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Tambatuonites, learn it from us the victims of Baram Dam

By Keruah Usit

The beautiful Baram region in northeastern Sarawak is one of the poorest regions in the country.

Now, thanks to the Baram Dam, one of 12 gigantic hydro-electric dams spread across the state, 20,000 inhabitants face the prospect of being resettled, without participating in the decision that will change their life and that of their descendants.

The state and federal governments have approved these 12 dams, ostensibly to produce power to feed potential industries in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. The cost is estimated at RM36 billion but budget over-runs, such as those that have afflicted the recently commissioned Bakun dam, are a safe bet.

The government has announced that the dams will generate power 600 percent above the state's current requirements. Critics argue these dams are merely an enormous money-spinning exercise - a dam scam - benefiting well-connected construction companies.

Lucrative contracts have already gone to CMS and Naim Cendera Sdn Bhd, run by family members of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, including his son Mahmud Bekir in CMS and Taib's cousin Hamed Sepawi in Naim.

“The Sarawak government made it clear from the start that it is welcoming the world's worst polluting industrialists, when the plan to build the 12 dams ... was revealed,” said See Chee How, PKR assemblyperson for Batu Lintang, and a prominent land rights lawyer.

“Two aluminium smelters and a ferro-alloy smelter already have one foot in the state, with CMS purchasing stakes in those companies. Hence the people who will derive the giant share of benefits are transnational industrialists who could not gain a foothold in other continents, and the BN elites working in cohort with these polluting industrialists.”

Building dams in Sarawak, he argued forcefully, has become an excuse to remove and resettle indigenous communities, while the government takes over vast tracts of native customary rights (NCR) land for logging, plantation and other economic activities which benefit only a handful.

Local activists estimate that 90 percent of the land due to be flooded for the Baram dam are claimed as NCR land. The state government, and its logging and oil palm or forest plantation partners, have lost numerous high-profile NCR court cases to indigenous communities in recent years. Resettlement of the claimants would certainly remove a tricky legal obstacle to loggers hungry for more timber.

The state government claims that natives must sacrifice for the greater good of 'development'. See said acerbically that, in Baram, “the indigenous inhabitants have been promised time and again that they will enjoy progress and development”. Yet, they remain among the most deprived people in Malaysia, lacking basic infrastructure, including a paved road to the coastal city of Miri.

See recalled that, during a campaign visit to Baram in the run-up to April's state election, premier Najib Abdul Razak had promised the construction of a Lapok Road linking the isolated local communities to Miri.

But the road seems to have been forgotten, according to See: “The villagers are themselves being forced to give way for 'progress and development' which is not for them.”

A 'dark secret'

The proposed Baram dam will inundate an area half the size of Singapore. Opponents, such as chairperson of the Orang Ulu National Association, say the proposed resettlement will destroy the natives' way of life.

Kenyah, Kayan, Penan and other ethnic groups contribute to the rich cultural and linguistic heritage of Baram.

“The dam construction, although it will affect a lot of people, at the moment is one dark secret kept away from those living in Baram,” he said.

Representatives of seven indigenous peoples' organisations warned in a joint press statement that the Malaysian government is failing to honour international obligations it has signed up to, under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for 'free, prior and informed consent' before any development of natives' traditional homes and land.

The seven native NGOs poured scorn on recent informal briefing sessions by the state government for “a few selected community leaders and individuals” from the communities affected by the Murum dam (left) in central Sarawak, already under construction, and the planned Baram dam.

They point out the briefings cannot constitute, by any stretch of the imagination, 'free, prior and informed consent', as those invited were no more than individuals who had not been authorised by the residents of their respective longhouses to speak or decide for them.

They also slated the state government's recent announcement of the approval of plans for the resettlement of Baram locals as a fait accompli, even though the feasibility studies, including the Environment Impact Assessment and the Social Impact Assessment, are still nowhere to be seen.

Misery at resettlement schemes

The NGOs say Taib's government is repeating the inhumanity of the huge Bakun dam and Batang Ai dam resettlement projects in central and western Sarawak respectively. Communities there lost their customary land, and are mired in debt, unemployment and ramshackle facilities at their resettlement schemes.

“The Baram dam will be no different from (those in) Bakun and Batang Ai…the fact that the Baram dam is only capable of generating 1,200MW power, half of that of Bakun (right), but has to displace 20,000 indigenous people, double that of Bakun, speaks of human disaster,” See noted.

See predicted the Baram dam would not even generate 1,200MW as the state government had projected, because the statistics and basis of the projections were the results of studies conducted in the 1970s.

He pointed to a series of embarrassing, persistent power failures over the past few weeks in Sarawak as a reflection of “mismanagement and wastage” of hydro-electric potential. He said proponents of Bakun had boasted of a maximum generation capacity of 2,400MW power, but now only one turbine is running, able to produce no more than 300MW at full capacity.

“This indirectly tells all Sarawakians that Bakun is a costly failure, that it will never generate 2,400MW power (as projected), not even 1,800MW, according to independent studies,” he said.

“It is sad that the affected indigenous communities have no say over the project. No information was given to them. The state government will dish out promises, but again, as Batang Ai and Bakun have shown, a disastrous outcome awaits, following the implementation of the resettlement.”

See remarked that the Iban in Batang Ai remain among the hardcore poor, while Kayan, Kenyah, Penan and other villagers have lost their NCR land to logging and forest plantations in the vicinity of Bakun dam.

“There will be no 'progress and development' in the (Baram) area, as Batang Ai and Bakun are bearing witness.”

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