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New Film Documents Indigenous Rights Violations in Malaysian Borneo

More than 15 years after moving to make way for a mega dam, families are still struggling to make a living

In 1998 around 10,000 Indigenous people in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, were moved out of their ancestral lands and into the resettlement village of Sungai Asap to make way for the Bakun hydroelectric dam, Asia’s largest dam outside China. As is the case of many resettlement schemes around the world, they were promised a better life: better schools and housing, access to health care, and adequate farmland. They believed that by agreeing to resettlement their children would be able to prosper and integrate into the rapidly developing Malaysian economy. More than 15 years later these families are still struggling to make a living and Sungai Asap has been declared a resettlement disaster.

A Still from Broken PromisesThe Sarawak government is planning to build 12 more hydroelectric dams which would displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people.

The 10 acres of farmland per family that the communities were promised turned out to be 3 acres of often rocky, infertile, and sloping land located half day’s journey away from their new homes. Meanwhile, the dam has polluted the Balui River, poisoning their water source and killing the fish they depended on for food and income.

The resettlement site is surrounded by oil palm plantations and the people no longer have access to their former hunting grounds. To add insult to injury, the transmission lines carrying electricity from the Bakun Dam pass directly over Sungai Asap but the villagers cannot access the power for which they were displaced. Instead, they have to make do with government-managed diesel generators that are often locked because they are unable to afford the expensive costs of diesel. Life before resettlement had been isolated, to be sure, but the Bakun communities were able to farm, fish, hunt, and feed their families, and make a living. Their quality of life has dramatically declined.

The Sarawak government is now proposing to build 12 more hydroelectric dams, creating similar risks for tens of thousands of Indigenous people, who make 48 percent of the state’s population and comprise many distinct ethnic groups, including Penan, Iban, Kenyah, Bidayuh, Kayan, and Ukit. These communities know what has happened to the people of Sungai Asap, and they are fiercely fighting against the dam construction in order to protect their communities and livelihoods.

As part of the Indigenous-led campaign to unite communities on the ground and spread awareness, Earth Island’s The Borneo Project is producing a series of short documentaries exposing the realities of the dams. The third film in the series, Broken Promises: Displaced by Dams, was released online yesterday. It showcases the devastating effects of forced displacement on Indigenous communities and highlights the efforts to stop the dams.

The 1,200 megawatt Baram dam, the next dam in line to be built, is facing tremendous resistance from local communities. If the dam is built, up to 20,000 Indigenous people living in more than 26 villages will be displaced. The Sarawak government has already started building access roads to the dam site, although the project has not yet been formerly approved.

Kilo15BlockadePhoto Jettie WordOne of the two blocades to the dam site that the Baram communities have continuously managed since October 2013.

However, since October 2013 Baram communities have continuously managed two blockades that have prevented construction of the dam. Broken Promises was released in conjunction with a protest organized at the town of Long Lama, near one of the blockades sites, where Sarawak’s Chief Minister Adenan Satem was launching a new bridge yesterday. Hundreds of protesters gathered at the blockade site and crossed the Baram river to meet with Satem and make it clear that the people of Baram do not want the dam.

The Sarawak government-owned company, Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), which is leading the project has not released an environmental and social impact assessment for the Baram Dam and has been accused of serious human rights violations in the preliminary stages of dam development. A fact finding mission led by the Sarawak-based grassroots network SAVE Rivers found significant human rights violations concerning resettlement for the Baram Dam. Based on detailed interviews in 14 villages along the Baram, the report shows how Indigenous communities have been denied information, participation in studies and decision-making, and have been coerced into accepting the dam through threats and intimidation.

The Baram communities are up against powerful corporate and political figures, but they are fighting for their cultural preservation and livelihoods, and grassroots organizing seems to be making an impact. Recently, the chief minister Satem met with local activists and researchers from University of California, Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) for a civil and honest conversation about the dams. RAEL studies show that the costs of the Baram and other big dams planned by Sarawak government are unjustifiable, and that alternative energy development would be cheaper, less environmentally devastating, and wouldn’t displace tens of thousands of people. Satem has asked for an alternative proposal to the dams. This is positive news, but it’s only the first step. The people of Baram still have a ways to go to secure their human rights and it will take a long fight before all the large dam proposals are canceled for good.

Watch Broken Promises (10 min) here:


Bahasa Malaysia:


Jettie Word
Jettie Word is the director of Earth Island Institute's The Borneo Project

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