One of the World's Oldest Tribes halts Dam Construction


Malaysia’s Penan tribe defy threats of arrest over blockade of Murum dam resettlement deal. 

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 treated.

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 peat lands.

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 Malaysia’s largest hydroelectric dam when it opens next year, and is to be situated right in the Sarawak heartland.
As talks hit stalemate between the tribes’ 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 “Penan’s as if they are not human”. 
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 ‘up-river’. 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 ‘sulap’- 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 ‘tungkang’- a series of ferry boats and tugs to transport material. 
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:  “It 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 itself’.” Sarawak Energy disputes Bujang’s 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 (£1,100) 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 Sarawak’s forest and its Indigenous people first came to the attention of the international community in the late ‘80s, as a result of the tireless campaigning of the charismatic Swiss rainforest advocate Bruno Manser. 
Sadly, Bruno hasn’t 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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