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Saturday, March 28, 2009

> Damn the Dams of Sarawak

Comment by Sim Kwang Yang

After timber and land for plantations, the water resources to generate electricity at many of Sarawak's great rivers are the last opportunity for making mega bucks by crony capitalism in the state of Sarawak.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has recently announced that plans to build 12 more hydroelectric dams in Sarawak will go ahead to meet future industrialisation needs. They will be located at Ulu Air, Metjawa, Belaga, Baleh, Belepeh, Lawas, Tutoh, Limbang, Baram, Murum, and Linau Rivers. The plan will also see an extension to the Batang Ai Dam. The construction of these dams will push the total generating capacity of Sarawak to 7000 mw by 2020.

I was vehemently opposed to the construction of the Bakun Dam since the early 1980s. Unfortunately, the then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad came to Kuching and launched the project together with the Sarawak CM in the early 1990s. The project was awarded to Ting Pek Kiing's Ekran Bhd and associates without an open tender. Neither Ting nor his company had any track record of dam building at all.

The project became messy. Finally, the project was halted in 1997 due to the Asian Financial Crisis. As a result, the Malaysian government had to take it back from the consortium. According to information divulged in Parliament, RM700 million to RM1.1 billion was paid to Ekran as "compensation".  (That's negotiated contracts for you!)

The on-and-off Bakun project is still fumbling forward, with unknown cost overrun.  

Meanwhile, the social and environmental disasters that I and many environmentalists had predicted have come to pass in Bakun.  Writing on the subject on the blog The Borneo Project, Harian Thompson and San Hui had the following grim story to report:
"While project logistics continue to be developed, thousands of people resettled for the Bakun Dam continue to suffer at resettlement sites. In 1999, 10,000 indigenous Kenyah and Kayan people were forcibly relocated from their ancestral homes to make way for the dam. Most were forced to move to the government-sponsored Sungai Asap resettlement site, while a few communities moved to other sites or remained on their land.

In the past, the indigenous peoples subsisted in a self-sustainable economy, cultivating land, fishing in rivers and hunting in forests. They occupied 70,000 hectares of ancestral lands. Now, living in poorly constructed longhouses and forced into the cash economy, unemployment and hunger are prevalent.

Compensation for people's land has reportedly been paid out, but resettlers claim that the amounts were inadequate and below market-value. Problems with food security are rising as cash-poor villagers are unable to grow food on their small plots of mediocre land. As a result, many villagers have resorted to meals of rice and salt. Alienation has led to increased alcoholism and violence. In recent months the population at the resettlement site has since increased 40 percent, further straining meager resources.

The desperate situation for people living at the resettlement site threatens to worsen in the next couple years, particularly as compensation payments run out and the fertility of their small plots of land drops. It is likely that many will be forced to purchase expensive fertilizers to cultivate food to feed their families.

Further problems loom ahead as residents at the resettlement site must pay back government loans for housing construction. A five-year grace period to begin repayment of the $13,700 in debt is set to run out in 2003. At that time, families will owe an average of $80 per month over a 25-year period. The Malaysian government has offered to reduce payments for families who cannot afford to pay; however, they will still be required to pay back the loans with interest.

"There is not much to look forward to these days," said Junis Win, a Kayan farmer from the Sungai Asap resettlement site. Junis, like many others, is concerned about the future, particularly how he will pay back the housing loan despite the fact that he does not have a stable income."

Urbanites have little idea of how important land is to the native people of Sarawak. As long as they have their ancestral land, they will always survive in the jungle far away from the cities.

They plant their rice for food self-sufficiency, fish in the river, hunt for wild games in the jungle, and collect or plant vegetables in their backyard.  Since they need to fallow their land after a harvest, they do need a few plots of land to grow rice on rotation year after year. 

