One of the World's Oldest Tribes halts Dam Construction
by Maxine Newlands
November 6th, 2012
The controversial Murum dam in Malaysia is the first big overseas
project for the China Three Gorges Project Company (CTGC) which is
building hydro- and coal-fired power stations in 23 countries. So how
it resolves its current conflict with the protesting Penan tribe will
set an important precedent as to how other Indigenous people are
Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo and is
covered in ancient rainforest. This pristine oasis is home to many
rare species, including the Slow loris, Clouded leopard, eight species
of Hornbill as well as the iconic Orang-utang. Logging practices in
the Sarawak region have decimated the habitat of these, and thousands
of other unique species, and caused irreparable damage to valuable
For two months tribal chiefs and villagers in the region have set fire
to tyres and put up road blocks to prevent construction lorries from
reaching the Murum mega-dam site. The Murum dam, will be Malaysiaï¿½s
largest hydroelectric dam when it opens next year, and is to be
situated right in the Sarawak heartland.
As talks hit stalemate between the tribesï¿½ elders and the Government,
Police Chief DSP Bakar Sebau issued a stern warning of arrests for
unlawful assembly and inciting a riot. NGO Sarawak Conservation
Alliance for Natural Environment (SCANE) then accused Sebau of making
high handed-threats by and of treating the ï¿½Penanï¿½s as if they are not
The Penan tribe are a nomadic people with a deep reverence for and
connection to their land. They are part of the Indigenous Orang Ulu, a
collective term for clan that live ï¿½up-riverï¿½. The tribe have spent
decades protesting against the vast logging and palm oil plantations
that continue to erode their communities and ancient way of life.
A protest camp has now been established around Seping River Bridge, 25
miles (40km) from the dam. Numerous ï¿½sulapï¿½- makeshift huts covered
in wild ginger, palm leaves and plastic canvases - have sprung up to
obstruct the road.
Villagers also stepped up the fight by blockading the only other route
to the dam. With the two key routes jammed all construction briefly
stopped until the contractors found another route via the river with
workers using ï¿½tungkangï¿½- a series of ferry boats and tugs to
The government-owned Sarawak Energy company plans to build twelve dams
in what has been designated the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy
(SCORE). All of these should be completed by 2020, bringing greater
industry and infrastructure to Malaysia, despite the vast swathes of
rainforest that will be destroyed.
The Murum dam is the first major overseas project for the China Three
Gorges Project Company (CTGC) which is now already building or
negotiating to build hydro- and coal-fired power stations in 23
different countries around the world. Hydroelectric dams are scheduled
for construction in Sudan (Merowe Dam), Cameroon, Ethiopia,
Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South-east Asia, North Africa, Nepal, Ecuador,
and the Americas.
So clearly, the outcome of the conflict at Sarawak will set an
important precedent with regards to how the company deals with locals
and their potential displacement at these other locations.
With 75% of the Murum dam completed, the key findings of a Social
Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) and Resettlement Action Plan
(RAP) remain confidential. SAVE Rivers spokesperson, Mark Bujang
claims the SEIA report will come too late for the Penans: ï¿½It should
have been released three years ago before construction even began and
so it only looks at the impact of the resettlement and not the dam
itselfï¿½.ï¿½ Sarawak Energy disputes Bujangï¿½s claims, stating there was
consultation with the tribes as early as 2009.
The Penan have stated the only acceptable resettlement package would
include 25 hectares of land for each of the 300 families affected by
the dam; RM 500,000 (ï¿½1,100) cash compensation for each family; 30,000
hectares of land to each of the nine villages; an education fund for
their children; an additional community development fund; and rights
to land which are not flooded (islands created) by the dam.
The fight for Sarawakï¿½s forest and its Indigenous people first came to
the attention of the international community in the late ï¿½80s, as a
result of the tireless campaigning of the charismatic Swiss rainforest
advocate Bruno Manser.
Sadly, Bruno hasnï¿½t been heard of since 25 May 2000. He was last seen
making his way through the jungle he loved so much on his way to his
Penan friends in Sarawak's Upper Limbang river area. Despite several
search expeditions, Manser's fate remains unclear. Many of his friends
and his family suspect foul play. On 10 March 2005, a Swiss court
officially declared him missing and presumed dead.
Despite the absence of this green hero, and the continued practice of
logging that is so detrimental to all species (both human and non),
efforts to prevent the destruction continue on many fronts. For more
information on the campaign and how you can help please visit the
Bruno Manser Fund website;
Maxine Newlands is a freelance journalist and academic researching
environmental politics and the media.
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