Indigenous communities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo are celebrating a massive victory. The gazettes extinguishing the native rights of ownership of land earmarked for the proposed Baram mega-dam and its reservoir have been revoked.
“This means the plan for Baram dam has been scrapped,” said the chairman of the grassroots movement SAVE Rivers, Peter Kallang, who has been spearheading the five-year battle against the dam. “I feel relieved and elated. Now we can move on.”
In a letter to the lawyer for the Baram villagers, Harrison Ngau, the Sarawak state attorney-general’s chambers said the expropriation of native customary rights to land acquired for the dam site and the reservoir had been officially revoked. The letter was dated March 15 and refers to a repealing of the gazettes on February 18.
Construction of the 1,200-megawatt dam, which would have covered 38,000 hectares, would have caused the flooding of 412 square kilometres of rainforest and displaced more than 20,000 indigenous people.
The Baram activists will be meeting after Easter to decide whether they can now lift the two blockades that have been in place for two and a half years.
Kallang (pictured left) said: “I congratulate the people of Baram for this great success and I pray that they will continue to fight for their rights and protection of the environment.
“I would also like to thank the chief minister, who has heard the people’s voice. I hope that the chapter on Baram dam is now permanently closed.”
Congratulations flooded in on social media. “Deep gratitude for saving us all from a horrifying environmental disaster,” said one person on Facebook. “Long and difficult fight, but victory is so sweet … People’s Power,” wrote another. “This is a win of epic proportions,” another person commented. “Well-timed election goodie or not, this is one for the people,” commented one local journalist.
However, some of those commenting today said they feared the latest development was yet another vote-catching ploy ahead of the upcoming state election, and there could be a turnaround on Baram afterwards.
The government could institute a new gazette to expropriate the land again, Kallang says. “However, if that were to happen we are still here, ready to challenge them yet again. And our people would be even more courageous to face that challenge.”
Adenan announced a moratorium on work on the Baram dam on July 30 last year, but activists were sceptical, thinking this might be a temporary electioneering tactic.
Baram was a hotly contested parliamentary seat in the 2013 general election. The candidate from the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition defeated the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party) candidate by just 194 votes.
The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund, which campaigns for the protection of threatened tropical rainforests and the rights of indigenous peoples, welcomed the revoking of the gazettes and congratulated the people of Baram for their victory, which was “a result of the sustained peaceful resistance by the affected Kenyah, Penan, and Kayan communities”.
Australian environmentalist Bob Brown hailed the Baram victory as one of the biggest global environmental wins since campaigners won their fight to prevent the Franklin dam being built on the Gordon river in Tasmania.
“This is a rare but very significant victory for the indigenous people of Sarawak’s Baram river,” said Brown, who is a former leader of the Australian Greens. Brown visited Sarawak in 1990 and 2013.
The gazette for securing the land for the Baram dam site was published on September 5, 2013. The one for acquiring the land that would have been flooded by the dam reservoir was published on January 26, 2015.
Under the gazettes, the land belonging to 20,000 people from about 30 villages was taken from them. This land includes the villagers’ farms, cemeteries, and reserve land known as pulau galau.
Villagers from Long Keseh, Na’ah, and Long Tap sued the Sarawak government for extinguishing their land rights. Now they will again have the legal right to use their land.
The Bruno Manser Fund says it expects that the cancellation of the plan for the Baram dam will trigger a review of all mega-dam projects in Sarawak. “We call for an alternative energy plan, based on mini-grids with micro-hydro, solar, and biomass at the core.”
The Baram dam was designed under Sarawak’s former chief minister and current governor, Taib Mahmud, the Fund points out, and was aggressively promoted by energy supplier Sarawak Energy as part of a multi-billion dollar hydropower scheme involving the planned construction of 12 mega-dams.
“With the official announcement of the dam’s cancellation, Chief Minister Adenan Satem is distancing himself from his predecessor and aiming at regaining trust from Sarawak’s rural communities weeks ahead of a crucial state election,” the Fund stated.
The Baram river.
The dams planned in Sarawak are part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) project, which covers half of the state and is intended to generate 7,000 megawatts of capacity.
The Bakun dam, which is the second largest dam in Asia, is already plugged into the Sarawak grid, but is still running below its optimum generating capacity three years after it came online.
The Bakun dam.
Most of the electricity from the Bakun dam is being sucked up by the factories in Samalaju, which get very cheap power.
The dam has already displaced about 10,000 people and flooded 700 square kilometres of rainforest and farmland. Those displaced have been given just three acres of land, on lease to them for sixty years.
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.
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 participants at the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), held in Sarawak on the two-year anniversary of the Baram blockades last October.
Aeria says SCORE is nothing to do with people, but is about big companies, and the jobs it provides will be for “cheap migrant labour”.
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.”
WISER brought together anti-dam activists from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Brazil, and the United States.
A study conducted by researchers from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in the United States estimated that the Bakun, Murum, and Baram dams combined would cause the loss of 3.4 million birds and 110 million mammals.
The researchers said the three dam reservoirs would 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 one very dark shadow hanging over the current celebrations is the fact that activist Berta Cáceres from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, who attended last year’s WISER summit and was a leading voice against mega-dams, will not be able to share the moment. She was assassinated in her home earlier this month.