched fearfully as Japanese warplanes flew overhead during the World War II occupation, while rampant logging later degraded the jungles where his people forage for food, wild game, and materials for shelter.
“Now the rivers are all polluted. The wildlife has slowly disappeared — wild boar, deer, gibbons. Even the broad-leafed plants that we use for roofing, and rattan which we use to make mats and baskets, is gone,” he said.
But what brought him to Miri are new threats to his way of life, the dam project as well as plantation firms who want to clear what is left of the jungle and grow palm oil and foreign timber species.
“Our people oppose our area being included for the dam because that’s where we come from, our ancestors lived and died and were buried there. For us we have no other place, that is our only place,” he said.
The Penan of Sarawak, famed for their ability to live off the jungle armed only with blowpipes and machetes, number around 10,000 including 300 to 400 thought to be among the last nomadic hunter-gatherers on earth.
Balan Balang is just one of many tribal leaders who have sought the help of Harrison Ngau, a former member of parliament who belongs to a network of indigenous lawyers fighting for tribal rights in Sarawak.
“All these dams, why do we need so many dams here? It’s just an ATM card for the political leaders to make money,” said Ngau, who has been jailed in the past for his stand against mega-dams and logging of Penan territory.
“There will be further loss of their heritage, their land, whatever forest they have left,” he says from his humble offices.
Ngau said a notice extinguishing the rights of the Murum people over the affected land has already been issued, and construction has begun, but so far there is no formal relocation proposal or offer of compensation.
He and his colleagues are now campaigning to halt the next of the dozen projects, the Baram Dam, but he says it is difficult to prove ancestral ownership as the oral history of his people is not admissible in court.
“It is quite sick to know that your own fellow man, your fellow Malaysian, doesn’t understand the customs and cultures and history of our people,” he said. “That is the tragedy here.”
“Even the British colonial rulers were very respectful of communal rights, they even encouraged the native communities to record their traditional boundaries. They did much better than our present Malaysian leaders,” he said.
Ngau said that the Penan, forced to shift from the Bakun area more than a decade ago, are still struggling to survive with insufficient farming land, schools, clinics, water supply and transport.
“You haven’t solved that problem — you want to start a new problem?” he asked.
Transparency International has labeled Bakun a “monument of corruption” and highlighted debate over whether there will be enough customers in 2011 when it becomes fully operational with a 2,400MW capacity.
All the valuable timber has already been removed from its catchment area, and the dam will begin filling up next month, taking eight months to submerge all 70,000 hectares.
Details of the 12 mega-dams envisaged by state body Sarawak Energy Berhad are scant — a map of proposed locations of dams purportedly to be built by 2020 was published on the Internet and seized on by campaigners.
Sarawak’s Rural Development Minister James Masing said that all 12 dams may not make it off the drawing board.
“That is a masterplan that we have the potential to build, they may not be built for 50 years,” he said earlier this year.
Masing, who is helping formulate the Murum relocation, said it is likely to happen in three to four years’ time but that first there should be a careful study of the people involved.
“There are some areas we have to refine. The settlement project must be done properly. What was done in Bakun may not be one of the best, we may have been ignorant of some of the issues,” he said earlier this year.
“We want to change them for the better,” said Masing, an anthropologist by training.
“They have good reason not to trust us, but we are not there to destroy them, we are trying our best to assist them,” he said.
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