Rainforest, not dams
Borneo’s rainforest is one of the regions of the world with the greatest biodiversity. Large parts of this former paradise have already fallen victim to deforestation and plantations. The latest scheme dreamt up by the Sarawak government is also targeted on the rainforest: a series of oversized dams are to flood thousands of square kilometres of rainforest and drive tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Since the whole of the Sarawak interior could be affected, the survival of the indigenous way of life and culture is at stake. The Bruno Manser Fund is providing support to the indigenous communities affected in their resistance to the mammoth projects.
Gigantism and corruption
The Sarawak government has developed plans for the construction of up to fifty dams, carefully making sure that the public was kept out of the whole process. The generating capacity of these dams is some 20 000 megawatts. At present, the Malaysian electricity company, Sarawak Energy, is working on the realisation of the first twelve of them. In 2011, the Bakun Dam, which, with a rating of 2400 megawatts, is one of the biggest in Asia, went online. The Murum Dam, rated at 944 megawatts, is scheduled to follow soon. Compared with that, current demand for electricity in the whole of Sarawak is scarcely 1500 megawatts.
The dams are intended to power an enormous industrialisation programme known as SCORE, Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. The government is dreaming of massive industrial projects, such as aluminium smelting works, which are health hazards. Some 105 billion US dollars are to be invested in SCORE up to 2030, which makes it into the most ambitious and most expensive energy project in the whole of Southeast Asia.
Research has shown that the family around Sarawak’s chief minister, Taib Mahmud, is profiting directly from the dams. The Taib family has holdings in companies that have received contracts from Sarawak Energy for the construction of power lines and settlements for populations displaced by the dams. One of Taib’s companies even has a virtual monopoly in cement. Companies belonging to him are also investing in smelting works and are building new roads in the name of SCORE. The Bakun Dam has been given the title of "Monument of Corruption" by Transparency International.
The indigenous peoples of Sarawak have already learnt what dams mean for them: the loss of their land, their culture and their identity, followed by a life with no prospects. The Bakun Dam not only led to the flooding of nearly 700 square kilometres of rainforest but caused 10 000 indigenous inhabitants to be driven away from their homes at the end of the 1990s. The Murum Dam has swallowed up 250 square kilometres of rainforest and forced 1400 indigenous inhabitants to resettle.
The Baram Dam, now planned for the north of Sarawak, would flood more than 400 square kilometres of rainforest and cause the displacement of 20 000 indigenous inhabitants. Even the very heartland of the Penan Selungo could soon be under water too. Resistance is, however, forming and those affected by the dams in the various regions of Sarawak came together at the end of 2011 and founded the Save Sarawak Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers). That organisation and the Bruno Manser Fund have since then been fighting indefatigably for respect of the internationally recognised rights of those affected and for the protection of the rainforests against the megalomaniac projects. They are providing support for the local population and trying to force international companies to face up to their responsibility.
Our campaign has already chalked up a number of successes. The Rio Tinto mining group, for instance, has withdrawn from plans to construct an aluminium works. Rio Tinto was not satisfied with the electricity price it was offered nor with the way the Sarawak government had been treating the people affected by the dam. The Australian energy-consultancy office Hydro Tasmania has severely cut back the personnel deployed to assist Sarawak Energy.
The Sarawak government seems to be at a loss in the face of the unexpected resistance in the Baram region. Hundreds of indigenous inhabitants have been successfully mobilised for blockades and protests. There is no let-up in the challenge their actions represent for the government and Sarawak Energy. Thanks to this effective resistance, work on planned the Baram Dam has already been delayed.