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Why the Fight for the Gulf is Also in Borneo

A proposed coal plant in Malaysia is provoking an international outcry.
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Borneo community, photo by Helen Brunt

In Borneo, south of the power plant's proposed site, coastal communities depend on good fishing waters for their livelihood.

Photo by Helen Brunt.

I’ve had a hard time wrenching my eyes away from the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon began spewing poison just over 100 days ago. Google Maps tells me that Grand Isle, Louisiana is 2,316 miles away from my office here in Oakland, CA and yet it feels like that oil is washing right up on my doorstep.

What makes the devastation in the Gulf feel so personal?

For me, it’s the stories of families that have lost everything, shrimpers and fisherman whose livelihoods may never recover. It’s the photos of oil-drenched pelicans, the same birds I remember seeing down in Florida as a kid. It’s watching our political system unable to muster the proper response to the crisis: a full out clean energy mobilization that could finally break our addiction to fossil fuels.

I’ve wanted to know what makes the Gulf disaster tear up our hearts because there are other environmental fights out there that need to feel just as personal.

For the last two months, I’ve been emailing and Skype-ing with Cynthia Ong, one of the leaders of Green SURF, a coalition of organizations in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Cynthia and her allies are working to stop a coal fired power plant that could have a devastating effect on the environment and community of the island.

The people of Borneo need the support of the international community to stop the plant. With most of the paperwork already approved and construction ready to begin this August, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, is one of the few people left with enough power to still pull the plug.

If Najib feels enough international pressure, there’s a good chance he will scrap the plant. But without a global response, the project will undoubtedly move forward.

This coal plant needs to start feeling just as close as Grand Isle and the Gulf coast.

Borneo is over 8,000 miles away from Oakland, yet this coal plant needs to start feeling just as close as Grand Isle and the Gulf coast.

Because if we can’t stop a coal plant in a famous place like Borneo, how will we ever stop the hundreds more being planned for less iconic places across the planet? And how will we begin to take on the even more difficult problem of the climate crisis—which is already hammering vulnerable communities but still feels distant and invisible for many of us?

The Internet has provided us with a powerful tool in this struggle. Not so long ago, we’d be reaching for an encyclopedia to look up where exactly Borneo is. Now it’s just a click away.

Images of the pristine beaches that will be ravaged by the coal plant or video of the coastal communities that may be forced off their land can be beamed directly to our laptops. Studies about how Borneo could generate its electricity needs from clean and renewable sources are freely available.

Perhaps most importantly, though, politicians like Prime Minister Najib can hear our voices—even if they’re 8,000 miles away. Green SURF is encouraging people to write on Najib’s Facebook page or send him an online postcard expressing opposition to the plant.

The global response to the coal plant generated by Cynthia and many others (she’ll be the first to credit the incredible work of many activists and community groups on the ground) is already beginning to have an effect.

Diane Wilson, photo courtesy of GreenpeaceTime to Get Unreasonable
Shrimper Diane Wilson might be going to jail for her high-profile protests against BP.

Earlier this month, The Star, a leading English-language paper in Malaysia, ran a story about the global pressure building on Najib. Just last week, Roz Savage, international activist and distance rower, was in Borneo to shine a spotlight on the issue with some creative actions that got the attention of the press. And throughout the summer, Green SURF and their allies have worked to submit hundreds upon hundreds of public comments criticizing the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) of the coal plant, a key hurdle it must clear in order to be built.

 They seem to have been heard: On July 29, Free Malaysia Today reported that the DEIA was “laced with fraud, incompetence or plain negligence.”

Now, it’s crucial to continue to build opposition to the plant. At this point, spreading the story, photos, and videos of what’s happening in Borneo is the most important step that citizens around the world can take. Petitions, like the one up now at Change.org, are also circulating. Joining the SOS Borneo Facebook group can help you stay up to date with the latest developments.

Personally, I look forward to the day when we can look up and see solutions instead of disasters, whether they’re just around the corner or halfway around the world (showing those solutions is one of the goals of 350.org’s 10/10/10 Global Work Party this October).

For now, though, it’s important to look directly at the challenges we face, take a deep breath, and try once again to make a difference. 


Jamie HennJamie Henn wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamie is a co-coordinator of 350.org. In 2007, he co-organized Step It Up, a campaign that pulled together over 2,000 climate rallies across the United States to push for strong climate action at the federal level.

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