The planned mega-dams in the state of Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo would not only flood huge areas of rainforest and displace tens of thousands of indigenous people, they would cause the loss of millions of birds and mammals – and, according to independent experts, the electricity that would be generated is not even needed in the state.
The state government says the dams are required to power future industrial development. It wants to pull investment in to Sarawak, but most of the companies it is eager to attract are engaged in dirty, energy-intensive heavy industries such as aluminium smelting. The corporations are being offered a cheap energy supply that comes at the expense of the local communities and Malaysians overall.
This is a scenario that is being repeated in many countries of the world: dams are built without the agreement of, or even consultation with, local communities, there is massive loss of natural habitats and biodiversity, and the rights of indigenous people are trampled upon as they see their lands and livelihoods destroyed.
When compensation is awarded, it is meagre, and resettlement areas are a very poor substitute for the forests in which people previously lived. And mega-dams are very often operating below their claimed firm capacity.¹
Anti-dam activists from around the world gathered in Sarawak recently for the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers. They visited the site of the planned Baram dam and the two blockades that have been in place for two years, and stayed with local indigenous people.
If the Baram dam is built, it will cover 38,000 hectares. More than 20,000 people will be displaced and vast areas of rainforest will be submerged.
The Bakun dam has already displaced about 10,000 people and flooded 70,000 hectares of rainforest and farmland.
Summit participants discussed their struggles and shared information about the effects of mega-dams on their communities. They made a declaration demanding an end to the building of mega-dams worldwide, the removal of those that already exist, and full recognition of the rights of indigenous people.
They also called on participants at the next climate change summit in Paris, which begins on November 30, to listen to and respect indigenous peoples and the alternatives to climate change that their communities offer.
“Dam development in Sarawak has already caused widespread suffering and destruction. The government says the Baram dam will bring development, roads, and schools, but no-one tells us where we are going to go if it is built.”
In some countries, including Malaysia, anti-dam protesters have lost their jobs or their positions in their communities because of their activism; in others, they literally risk their lives.
Berta Cáceres from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras said dams not only destroyed nature. “These dam projects result in murders, political and judicial persecution, criminalisation, and increased racism.”
“Dams result in climate change, a loss of food sovereignty, and a loss of territory and culture,” she added.
Anti-dam campaigners say 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.
There have been successes for anti-dam activists in the United Sates, with hundreds of the structures already removed, but protesters elsewhere still face a daunting battle convincing governments and corporations that any benefits mega-dams may bring are far outweighed by the destruction they cause.
Dams are big business, and the true environmental and social costs are rarely taken into account.
Dams in Sarawak
There is currently a moratorium on work on the Baram dam, but activists are concerned that this may be a vote-catching ploy by the state’s Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, and that, once the state elections are over next year, the moratorium will be shelved.
The Baram blockades are being maintained and local campaigners are urging people from other countries to write to Adenan, and even Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, asking for the project to be scrapped.
Those campaigning against the Baram dam see their battle as more than just local; they are able to inspire others and can learn from struggles in other countries. If the government can crush objections in Baram, they say, it will feel more able to push ahead with dam construction elsewhere, where there is less opposition.
The Bakun dam, which is the second largest dam in Asia, is already plugged into the Sarawak grid. Most of the electricity from the dam is being sucked up by the factories in Samalaju, which get very cheap power.
In the case of the Murum dam, the fourth and final turbine began operations in June this year. Indigenous people from the Penan communities have been resettled in two locations. The equivalent of 800 ringgit (about 186 US$) has been allocated to each family per month, most of it in food and other necessary supplies. “Problems that have arisen with this seem to be being sorted out, but this is only supposed to go on for five years,” Kallang said. “I am worried about what will happen after that.”
The Environmental Impact Assessment for the Murum Dam stated in 2008 that it was a “High Risk” project.
The Bakun dam further downstream would be unable to withstand the impact if Murum broke, the report stated.
The report referred to the problem of sedimentation of the upper Murum River, caused by logging, as one of the main causes of a “High Risk” situation in which the dam might fail.
Failure of Murum, the report states, would cause a “cascading failure” of the Bakun dam.
The likelihood of a break in Murum is low, as long as it has been properly built, the report says, but, if it did break, the effects would be catastrophic.
Loss of species
A study conducted by researchers from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in the United States estimate that the Bakun, Murum, and Baram dams combined will cause the loss of 3.4 million birds and 110 million mammals.
