Blog Action Day 2013: How Development is Threatening Human Rights in Borneo

By Amanda Stephenson, Communications Intern for the Borneo Project

I am writing today as a participant of Blog Action Day 2013, whose theme this year is human rights. Check out their website and search @blogactionday on Twitter to read more blog posts about human rights.


Photo courtesy of Sofia Yu

You’ve probably heard about orangutan habitat loss in Borneo resulting from deforestation, and about the countless plant and animal species from Borneo’s rainforests that are being added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with each passing year. But rainforest destruction doesn’t only affect plants and animals. While the ecological costs of this forest loss are immense, what is equally alarming is that indigenous peoples who have sustainably inhabited these forests for centuries are being forced out of them in order to make way for government-sanctioned development projects, all too often without their consent.

Many indigenous peoples around the world depend directly on forests for their sustenance, shelter, and the continuation of centuries-old traditions. The indigenous Penan are one such group. They have roots in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the northern part of the island of Borneo, reaching back over 40,000 years.  Traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers, many of the Penan have been relocated to settlements outside of their traditional lands in order to develop oil palm plantations and hydroelectric dams. Despite their long history with this land, the Sarawak state government does not recognize the Penans’ legal right to it, and has been allowing the logging of their forests since the 1980s. In response, the Penan have taken a stand for their human rights by building blockades to prevent extractive industries from destroying their homes.

Indigenous communities in Borneo and the world over are standing up for their traditional lands and customs and saying “no” to development projects, from deforestation for timber, palm oil, and paper products to resource mining and the development of hydropower mega-dams. Currently, the Penan are involved in a blockade against the Murum Hydropower Dam project, one of 12 dams being built across the region, which will flood over 2,750 square-kilometers of forests and ancestral lands. Hundreds of families have been relocated by Sarawak Energy (SEB), the company responsible for the construction of the Murum Dam, despite claims by families that they have not been properly compensated for the loss of their homes, including the land from which they hunt and gather fruits. The Penan people have protested the Murum Dam twice in the past year. During these blockades, participants have been arrested, threatened, and physically removed from their traditional lands.

Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb

Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb

With each new “development” project sanctioned by the Sarawak government in Borneo, the human rights of indigenous groups including the Penan are violated. This is because these projects are rarely begun with the free, prior and informed  consent (FPIC) of the communities whose lands they involve. Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, has repeatedly deemed Sarawak’s numerous development projects beneficial for the entire country. Taib goes so far as to claim that projects leading to indigenous resettlement are doing previously nomadic and forest-dwelling communities a favor by relocating them to more “modern” facilities, which will “help” them to integrate with the rest of society. This view of the Penan, combined with the initiation of multiple commercial projects without gaining FPIC, violates the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) on multiple counts, particularly in Articles 8, 10, 20, 26, and 32:

Article 8
1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be
subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

Article 10
Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or
territories…without the free, prior and informed consent of the
indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and
fair compensation and…the option of return.


Photo courtesy of Joe Lamb

Article 20
2. Indigenous peoples deprived of their means of subsistence and
development are entitled to just and fair redress.

Article 26
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources
which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands,
territories and resources.

Photo courtesy of Sofia Yu

Photo courtesy of Sofia Yu

Article 32
2. States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous
peoples concerned…in order to obtain their free and informed consent
prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories
and other resources, particularly in connection with the development,
utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.

The Sarawak government has repeatedly violated the human rights of its indigenous populations by failing to obtain free, prior and informed consent for commercial projects and by forcibly relocating communities from their traditional lands before they have agreed to the government and companies’ terms. This is an important issue to highlight in the human rights realm because energy and agricultural projects have continued despite attempts by affected indigenous groups to take legal action or peacefully protest. Even with repeated protests, indigenous voices in Borneo tend to be muffled rather than broadcasted. We can all do our part to stand up for human rights by sharing the stories of the Penan and acting in solidarity with indigenous groups around the world whose rights are being violated in favor of “progress.”

Stand with Sarawak’s indigenous protestors by signing the Borneo Project’s petition against the Murum Dam

Learn more about hydropower dams in Malaysia, and how the Borneo Project works with indigenous peoples through direct support and solidarity

Learn how purchasing palm oil products contributes to rainforest destruction