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Meet the Rainforest-Dwelling Malaysian Farmers Fighting to Keep their Land above Water

The dams would cost $105 billion, flood an area twice the size of LA, and force the relocation of tens of thousands of indigenous people. Against all the odds, the local forest-dwelling people are coming together and organizing in a way that’s unheard of in this part of the world.

Richard Taylor addresses indigenous people

International Hydropower Association president Richard Taylor addresses indigenous protesters. Photo by Save Rivers Network.

Richard Taylor, the president of the International Hydropower Association, left the air-conditioned interior of the Borneo Convention Center on Wednesday to face a crowd of more than 300 indigenous people. The protesters had traveled to Kuching, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, from villages far in the state’s interior that will soon be underwater if a series of proposed hydroelectric dams is built. They had traveled many miles by boat and by bus to protest at the association’s biannual conference, which promotes the construction of dams around the world—including here in Borneo where one of the world’s largest dam projects is in the works.

“We are talking about the end of this race,” Kallang said. “They will lose their culture, way of life, and language.”

Taylor took a microphone and told the crowd that protests were not the right way to get their message out. The hydropower association wanted to help them, he said, and if the villagers didn’t like the dams, then they should talk to the government and to the construction companies and work out an agreement.

The people were not convinced, says Brihannala Morgan of the nonprofit Borneo Project, who described the villagers’ response as follows: “We’ve tried talking to you so many times, and you haven’t listened. This is our last resort.”

The Malaysian state of Sarawak spans much of the northern coast of Borneo—a Southeast Asian island twice the size of Germany that is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Orangutans climb through its trees, seven different species of hornbills scatter its seeds, and rare cloud leopards prowl its forests.

That diversity isn't limited to plants and animals. About 40 indigenous ethnic groups live in Sarawak’s rainforests, according to MinorityVoices.org. Most are subsistence farmers who also grow cash crops to buy commodities like clothing and sugar, says Peter Kallang, a full-time organizer with the Save Rivers Network, which advocates for the indigenous people of Sarawak. Other groups are even more isolated from the modern world, and continue a nomadic life and hunting and gathering.

The dams would flood areas that add up to about twice the size of Los Angeles.

But over the past several decades, aggressive logging and development has disrupted what remains of the indigenous way of life here. Kallang says that only 5 percent of the Sarawak’s original forests remain undisturbed. The rest has either been thinned out, or clear-cut and converted into palm oil plantations or industrial tree farms harvested regularly for the production of paper. Indigenous peoples have fewer and fewer acres of land on which to live in their traditional way.

On top of that deforestation, the government of Sarawak now plans a series of “megadams” that are part of what it calls the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, or SCORE. The project would involve building between nine and 12 hydroelectric dams, which would generate about 20,000 megawatts of power, according to the Yale Environment Review. The dams would flood areas that add up to about 2,300 square kilometers, according to a study of Sarawak Energy’s own numbers conducted by the Swiss nonprofit the Bruno Manser Fund—an area about twice the size of Los Angeles. While it’s difficult to quantify the exact number of people that will be displaced, the same study concludes that 235 settlements will be affected.

Save Rivers Protesters

Spirits were high among indigenous protesters who traveled to Kuching to voice their opposition to the SCORE dams. Photo by Save Rivers Network.

“They're going to build these dams, flood this area, and force the natives out of the little land they have left,” Kallang told YES! by Skype. “We are talking about the end of this race. They will lose their culture, way of life, and language.”

Importantly, no customers currently exist for that electricity, Morgan adds. Instead, the plan is to build the dams first and then hope to attract industries, such as aluminum smelters, to the area later through promises of cheap power.

But the story may not have to end that way. In the past, the government has been able to win the agreement of indigenous people through promises and cash and new homes. That’s what happened in 1998, when about 10,000 people were resettled to make room for the Bakun Dam—currently the largest dam in Asia outside of China—which left their villages underwater. After resettlement, many reported that they had received less land than they were promised, according to the hydropower watchdog group International Rivers. And in many cases their new lands were not appropriate for farming.

Kallang says he expects similar treatment for people resettled for the new dams. “Probably they'll be put in the center of palm oil plantations that belong to big companies in Malaysia,” he says. “The government expects these people to work in these plantations.”

That fear has led Sarawak’s indigenous people to organize themselves in a new way. Formed in October 2011, the Save Rivers Network is a coalition that includes hundreds of local villages—including ones from far-flung areas of the country’s interior—as well as local nonprofit organizations.