The researchers say the three dam reservoirs will inundate habitat for 331 species of birds, 164 species of mammals, a minimum of 900 million trees from 2,100 species, and 34 billion arthropods from 17,700 species.
The affected species include endangered mammals such as the bay cat, the otter civet, the grey gibbon, the hairy-nosed otter, the flat-headed cat, and the smokey flying squirrel; the critically endangered Sunda pangolin; and critically endangered birds such as the Storm’s stork and the Bornean pheasant.
The researchers predict the extinction of at least one tree species and between four and seven arthropod species. “To the extent that tree and arthropod species found on Borneo are found only on the island and not elsewhere, these local extinctions will also correspond to global extinctions.”
The SCORE project
Andrew Aeria from the Sarawak University (UNIMAS) says there is already an excess of power generation in Sarawak. “We have a buffer of between 25 and 30 percent even before Bakun,” he told summit delegates.
The government says new industries in the “Samalaju Growth Node” will, in the short term, create more than 17,000 jobs. The prediction is 1.6 million new jobs by 2030.
SCORE, Aeria points out, is capital intensive, with about 105 billion US dollars anticipated investment up to 2030. “A lot of it will be heavy industry, which means it’ll be dirty; a lot of aluminium smelters, steel industry, palm oil industries, timber, livestock, marine engineering, and oil and gas.
“Because the government is backing the project, it has offered the companies who invest in this area a lot of incentives.” Two such incentives are between five and 15 years tax-free status and import duty exemption.
Japanese companies look set to become the main investors.
Aeria, who is an associate professor in the department of politics and international relations at UNIMAS, says that the government’s eventual aim is to build 52 dams in Sarawak.
It is the big companies involved in SCORE, and politicians, who will benefit from the project, Aeria says. “If you go through the list of who owns these companies; if you go through the list of who are supplying contracts and sub-contracts to all these big companies, who’s getting infrastructure contracts from these companies in Sarawak, you will find the names of politicians and all their relatives and all their best friends.”
A construction conglomerate controlled by the family of Sarawak governor and former chief minister Taib Mahmud is the sole supplier of cement in the state.
There is a plan to construct an ASEAN power grid, Aeria says, and, despite the huge scale of the project, there has been no consultation, except with big companies. “Sarawak is a small part of a larger game, driven by big capital and supported by politicians.”
There is a project similar to the ASEAN power grid planned in Central America: the Mesoamerica electrical grid project, a multi-billion dollar development plan to connect the nine southern states of Mexico with all of Central America, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. Three hundred dams are planned in Honduras alone.
In its 2015 report, the International Hydropower Association said the addition of 37.4 gigawatts of installed capacity in 2014 brought the global total to 1,036 gigawatts.
Social and environmental costs
Dams may generate electricity and irrigate farmland and sometimes control floods, Aeria says, but, in addition to displacing people, destroying ecosystems, flooding forests, and destroying fishing grounds, they also create large debt burdens. “Governments build dams and people pay for them. The costs are only quantified in economic terms; the social and environmental costs are not factored in.”
Rivers are life, Aeria says. “Rivers are living ecosystems. People live off the rivers. People live off the water, the food, and the building materials. Rivers provide transportation and recreation, and even create jobs.”
There needs, Aeria says, to be a genuine evaluation of the resources in Sarawak, “with the local skill levels matched with the local needs and desires”; the development of a more equitable “humane-oriented economy”.
Already, the Samling timber company is clearing large swathes of land that surround the Baram dam site. Other smaller companies also have government permits to cut down the forest, and there is also illegal logging. Even small trees have been cut down. They have been thrown into ravines and burnt so locals cannot even use them, Kallang says. The Baram activists want all logging in the area to stop.
Nicholas Bawin from the Iban community told summit delegates about the Batang Ai dam, which was completed in 1985 and caused the displacement of about 3,000 people from 26 longhouses. It is currently running at 50 percent capacity.
Indigenous people were relocated twice, in 1982 and 1984. “When we were relocated the longhouses were not completed; we had to build our own huts. There was no electricity and no water. The nearest river was an hour’s walk away.”
Those resettled lived for a year without a water supply, Bawin says. The longhouses were too small for the extended families, and there wasn’t enough land for everyone. The government started a cocoa planting project, which was a total failure, and then there was a fish breeding programme, which only lasted a few years. “There was no proper planning,” Bawin (pictured left) said. “And there has been no review of conditions since the resettlement. And we have no title to the land. Where we are living now is still state land.”
