New Cascading Dam Plans Leave Communities in the Dark

This month, communities impacted by the proposed Tutoh/Apoh cascading dam project are busy collecting signatures for a petition to the Premier of Sarawak’s office. The petition is currently 500 signatures strong. It expresses concerns about the project and demands community interests and Indigenous rights are not sidelined in the name of development. 

Community members have reached out to relevant authorities asking for more information on the proposed dam. The Premier of Sarawak Abang Johari Openg has previously indicated there are plans for construction to go ahead, suggesting at the Baram Regatta in September that Baram communities had requested the dam be constructed. The Borneo Post at that time quoted him as saying “if these rivers are no longer used, why not let us build cascading dams?” and “It enriches the fishes and chases crocodiles away.” 

Many community members find these comments alarming. “We are not against development,” explains Ding Laing of Long Panai — one of the villages along the Tutoh river. “But we are very concerned when development projects are brought up in a manner where we as the affected communities are never first approached and informed of it. So, to suddenly read about it in the papers; we become very concerned.” Long Panai community members wrote a letter last November to the Premier’s office requesting more information and engagement, and are yet to receive a response. 

“This has always been our struggle in Baram. It is difficult to access and obtain information in regards to development plans and land issues from state agencies and departments. And when we raise concerns and rightly request for information, we are perceived as uncooperative and resisting development,” said Celine Lim, Managing Director of SAVE Rivers, a Miri-based Civil Society Organisation (CSO) that advocates for Indigenous People and environmental rights. 

“The suggestion that communities no longer use the rivers is particularly alarming and demonstrates that policy makers are out of step with reality. While it is vital to transition to renewable energy, this energy transition must be just and that includes upholding the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) rights of the Indigenous People. In our letter to the Premier office last year, we requested access to feasibility studies of these proposed cascading dam sites and research that highlights the connection of dam constructions as an effective crocodile population control. We also have not received any response,” she added. 

“We are also concerned about the impact of the cascading dam on Mulu — which is a UNESCO World Heritage site — as the Tutoh river is connected into the national park. This is why we want to form a dialogue with the relevant authorities. Consultations must be done prior to any development plans affecting our ancestral home and only then we can be well informed enough to collectively give our consent or not,” Willie Kajan from Mulu explains.

“The 500 signatures that have been collected so far clearly express the sentiments of the grassroots and affected community of the proposed plan of the Tutoh and Apoh cascading dam,” Willie Kajan added. 

The petition with the signatures will be handed-over to the Premier office at the end of the month and copied to relevant departments.