It’s “unprecedented” for the indigenous people of Sarawak to work together on a political project of this kind, according to Brihannala Morgan.

Organizing in a Corrupt State

Every organizer contacted for this story mentioned the unique challenges posed by the regime of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has ruled Sarawak since 1981. Environmental organizations have long considered his government to be corrupt, especially when it comes to the treatment of forests and land.

Herbertson adds that this work is not just about the dams, but about expanding the rights of Sarawak’s indigenous people more generally.

In 2011, a coalition of groups and individuals including Greenpeace and the Rainforest Information Centre, signed a letter to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission calling for the arrest of Chief Minister Taib, eight of his siblings, and four of his children. The letter accuses Taib of “systematically and unduly favoring a number of family-linked companies by awarding them highly profitable untendered public contracts” and “hundreds of thousands of hectares of timber or plantation concessions.”

And it’s not just tree huggers who have a problem with Taib’s approach to the management of land in Sarawak. Wikileaks files reveal that representatives from the U.S. embassy in Malaysia wrote in 2006 that “Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts—including those for logging—awarded in the state.”

In March of 2013, the nonprofit group Global Witness posted a video on YouTube called “Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State,” in which researchers went undercover and posed as investors wishing to purchase land in Sarawak. With a hidden video camera, they captured representatives of Taib’s government appearing to suggest that the undercover researchers engage in bribery and tax evasion. The regime responded by saying that the comments were taken out of context.

Reaching Out to the Capital and Beyond

The revelations contained in the video came as no surprise to Peter Kallang, who has little faith in the local regime. So he turned to Malaysia’s federal government instead. While those efforts have resulted in no new policies or improved federal oversight, the campaign did manage to bind Sarawak’s indigenous people into a network capable of acting quickly to organize events like the one that took place on Wednesday.

In 2010, Kallang hand-delivered a memorandum about indigenous concerns about the SCORE dams to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, but says he received no response. In October of 2012, representatives of Save Rivers Network again traveled to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, to deliver a memorandum. Kallang says that members of the opposition party listened to his group’s concerns, while members of the ruling party ignored their invitations.

More recently, Kallang and other organizers with the network traveled by boat to the remote region where the Baram Dam is slated to be built. The Baram Dam is the second in the SCORE project and would require the resettlement of between 6,000 and 8,000 people, according to Sarawak Energy, the state-owned company that heads up the construction of dam projects in the state. The organizers visited every village that the dam would affect, informing the residents about the plan and collecting signatures from those who opposed the project. After adding those signatures to others he’d been gathering since 2010, Kallang says, he had 10,000 signatures from indigenous people opposed to the SCORE dams. He sent them to the federal government and again received no reply.

Kirk Herbertson, a lawyer who works with International Rivers, says that the funders of the project—which is expected to cost $105 billion by 2030—have been equally unresponsive to international criticism. Sarawak Energy has operated without transparency, Herbertson says, and has not made its environmental impact statements public before construction has begun. He says that criticism over the lack of transparency might be more of an obstacle if SCORE was being funded by multinational banks such as the World Bank or even Citigroup. “But there’s no real accountability for the investors that are investing in this,” Herbertson says, such as the Export-Import Bank of China.

Despite all of these challenges, Kallang says he remains hopeful. International firms who assist with the funding, design, and construction of the SCORE dams do not want to face accusations of involvement in violations of human rights, and Kallang has been more successful at working that angle. When an Australian company called Hydro Tasmania provided design assistance for the Baram Dam, members of the Save Rivers Network traveled to Canberra to speak to members of Parliament about it. Shortly after that trip, the company downsized its operations in Sarawak from 12 staff members to only four, Kallang says.

Herbertson adds that this work is not just about the dams, but about expanding the rights of Sarawak’s indigenous people more generally. He says the Save Rivers Network is important because “it’s helping to raise the profile, both locally and internationally, about what these people are facing.”

That sounds a lot like what the organizers of Idle No More have been saying since the North American movement for indigenous rights got started in November of 2012. Both movements begin with indignation about energy extraction projects that threaten to deprive indigenous people of their land and livelihood, but end with a vision of a more sustainable future in which native people are more connected to one another, more aware of their shared interests, and better equipped to stand up for themselves in the courts, in the media, and in the streets.


James Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is web editor at YES!.

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