There are many social problems in the resettlement area, Bawin says. “There are gambling problems, there is cock-fighting, there is alcoholism, and there are under-age pregnancies.
“We used to live harmoniously and respectfully. Now we have all these problems because people have no proper livelihood.”
Bawin says he still weeps about the loss of the land on which he used to hunt and fish. He appealed to delegates to fight on to keep their land. “Let us keep our dignity. We must be courageous. We must be strong and we must be united. We have no other place to go to. We were born here; we live here; we will die here.”
Hary Wing Miku from the Kayan community told summit delegates about the devastation caused by the Bakun dam. “When I was born 40 years ago the Batang Balui river was very clear and there were more than 104 species of fish.”
The local Balaga district has traditionally been home to more than 100 species of trees and plants and, 229 species of mammals, 43 bird species, and thousands of indigenous people, Hary (pictured left) told delegates.
When the Bakun dam was built, 10,000 people from 15 longhouses were resettled. They included Hary and his family.
“The indigenous communities have lost about 23,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land along the Balui river.
“We were given three acres of land per family and the land was leased to us for sixty years. After that, we have to give it back to the government.”
The communities can no longer fish or hunt, and most people are now bankrupt. “There is no more forest as a source of timber, medicine, and herbs,” Hary said. “It is getting harder to practise our customs and traditional culture.”
Hary also talks about the problems caused by the entry of outsiders into the communities. There is now drug abuse, Hary says, and the unfair distribution of compensation has caused ill-feeling. Locals are now exposed to methane gas and risk such diseases as melioidosis from the water in the Bakun lake.
In the rainy season, the water level of the Bakun dam is above the lake, Hary says.”This is very dangerous for those living below the dam. And there are no safety measures in place. The river is very dirty and smelly, and a lot of fish died recently.”
No compensation has been paid to those living below the dam.
Construction of Bakun was completed in 2011 and the dam began producing electricity in March 2012. The overall cost was nearly 8 billion ringgit (about 1.8 billion US$) and the reservoir covers 71,000 hectares (the size of Singapore).
Hary says that, in his village, people still have no access to clean water; there is no electricity and there are no decent roads.
Bakun is supposed to produce 2,400 megawatts, but is only running at half of its optimum generating capacity.
Three dams have already been built in Sabah, Sarawak’s neighbouring state, and there are plans to build two more, including the Kaiduan hydro-electric dam on the upper Papar river, against which there is very strong opposition.
Nousi Guin from the Task Force Against the Kaiduan Dam (TAKAD) says four villages will be submerged if the dam is built. The inhabitants of five other villages will also be displaced.
More than 1,000 indigenous people, belonging mainly to the Dusun community, will be affected.
“When the government announced the dam project they said it would provide 12 million litres of water per day,” Guin said. “The water department says there will be a water crisis in 2030 in Sabah, but there is no research to back this up.”
Plans to build a third dam, the Tambatuon dam, for paddy field irrigation have been put on hold because of the earthquakes near Mount Kinabalu in June.
More than 42 dams are being constructed or are planned for the Sekong, Srepok, and Sesan (3S) river basin in the northeastern Cambodia.
The three rivers are the most critical tributaries to the lower Mekong River. They provide essential water and sediment flows to the downstream floodplains and serve as major routes for fish migration.
About 70, 000 people live in 127 villages along the three rivers and it is estimated that the dams will lead to a loss of 312 million US$ per year in income from fishing.
Those due to be displaced say the new settlements being provided are not appropriate and are refusing to move from the area. Samin Ngach, from the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance, told delegates at the Sarawak summit that the government says it will not be held responsible if people don’t move and their land is then flooded.
The Lower Sesan 2 project is being run jointly by the Royal Group of Cambodia, the main investment group in the country, and Hydrolancang International Energy, which is a subsidiary of the Huaneng Group, one of the top five power generating companies in China. Electricity of Vietnam holds a nominal stake in the project.
Construction on the dam started in 2014 and it is due to be completed by 2019.
Monica Kristiani from the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) says the Indonesian government is promoting the building of mega-dams as a source of energy.
A dam is due to be constructed on the land of the indigenous Seko community, but building activity was halted a year ago. The community has been engaged in numerous protest actions, including a blockade.
AMAN says the project, which has Chinese funding, will cause community displacement, loss of lands, and deforestation. It will have a negative impact on the ecosystem around the river, she says, and will cause socio-economic problems both upstream and downstream of the dam. Paddy fields will be flooded and fish stocks will decrease.