Left alone, they tend to be happier, healthier, and less stressed out than city folks who have to mortgage their lives for material things.
Plunge them into a small resettled site to make way for the Bakun Dam with inferior housing and push them into cash economy, they soon degenerate into social and financial chaos, going down the path of the Native Americans ("Red Indians") on their reservations!

Development for whom? 

These native Sarawakians who are the original residents of the vast Bakun territory for God-knows-how-long have become the first victims of the Bakun Project. They put paid to the lie touted in the BN slogan of Politics of Development. You have to ask: development for whom?

(The proposed dams on the upper reaches of the great Baram River are particularly worrisome. More than a few Penans would be resettled there. The Penan people's way of life makes them very vulnerable to drastic change to their surrounding eco-system. I shudder to think of how they are going to survive with dignity at the resettled site!)

At the moment, Sarawak's total generating capacity stands at 933 mw, which is much more than current demand. So why build 12 more dams? Macro-economic planning aside, that question needs to be answered.

Let us take the proposed RM3 billion Murum Dam for instance. The developer is Sarawak Energy Berhad. This is what the contributor to my communal blog The Hornbill Unleashed Apang had to say in his latest posting:

"What is not announced is that Sarawak Energy Berhad is the sole "developer" but not the actual dam builder. SEB is fully in the hands of Taib Mahmud's family members.The Chairman is Abdul Hamed Sepawi, a first cousin to the CM, who also heads Ta Ann Holdings Berhad (involved in logging and plantations) and Naim Cendera Holdings Berhad (involved in properties and construction). Brother-in-law and former State Seretary Abdul Aziz is group managing director and chief executive officer of SEB. As Aziz confirmed in the recent Al Jazeera's interview it sure is an advantage to be well connected to the CM of Sarawak when you do big business in the state."

On how big money is made through political connection and rent, Apang takes us to the Bengoh Dam: "The Bengoh Water Reservoir Dam, an hour's drive from Kuching has already begun construction since late 2008. The construction contract was awarded without tender to Naim Cendera for about RM310,650,000 to be exact. The company then sub contracted it out to the dam builder from Mainland China, Sinohydro for RM145 million. Sinohydro is finishing the infamous Bakun Dam. See how easy it is to make big money in Sarawak when you are well connected?

Four Bidayuh villagers with hundreds of years of history and ancestral land must give way for the project. The Sarawak Government is in the process of acquiring NCR lands belonging to other 20 Bidayuh villages in Semadang-Bau areas for this sort of twisted 'development'.

It seems every time there is a mega development project, the wealth of the elites in Sarawak politics will be vastly developed, while the rural people would lose their land upon which they depend for their survival."

These are the stories about Sarawak politics that Sarawakians are very familiar with. Children grow up with them, hearing them at the family dinner from a young age. Friends exchange inside information about these deals, over dinner and in private conversations. None of these important bits of information would ever see the light of day in the Sarawak mainstream media.  

It used to be the Chinese who were informed and angry over the status quo, and they punished the BN in the last state general election in 2006. On my last trip home, I discovered that many Dayaks and Malays are also getting nauseated.

At my age, I am supposed to have mellowed. Indeed, I have. But whenever I read of minor BN ministers descending on Batang Ai in droves mumbling as if in a dream about their politics of development, dropping Maggie mee from the sky, and dispensing with their petty cash to the voters, I am overcome with a rage at the massive hypocrisy of it all.

If we tell a lie, and we know it is a lie, at least we still know the truth, and that is not so bad at all. But if we live a lie, talk the lie, and eventually believe in the lie as truth, then that is a fate worse than death. I did not say that. Socrates said it in The Republic.

Damn the stupid Dams in Sarawak! - Malaysiakini.

(PS - The roving reporters from Hornbill Unleashed Willie and Chee How will be reporting live at Ground Zero in the morning of nomination day at the nomination centre in Lubok Antu, Batang Ai, on Sunday, March 29, 2009. I thank Malaysiakini for the free advertisement - Sim Kwang Yang.)