Indigenous anti-dam activists converge in Sarawak, Malaysia

P1030632 (640x480)Delegates from indigenous communities around the world, who gathered in northern Borneo to mark the two-year anniversary of the blockades against the proposed Baram mega-dam in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, have demanded an end to the building of such dams worldwide, the removal of those that already exist, and full recognition of the rights of indigenous people.

They said governments, multi-national companies, and others should stop presenting dams as climate neutral, and recognise that they emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane.

“We demand that the government of Sarawak cancel all logging concessions in the Baram, return the gazetted land to the indigenous communities, and cancel the Baram dam for good,” delegates at the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers said in their end-of-conference declaration. “We also call on the government to listen to the people of Baram and collaborate with experts on rural alternative energy options.”

Last month the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Adenan Satem, announced a moratorium on the building of the Baram dam, but activists say their two blockades will remain until they are sure the project is cancelled definitively. There is suspicion that vote-catching is Adenan’s motivation and, once the next state elections are over next year, the moratorium may be shelved.

If the dam is built, about 20,000 people will be displaced and vast areas of rainforest will be flooded.

Already, the construction of the Bakun dam in Sarawak has displaced about 10,000 people and submerged 700 square kilometres of rainforest and farmland. Those displaced have been given just three acres of land, on lease to them for 60 years. “The government promised that there would be so many opportunities for local people that they could become millionaires,” delegate Hary Wing Miku, from the Kayan community, said. “Now most of us are bankrupt.”

The Bakun dam is still running below its optimum generating capacity three years after it came online.

A total of 12 dams are scheduled to be built in Sarawak by 2020.

330px-BakunDamThe Bakun dam, under construction in 2009.

Summit participants also demanded that the state government of Sabah on Malaysian Borneo stop building the Kaiduan Dam. Delegates from Sabah said the dam would cause “mass destruction of our life, natural resources, and culture”.


In their final declaration, delegates said that dams have caused an irreversible loss of socio-biodiversity. People and animals had died as a result of dams, and there had been a loss of ancestral land, culture and tradition, knowledge, unique habitats and ecosystems, livelihoods, and heritage.

“The compounded impacts of dams result in multi-generational psychological and emotional trauma for upstream and downstream communities,” delegates declared. “Involuntary relocation compromises traditional institutions and identity. It compromises spiritual practices through the flooding of sacred sites and often results in inter-community conflict when communities are divided.”

P1030616 (640x480)Sammy Gensaw (pictured left), from the Yurok tribe in California in the United States, was one of many delegates who highlighted the pollution of river systems caused by dams. A cesspool of algae had been created on the Klamath river, he said, and there was a dangerous level of level of toxins in the water. In 2002, 65,000 adult salmon had died in the biggest fish kill in history.

Activists have succeeded in obtaining historic restoration agreements under which the four dams on the Klamath River will be removed. The accords still have to be ratified by the US Congress, but activists say that, with 200 of the structures already gone in the US, dam removal is now becoming an industry in itself.

Berta Cáceres from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, who is this year’s winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America), said activists had succeeded in stopping 14 hydro-electric dams, but 300 more were planned.

Activists in Honduras faced enormous repression and aggression, she said. “The military, police, and hitmen are all sent into our territory. Ten members of our organisation have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River.”

P1040173 (640x480)Thirty percent of land in Honduras had been given over to multi-national mining companies, Cáceres (pictured left) added.

Summit delegates said that large developments like dams were often riddled with corruption and misuse of public funds and incurred high cost overruns.

“Dams are merely profitable for those in power and authority, but have a devastating impact on the vast majority of impacted people. Less destructive, smaller, and affordable alternatives are often overlooked as they are less profitable for the elite.”

The delegates demanded that governments, companies, development agencies, donor institutions, and investors respect indigenous peoples’ right to autonomy and self-determination, and stop moving forward with dam projects that do not obtain the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of impacted populations.

The planning and construction of dams rarely included the participation of affected populations, delegates pointed out. “The Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of affected populations is seldom obtained, and the processes are often in direct violation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal people and the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).”

Indigenous land management practices should be recognised as tools for ecosystem health, delegates said, and electrification projects using off-grid, small-scale renewable energy alternatives should be implemented in rural areas.

Delegates also called for full reparations, restitution, and justice for upstream and downstream communities that have suffered from dam constructions “even though these actions will never account for the irreplaceable losses caused” and for companies and individuals who have violated contracts and laws to be prosecuted and penalised.

Summit participants also made specific demands for action in other countries:

  • that the government of Honduras cancel the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project on the sacred Gualcarque River, as well as the other hydroelectric concessions “that privatise and destroy the rivers, culture, and territory of the Lenca people”.
  • that the Cambodian government and international institutions stop building all dams in the country;
  • that the Brazilian government cancel the construction of the Belo Monte hydro-electric complex on the Xingu River and all the 150 hydro-electric plants planned in the Amazon;
  • that the government of the Philippines stop building mega-dams, decommission the San Roque dam, end the political vilification, harassment, and red-tagging of activists, stop extrajudicial killings, and deliver justice to all victims of political killings;
  • that, in California, the removal of the four Klamath dams must be initiated by the year 2020 “before the river and its resources are lost forever”; and
  • that, in Indonesia, the government stop “natural resources exploitation that harms indigenous peoples in the name of development” and the construction of the mega-dam on the land of the Seko community.

Delegates demanded that the Honduran government adhere to and enforce ILO convention 169. They also called for an end to the persecution of all environmental activists in Cambodia, and the immediate release of the four activists held in detention.

“The global community must learn from and listen to indigenous communities, and recognise that our ways of life can offer solutions to catastrophic problems,” they declared.

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P1040163 (640x480)Activist Philip Jau from the Long Lama area.

The summit was hosted by the grassroots network SAVE Rivers.

Updated on 26/10/2015.

More coverage to follow.