“This will be ethnocide,” Kristiani said. “Displacement of indigenous peoples means killing their culture.”
There have already been human rights violations, with the persecution and criminalisation of activists, Kristiani says. More than 17 indigenous leaders had been arrested and are currently in jail. “The government must stop the exploitation of natural resources that harms indigenous peoples in the name of development.”
Jon-Luke Gensaw from the Yurok tribe in the US state of California is just 17 years old, but is already an ardent voice for the conservation of his community’s land. “Our whole culture revolves around the Klamath river,” he said, “and dams have meant nothing but destruction. Rivers and streams are the veins of our world. When they are flowing naturally and free, the river and its inhabitants are healthy.”
The Yurok is one of four tribes around the Klamath river; the others are the Karuk, the Hoopa, and the Klamath.
Gensaw says he fights to defend the Klamath so that the next generation can live a good life; “so they can practice our culture, and swim and fish in our river, and not get sick because of poor water quality”.
Nathaniel Pennington, a biologist living next to the Klamath, said the four hydro-electric dams built on the river had a projected power production value of 120 megawatts, but, since their completion, have never produced more than about 60 megawatts at any given time. “Often hydro-electric dams do not fulfil the promises of their developers.”
Pennington told delegates about the depletion of salmon stocks in the Kalmath river. “They now face extinction,” he said.
After the dam construction, the rivers became stagnant and warm and this created the ideal environment for the growth of algae.
The microcystis aeruginosa algae has been identified in the dam reservoirs and downstream all the way to the Klamath river estuary. The algae secretes microcystin, a potent liver toxin and known tumour promotor.
Pennington says that the amount of microcystin in the Klamath river reaches more than 100 times the level that the World Health Organisation considers allowable for human contact.
“There is a grave effect on the wildlife drinking water from the river, and on children and people’s pets that come into contact with the water coming out of the dams.”
Scientific research has proved that the dams caused a massive fish kill in 2002. A total of 65,000 adult salmon died.
Activists are now very close to seeing the four Klamath dams removed in the biggest river restoration project in the world. (The restoration agreements still have to be ratified by the US Congress.)
More than 200 of the 6,000 dams in the US have now been removed. Pennington says fish stocks have been recovering quickly once dams are removed, and trees grow back rapidly as well.
In their final declaration, delegates at the Sarawak summit included a call on the Brazilian government to 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.
Belo Monte would be the third largest dam in the world. A total of 20,000 workers are being brought in to build it.
The Brazilian delegates – Antônio Sau Munduruku, Daniela Soares Da Silva, and Arthur Massuda – also talked about the effects of outsiders coming into their communities, and cited drug abuse, prostitution, violence, and health problems.
“Together with this we have pollution, the loss of forests and the loss of the river, and, when we are not in charge of our own land anymore, we lose our tradition and our identity,” Munduruku said. “Companies promise us health, education, and infrastructure, but these are not coins to be used for bargaining. They are basic rights.”
Munduruku lives in the area of the Tapajós river basin, where seven dams are planned. A national and international alliance is being built up to resist the projects.
Da Silva lives in the area of the Xingu river, where there has been thirty years of resistance by anti-dam activists. She says the fight against the Belo Monte dam was very strong and united from 1989 to 2000, but the anti-dam movement became fragmented in 2003 when the Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva started to promote the project.
It became very hard to fight, Daniela Soares Da Silva says, as the indigenous communities, fishermen, and other riverside communities were no longer united. “The company started to try and buy the loyalty of indigenous people with gifts like truckloads of food. Many fishermen were lured by the promises of the company, but now they realise that this was a mistake as they are fighting to be recognised as impactees.”
There are 25 legal actions against the Belo Monte dam project, but construction is continuing and the dam is close to completion. It doesn’t yet have an operating licence, however.
The government, Da Silva says, has been overruling every negative decision against the project with a judicial “security suspension” mechanism, which it can employ if it considers that Brazil’s economy or its security are being harmed.“A single judge can overrule a decision so the courts are now a political tool for the government’s development plans.”
As in Sarawak, swathes of the Brazilian forest are being cut down in areas of precious biodiversity. Da Silva says the fight goes on and is not just about Belo Monte. “It’s a whole system; it’s a whole development project; it’s a whole way of thinking about nature, life, and social relations.”
