Saving the rivers of Sarawak (Part 1)

About 150 representatives, mostly from indigenous communities all over Sarawak, who are affected with state-wide plans to build 12 more mega-dams convened in Miri on the 16 – 18 February, 2012.

Among these participants included representatives from communities affected by three mega-dams that have already been built in Sarawak: Batang Ai, Bengoh and Bakun.

The workshop was to discuss about the impact of the mega-dams in Sarawak on the livelihoods of the affected communities and the adverse effects on the environment. The newly formed Save Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers), a coalition from local NGOs, communities and individuals, is the organizer of the event.

Women's group discussing plan of action for mobilizing their committees on the anti mega-dams campaign.

The first day of the workshop opened with a night of sharing stories. Various individuals, particularly from the three built mega-dams, spoke up of how their communities are dealing with the aftermath.

One community representative from the controversial Bakun dam that caused the displacement of more than 9,000 people in the 1990’s, spoke on the pros & cons of the Rumah (House/Longhouse) Bakah Asap resettlement. The cons outweighed the benefits, and he listed woes such as not enough land for farming, hunting, and lack of forests to harvest food. The lack of land had led to many conflicts among the community, he disclosed. He also spoke about despite the convenience of being closer to towns, this has led to many petty crimes from the youth, who have better access to drugs and alcohol. The income level of the new community resettlement averages below RM900/month (about USD281/month), which is below poverty level in Malaysia.

Workshop discussion between the speakers and the SAVE Rivers committee

A Batang Ai representative spoke about how the forests that they used to hunt and gather forest produce are now off-access because soon after the building of Batang Ai dam, the remaining forests were gazetted as a National Park. Currently only a handful of communities living near Batang Ai dam are allowed to hunt non-protected wildlife species, and gather non-timber forest products. He also spoke of how the communities were promised RM8000/bilik (per family room in a longhouse), two acres of land and five acres of rubber but three decades later, they are still waiting for full compensation.

Cynthia speaking about her experience with the Green SURF anti-coal campaign in Sabah

Similarly to the Rumah Bakah Asap resettlement, the Batang Ai communities live in conflict for land to plant, and hunt. The Batang Ai representative spoke of the irony of living close to the dam, but having no access to water or electricity.

The Bengoh dam representative’s story eerily mirrored the experiences of the Batang Ai and Bakun communities. He spoke of how the communities were promised RM12000 (USD3500) per family yet he added that this amount did not truly reflect how much the land is worth to his community. He added that the community was taking the case to court in regards of lack of full compensation that was promised.

“Sekatan terhadap org luar masuk dari Semanjung. Barang yg dipesan seperti paip, baja tdk dibenarkan & disekat [There are restrictions to West Malaysians coming into our area. Ordered goods such as water pipes, and fertilizer are not allowed and restricted],” he added.

He spoke of oppression, and how the communities were coerced into accepting compensations that they did not really want.

While the stories shared on the opening night were quite despondent, the energy in the room remained quite high. The participants were ready to share more stories, and to discuss the next steps for the SAVE Rivers campaign.

Cynthia Ong and Penan community elders affected by Sarawak's mega dams

Written by June Rubis

Manager, Civil Society Initiatives & Wildlife Conservation



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