The Penans have been blockading against the construction of the 944MW Murum Dam since Sept 26, 2012. More than 1,600 Penans from eight Penan villages (including one Kenyah Badeng longhouse) are affected by the construction of the dam which is now about 70% completed.
Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), contractors and private companies involved in the project have been forced to use ferryboats or tugboats through the Bakun Dam reservoir to transport goods, machines, building materials etc. to the Murum Dam site.
This is a new and different factor compared to the campaign against the Bakun dam in previous years.
While we had built a campaign against the Bakun Dam in the past, there was no action by the indigenous peoples affected on a scale comparable to the Murum Dam blockade.
The Penan communities affected by the Murum Dam have shown a commitment to defend their rights and Malaysians must give them full solidarity and support their struggle in all possible ways.
The Murum Penan communities are among the poorest in Malaysia. They have traditionally been hunter-gatherers but shifted to a more settled, agriculture-based way of life approximately 40 years ago.
They rely on subsistence-based farming and hunting, fishing and gathering of forest products and the occasional sale of in-season fruit. Their livelihood has been adversely affected by low farm productivity and rapidly declining forest resources because of plantation and dam building projects.
The Bakun Dam fiasco
The Sarawak state government with federal government support, has been carrying out highly irresponsible economic projects to the detriment of the environment, the indigenous peoples’ lives and the long-term interest of the Sarawak and Malaysian tax payers.
The 2,400MW Bakun Dam project has already proven to be a major fiasco not only in terms of insufficient demand for its electricity generated but a disaster for the 10,000 indigenous peoples who were displaced from their traditional ancestral land to the slum conditions of the resettlement scheme at Sg. Asap.
Those who cherish their heritage and human rights would describe their fate as ethnocide if they have seen for themselves the conditions at Sg. Asap.
The total energy demand in the whole of Sarawak is only 1,000MW so the government has been trying to attract the biggest energy guzzlers such as aluminium smelters which happen to be the most toxic as well.
Another investment is a coal-fired power station to take up the excess energy. These environmentally polluting industries are then touted as part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score).
In fact, hydro-electric power dams and toxic aluminium smelters are all industries rejected by the developed countries.
None of these countries, especially Australia, wants to have toxic industries in their own backyard. But the Sarawak state government is willing to have these mega projects for rather dubious purposes.
The desperate chase for investments to take up the excess Bakun energy after the dam has been built shows a total lack of economic feasibility studies which should have been done before the dam was built.
Is it surprising therefore that many Score contracts have been given to companies owned by members of Chief Minister Taib’s family?
As if this Bakun Dam fiasco was not enough, the Sarawak state government intends to build 12 mega dams in all which will strip the state of its rainforest and displace even more indigenous communities.
Violating international standards
The Murum Dam is the first of these 12 dams. The dam construction is being supervised by China Three Gorges Corporation and built by Chinese dam builder Sinohydro.
After their massive investments in the Three Gorges project, you can be sure these Chinese companies are hungry for investments in other hydropower projects in Sarawak.
With such a large development scheme, international best practice calls for a “strategic environmental and social assessment.”
Such an assessment looks at the overall impact that a large development scheme can have as was done for the proposed “Greater Mekong Sub-region” energy network by the Asian Development Bank.
No such strategic economic, environmental and social assessment has been conducted for Score.
If the Bakun Dam project is to be any guide, the Sarawak government’s energy demand forecasts appear to be based more on nothing more than wishful thinking rather than detailed feasibility studies.
Malaysian taxpayers, be warned that all these mega projects will entail an onerous debt burden on the Sarawak and Malaysian public. You can be sure that there will be electricity tariff hikes after the 13th general election.
There are many energy alternatives for Sarawak beyond large hydroelectric power projects such as small-scale hydropower, solar and other forms of renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, more efficiently run and managed power plants, among others.
Above all, such environmentally friendly power projects respects the indigenous peoples’ lifestyles while efforts can put into helping them with better transport systems, marketing channels and other forms of development they may require.
The Murum Dam project is in violation of the international standards on indigenous rights as guaranteed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), of which Malaysia is a signatory.
The Murum Dam is nearing completion but the resettlement report is still being withheld.
As for the Bakun Dam, all studies related to the projects have not been transparent. The affected Penan and Kenyah have stated that they have never been asked for consent as demanded by the UNDRIP.
The project developer, Sarawak’s state-owned electricity generating company, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) has not provided indigenous communities with an opportunity to grant or withhold their “free, prior and informed consent” for the project as required by UNDRIP.
Even in cases where there was agreement, however, it was neither free from coercion; the resettlement plan was not made known to the indigenous peoples prior to the start of the construction, and they were not informed by access to information about the project’s impacts.
The social and environmental impact assessment (SEIA) for the Murum project is seriously flawed.
International standards—including the Equator Principles and the IFC Performance Standards—universally require that the SEIA must be completed during the design phase, before the government approves the project and before construction begins.
This was not the case with the Murum Dam Project. The SEIA process did not even begin until after construction on the project was already underway. The Sarawak government has not yet disclosed the Murum Dam Project’s SEIA to the public or to the affected communities.
The indigenous peoples’ demands
Without transparent access to the crucial information at the centre of this project, the affected communities were placed in an unfair situation when the Sarawak government asked them to negotiate a resettlement package.
The monthly allowance to be paid after resettlement falls below the poverty level and ends after four years.
However, the state government turned down the other demands of the Penan, which included compensation of RM500,000 for each family for the loss of their customary land.
Their other demands were 30,000 hectares of land for every village, 25 hectares for every farming family, education for their children, a community development fund and rights to their land that is not submerged by the dam waters.
The indigenous communities affected by the Murum Dam project have already issued a memorandum describing how the government could still remedy the situation.
Support the Murum indigenous peoples now! Sign the Murum Appeal at http://www.sarawakreport.org/murum-appeal or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can support their blockade by donating to their cause at these two websites.
Kua Kia Soong is human rights NGO Suaram adviser.