Activists’ lives at risk
Delegates to the Sarawak summit highlighted the threats to anti-dam activists, particularly in Honduras, where indigenous people are risking their lives protesting against the planned Agua Zarca hydro-electric dam.
Honduras is the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. The military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen have been sent into Lenca territory, Cáceres says, and activists have been victims of vicious smear campaigns.
During a blockade that lasted from April 2013 to December last year there were death threats against activists and they were offered huge bribes to stop their protest. “The people didn’t give up and, on July 15, 2013, the company fled,” Cáceres said. “And we convinced the World Bank to cancel a planned loan for the dam.”
The dam companies have now returned to the site, however, and, Cáceres says the military and police are also back and have been firing shots into the air right next to a new blockade.
Cáceres, who is this year’s winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America), said dams were causing ethnocide and were the product of “predatory capitalism and the logic of extractivism”.
Dams, she says, have led to environmental, ethical, political, social, economic, and cultural conflicts.
Cáceres says activists in Honduras have stopped 14 hydro-electric dams, but more than 300 are still planned. Forty-two dams are planned on Lenca land alone. “The government and the corporations want to privatise almost all of the rivers of Honduras.”
Activists’ lives are also in danger in the Philippines. In their final conference declaration, delegates called on the government of the Philippines to “end the political vilification, harassment, and red-tagging of activists, stop extrajudicial killings, and deliver justice to all victims of political killings”.
They also called on the Philippine government to stop building mega-dams and decommission the San Roque dam.
Dam construction in the Philippines
Claudine Panayo, who represents the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance and is from the Igorot community, and Tumanduk community representative Cris Chavez spoke about the plans for hydro-electric dams in the Cordillera region, which is home to more than one million indigenous people. “The government and big business have long considered the Cordilleras as a resource base because our land is very rich in minerals, especially gold,” Panayo said.
There are already seven mega-dams in the Philippines, and five of them are in the Cordillera region. Panayo cites the problems with the first dam built in the country: the Ambuklao dam, which became operational in 1956. The dam is only running at 30 percent capacity because of problems with saltation (the transport of sediment), she says.
Indigenous people who were living in the area of the San Roque dam have already been displaced three times, Panayo says.
Activists are now faced with the threat of the planned Alimit hydro-electric power complex. It is a massive project that includes several reservoirs and an eight-kilometre diversion tunnel. A feasibility study is currently being carried out.
Much of the land in the Cordillera region has already been grabbed from the Igorot people, Panayo says. “They are already foreigners in their own land.”
There is on-going resistance by indigenous people, Panayo adds. “They will not allow this land-grabbing to go on.”
A spiritual dimension
Several of the delegates at the Sarawak summit spoke about the spiritual aspect of their struggle.
Cáceres says the Gualcarque river is sacred to the Lenca community and the people conduct ceremonies and practices that reaffirm their spirituality and give them strength. “Our spirituality is the base and the strength of our resistance.”
When the people make a compostora pact with Mother Earth, Cáceres says, they become nature’s caretakers. Certain ceremonies are particularly focused on the river. The river, Cáceres says, is where the female spirits live. “An aggression against the river is an aggression against our spirits.”
Sammy Gensaw (pictured above) highlighted the spiritual nature of the struggle to save the Klamath. Tribes along the Klamath river may have different traditions, he says, but their culture is the same.
Indigenous people around the world may be vastly different, Gensaw says, and they may have differing viewpoints, but they are brought together by their deep belief in their spirituality and its values. “Spirituality is like the glue in our movement. If it wasn’t for our spirituality people wouldn’t be as connected to the land as we are.”
Gensaw draws similarities between different communities’ struggles. “We as indigenous people believe that we are put in certain areas to take care of that land, to take care of our people so they can take care of the children who will need this land for the next generations to come.”
The communities’ belief systems may be different, Gensaw says, but their indigenous mindset is the same. “That’s what connects us and gives us the feeling of being introduced to family that we had heard of before, but never met.”
International delegates travelled for up to four days to get from their homes to the Sarawak summit. When they set off on their long journeys home, they said they felt empowered, informed, and energised.
Those continuing their struggle in Sarawak now have increased global support, and more connection with the outside world.
- Firm capacity is the amount of energy available for production or transmission which can be, and in many cases must be, guaranteed to be available at a given time.
Full Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) reports:
Damming our Future by the Borneo Project: https://player.vimeo.com/video/99071860
How dams have changed lives in Cambodia:
Article updated on 20/11/2015 to include The Borneo Project’s video about the summit.