In October, Indigenous activists from around the world gathered on the banks of the Baram River in Sarawak to celebrate the second anniversary of the Baram Dam blockades. Indigenous Kenyah, Kayan, and Penan people have continuously occupied the two blockades for the past two years. The blockades have successfully prevented any progress on the Baram Dam, one dam in a series of 12 proposed hydro-electric dams in Sarawak. If built, the 1,200-megawatt Baram dam would displace as many as 20,000 Indigenous people living in more than 26 villages, and would flood 400 square kilometers of rainforest.
Photo by E
The anniversary event was preceded by Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s July announcement of a moratorium on the Baram dam Sarawak state, a huge victory for activists on the ground that have been working tirelessly to save their communities. This victory is met with cautious optimism from activists in Sarawak. According to Peter Kallang, chairman of the indigenous grassroots network SAVE Rivers, there is still “a great sense of anxiety” because the land gazetted for construction of the dam has not been legally returned to the communities and logging continues.
Residents of Sarawak are already all too familiar with the devastating impacts of mega dams. In 1998, an estimated 10,000 people were moved from their ancestral lands to facilitate construction of the Bakun dam, which began operating in 2011. More than 15 years later, they are still struggling to get by in their resettlement village of Sungai Asap.
Indigenous anti-dam activists from Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Brazil, the US, Honduras, as well as activists from throughout Malaysia, travelled to Sarawak to stand in solidarity with local activists at the blockade anniversary event, named the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER). The weeklong summit was hosted by SAVE Rivers, a network that has been working to stop the Sarawak dams by spreading awareness among communities that will be displaced.
In addition to celebrating the success of the Baram blockades, WISER helped strengthen ties between Indigenous communities around the world. During celebrations — which took place at the two blockade sites, the proposed dam site, and at a conference in the town of Miri — participants were united by the similarities between their struggles. “I have gained a lot of experience from all of the delegates,” said James Nyurang, who hosted visiting delegates in his village. “And with such information, I am confident enough [that] such experiences will be fundamental to us, the Baram People, and our strategies to continue to fight and stop the proposed Baram Dam.”
Others, including Yurok guests who traveled to the event from Klamath, California, shared this sentiment. The Yurok people have seen the health of their rivers steadily decline due to the construction of four dams along the Klamath River. Fish stocks are now estimated to be just 20 percent of the original population. The Yurok group that traveled to Borneo has been active in dam opposition, and previously traveled to the Amazon Basin as “the Klamazon Delegation” to oppose the Belo Monte dam in solidarity with the Xikrin and Kayapo tribes of the Amazon.
“The similarities that exist between our cultures and the rivers that we depend on are so remarkable that we felt like relatives,” said Yurok fisherman, Sammy Gensaw. “The difference is that Indigenous people in middle income and developing countries are experiencing the peak of cultural genocide and colonization now and are watching their natural resources become commodities. The Indigenous people of North America have a lot to share about that.”
Berta Cáceres, who won the 2015 Goldman Prize for her work leading resistance against the Agua Zarca Dam in Honduras, added that the summit “has a special value in that its actions give strength to the historic resistance of our peoples and makes visible the grave aggressions and conflict generated by the privatization of rivers and the construction of dams within Indigenous communities and regions.”
Building on the momentum of the Baram dam moratorium and the Baram blockades, summit participants collectively produced a declaration that acknowledges the widespread suffering and destruction caused by dams, and stresses the importance of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent from communities impacted by dam-building. The declaration urges all stakeholders to be accountable, transparent, and compliant with all human rights principles and values. It also calls on governments and institutions to stop presenting dams as climate neutral, and recognize that dams emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, including methane.