Malaysia may be pushing ahead with its plans for a devastating series of 12 dams in the rainforests of Borneo that will kill a billion trees, bring death to wildlife on a stupendous scale and evict tens of thousands of indigenous people and their communities, writes Jettie Word. Now a new film honours their struggle for land, forest and freedom.
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.
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.
Over 15 years later these families are still struggling to make a living and Sungai Asap has been declared a resettlement disaster. The 10 acres of farmland per family that they were promised turned out to be 3 acres, often a half day’s journey away, on rocky, infertile, and sloping land.
The dam has polluted the river, poisoning their water source and killing the fish they depended on for food and income.
To add insult to injury, the transmission lines carrying electricity from the Bakun Dam pass directly over Sungai Asap but they cannot access the power for which they were displaced: instead, they have diesel generators that are often locked because they are unable to afford the expensive costs of diesel.
And now, another 12 dams are planned
The Sarawak government is now proposing to build 12 more hydroelectric dams, creating similar risks for tens of thousands of indigenous people. These communities know what has happened to the people of Sungai Asap, and they are fiercely fighting dam construction to protect their communities and livelihoods.
As part of the indigenous-led campaign to unite communities on the ground and spread awareness, US-based NGO 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 on July 22nd. It showcases the devastating effects of forced displacement on indigenous communities and highlights the efforts to stop the dams.
A self-inflicted disaster in waiting
The Baram Dam, the next dam in line to be built, is facing tremendous resistance. Since October of 2013 Baram communities have continuously managed two blockades that have prevented construction of the Baram Dam.
On 30th July the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Adenan Satem, visited Long Lama, a town next to one of the blockades, to lay the founding stone for a new bridge. He was received by over 500 protesters from Baram lining the streets, sporting banners, and making it clear that the people of Baram do not want the Baram dam.
Not only would the dams deeply impact communities along the river, they would have devastating consequences for the Bornean rainforest, one of the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems in the world.
Recent studies from UC Berkeley‘s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) found staggering biodiversity impacts.
The impact of just three of these dams alone are estimated to cause the loss of 3.4 million individual birds and 110 million individual mammals.
To put this into perspective, that’s more individual birds than were counted in the North American Breeding Bird Survey in 2012, and more individual mammals than the entire inventory of cattle in the United States in 2012. A minimum of 900 million individual trees and 34 billion individual arthropods would also be lost.
The communities are Baram are up against powerful corporate and political figures, but they are fighting for their land, cultural preservation, and livelihoods, and grassroots organizing seems to be making an impact.
In June CM Adenan finally sat down and met with local activists and researchers to have a frank conversation about the dams, and following the meeting he asked for an alternative proposal to the dams. This is unprecedented news, but it’s only the first step.
The people of Baram still have a ways to go to secure their human rights, protect their rainforest, and cancel the dams for good.
Also on The Ecologist: ‘Commerce or Corruption? The rainforest dams of Sarawak‘.
The film on Vimeo: