Tackling Energy Poverty in Sarawak

Communities in Malaysian Borneo are embracing micro-hydro as mega-dams leave them energy poor.

In a plush suburban Berkeley home, newly appointed Malaysian Senator Banie Lasimbang hands around a pelton wheel bucket made from old aluminum beer cans, which are in no short supply in his home state of Sabah. These wheels are used to turn micro-hydro turbines, transforming water and gravity into electricity in Malaysian Borneo’s remote villages.

photo of micro hydro
Micro hydro operations like this one are providing electricity to remote villages in Malaysian Borneo. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

It's September, and in a few months, I’m heading to Sarawak — Malaysian Borneo’s other state in addition to Sabah — to chat with some of the villages that have not only adopted micro-hydro systems, but have actively resisted the mega-hydro dam projects that threaten their land. They are part of the Ockham’s Razor moment that is taking place in the climate debate as many Indigenous communities are showing that the simplest pathway is often the best. Whether it be implementing basic technology at the grassroots level, using forest resources in a way that is mutually beneficial for plants and people, or knowing when to simply leave forests alone in order for them to recover, we have much to learn from Indigenous solutions to the climate crisis.

Gara Jalong is the Headman of the Sarawak village of Long Lawen, and has been jailed five times for trying to protect his land from outside encroachment. As our Hilux rolls in to town, we are greeted by Gara, along with the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects — all indicators of a healthy rainforest. The air is cool and clean, and the dogs emerge from under the house to find out if we have any snacks to donate or pats to give. We have both.

The people of Long Lawen refused to move to a resettlement camp established by the Sarawak government when the Bakun mega-hydropower dam was built in the late 1990s, flooding their community. Instead, led by Gara, the community moved to higher ground and resettled independently above the dam site. In 2000, Banie helped them build the first micro-hydro project in Malaysian Borneo in the new Long Lawen. This model has since been replicated dozens of times throughout the region, to varying levels of success.

Long Lawen has 66 ‘doors’ (essentially 66 separate apartments connected in about a dozen Escher-like longhouses), 88 families, and 369 residents. Like most longhouses in Sarawak, the permanent residents tend to be of the older generation that prefers the rainforest lifestyle. Their life in the village is not just an idyllic retirement plan, but a way to keep tradition alive — through hunting, fishing, and crafting non-timber forest products. Women sit out on the verandah weaving fishing traps with their fingers and toes, their ears stretched long in the proud Indigenous style that has gone out of fashion with the younger generation.

At Christmas time, many family members will return to the village to visit. This is when demand for electricity is at fever pitch. When we arrived, we learned Long Lawen’s micro-hydro is only producing between 4 and 6 kilowatts on a good day, enough to power a light bulb and wall plug for each door, but less than expected. It is not nearly enough to power the village when hundreds of relatives arrive at once.

Gara has been campaigning for his historic adversary Sarawak Energy Berhad, the company that built the Bakun megadam, to send some electricity from the dam his way to fill this gap. The great irony of these major industrial energy projects that displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people is that those people are rarely the recipients of the energy these dams produce. Megadams and rural electrification are viewed as discrete objectives.

photo of Gara Jalong
Gara Jalong has been protecting his community from outside encroachment for decades. He's currently campaigning for the village of Long Lawen to receive some electricity from the dam that displaced it. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Project.

The human rights implications of these projects alone should be discouragement enough to pursue them. But they also take a steep environmental toll. In Sarawak, megadams have drowned hundreds of kilometers of rainforest in one of the world’s most vital carbon sinks. Worldwide, decomposing organic material at the bottom of reservoirs releases about a billion tons of methane a year — mega-hydro does not produce clean energy.

As Baru Bian, Malaysia’s Minister for Works and Indigenous land rights activist puts it, “Any so-called clean energy policy that destroys primary forests is not clean. Neither are energy policies that displace Indigenous communities. This is the simple truth.”

While at Long Lawen, I want to check out the micro-hydro. Uncle Boyce Anyie Jock agrees to show me around. He must have a good 40 years on me, but Boyce expertly navigates our perilous hike over massive tree roots and loose leaves. When we reach the top of the hike, we find the micro-hydro’s water source: a waterfall surrounded by cool stones and mossy trees. We sit and chat while watching the water gush over the ledge.

Uncle Boyce is from Long Liam, a village that recently built its own micro-hydro system, which at the time of writing has failed to light up the village. Despite strong community involvement in building and maintenance, the Long Liam project has been riddled with technical problems, mainly because the pathway of the penstock (the pipe that directs the water) from the water source to the power house is not a straight shot.

If the penstock needs to move, this means months of more muddy, sweaty work on difficult terrain. But Boyce says it is totally worth it. Now that he has seen that Gara' system has operated for decades, a few more months of work is nothing compared with virtually free, clean energy that will keep his village lit long after he is gone.

Uncle Boyce's village is no stranger to the fight against big hydro. Long Liam residents joined those from dozens of other villages to campaign against the Baram dam, which would have been the second largest megadam of its kind in Asia. Had it been built, Baram would have flooded an area of 400 square kilometers and displaced approximately 20,000 people. After seven years of blockades and campaigning, the plans for the dam were shelved, a rare grassroots victory in this part of the world.

The campaign against the Baram dam sparked something in Uncle Boyce. The fight wasn’t just about one mega project. It was about the rivers and the forest, the health of the whole ecosystem that is unrelentingly under threat — if not from megadams then from mines, from logging encroachment, and from oil palm plantations. To Ngau, keeping the forest healthy is common sense — his culture and the forest are intimately connected.

A lot of what seems like common sense to people like Uncle Boyce is backed up by the science. Granting Indigenous people native customary ownership over land has been proven in some cases to be the most effective method to stem deforestation and illegal wildlife trade, regularly beating out “fences and guns” approaches — like national park designations that keep local communities out or policing efforts that throw locals in jail. This is because people like Gara and Uncle Boyce have a vested interest in keeping these ecosystems alive and healthy — it is their home, not a resource to be ravaged for short-term gain. They’re also not creating policies from the outside looking in, but can lean on their inherited knowledge about how to hunt, fish, and use the forest as part of the ecosystem, not its adversary.

As we return from the micro-hydro a hornbill passes slowly above us. This is the first hornbill I have ever seen in the wild and it is larger than I expected, large enough that you can hear its wings whooshing overhead. As Malaysia’s national bird and the symbol of Sarawak, it is a fitting reminder of why we are here. Like so many species around the world, the majestic birds have suffered from habitat loss and over-hunting, and are now protected.

More than 80 percent of Sarawak’s forests have been damaged in what was considered some of the Earth’s wildest lands only 35 years ago. The remaining primary forests contain precious biodiversity, revered and sacred species that never asked for any of this. If we can’t protect the tropics to dig ourselves out of a climate hole, we should consider doing it so that our grandchildren get to live in a world shared with leopards, gibbons and hornbills.

It is not an overstatement to say that our Indigenous friends are at the forefront of some of the most important solutions to the environmental issues of our age. If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, people like Uncle Boyce and Gara must be heard. Perhaps the key to our planetary survival is to talk less and listen more, and to stop overlooking common sense solutions like micro-hydro coming from the ground.

First names rather than last names have been used in this piece to identify sources from large family groups.

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