Indigenous villagers in Sarawak, Malaysia, who have retrieved land that was expropriated to make way for a mega-dam, remain jubilant about their victory, but they say their blockades will remain until the state government officially announces that the Baram dam project has been scrapped.
The villagers heard on Monday that the Sarawak authorities had revoked the gazettes that extinguished the native rights of ownership of land earmarked for the mega-dam and its reservoir.
In a letter to the lawyer for the Baram villagers, Harrison Ngau, the Sarawak state attorney-general’s chambers said the expropriation of native customary rights to land acquired for the dam site and the reservoir had been officially revoked. The letter was dated March 15 and refers to a repealing of the gazettes on February 18.
“There is an atmosphere of triumph and jubilation among the villagers of Baram after the land reserved for the Baram dam and the reservoir was returned to them,” the chairman of the grassroots network SAVE Rivers, Peter Kallang, said today (Wednesday). “But there is also sense of caution.”
There are fears that the revoking of the gazettes could be a vote-catching ploy ahead of the upcoming state election.
The gazette for securing the land for the Baram dam site was published on September 5, 2013. The one for acquiring the land that would have been flooded by the dam reservoir was published on January 26, 2015.
Under the gazettes, the land belonging to 20,000 people from about 30 villages was taken from them. This land includes the villagers’ farms, cemeteries, and reserve land known as pulau galau.
Villagers from Long Keseh, Na’ah, and Long Tap sued the Sarawak government for extinguishing their land rights. Now they will again have the legal right to use their land.
Blockades were established in October 2013 to stop the construction of the access road to the proposed dam site and preparatory work for the dam.
Construction of the 1,200-megawatt dam, which would have covered 38,000 hectares, would have caused the flooding of 412 square kilometres of rainforest and displaced more than 20,000 indigenous people.
Many of those commenting yesterday said they feared there could be a turnaround on Baram after the state election.
“The government could institute a new gazette to expropriate the land again,” Kallang (pictured left), who has been spearheading the five-year battle against the dam, said yesterday. “However, if that were to happen we are still here, ready to challenge them yet again. And our people would be even more courageous to face that challenge.”
Adenan announced a moratorium on work on the Baram dam on July 30 last year, but activists were sceptical, thinking this might be a temporary electioneering tactic.
Baram was a hotly contested parliamentary seat in the 2013 general election. The candidate from the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition defeated the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party) candidate by just 194 votes.
Jok Eng from Long Kesseh, who has been manning the Baram blockade since the start, said he was delighted by the news that the gazettes had been revoked. “I look forward to legally owning my land again. This is the reason why I have been manning this blockade all this time.”
He added, however: “I will continue to stay at the blockade and wait for the official announcement from the government.”
Some of the land that was acquired for the proposed dam site belongs to Jok Eng and his relatives.
Nungang Anyie from Long Liam said: “I am very happy, but I hope that this is not an election gimmick and that the government is sincere.
“To show their sincerity, I would like Sarawak Energy to withdraw its lawsuit against twenty-three of us for evicting their workers from the dam site in 2013.”
Lejau Tusau, a former village head of Long Mekaba, also said he would like to see an official statement in writing or hear an announcement from the government stating that the Baram dam project has been cancelled. “After that we will remove the blockades.”
He said he was grateful that the villagers’ land had been returned to them, but hoped this finally was the end of the project. “If they start constructing the Baram dam in the future, we will be back to resist it.”
James Nyurang (pictured left), who is a former village head of Tanjung Tepalit, said: “While we are very happy to hear this good news, if the government is really going to cancel the Baram dam, we would like to request an improvement of the infrastructure in Ulu Baram so that we can move on with our lives.”
The Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund, which campaigns for the protection of threatened tropical rainforests and the rights of indigenous peoples, says it expects that the cancellation of the plan for the Baram dam will trigger a review of all mega-dam projects in Sarawak. “We call for an alternative energy plan, based on mini-grids with micro-hydro, solar, and biomass at the core.”
The Baram dam was designed under Sarawak’s former chief minister and current governor, Taib Mahmud, the Fund points out, and was aggressively promoted by energy supplier Sarawak Energy as part of a multi-billion dollar hydropower scheme involving the planned construction of 12 mega-dams.
The Baram river.
The dams planned in Sarawak are part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) project, which covers half of the state and is intended to generate 7,000 megawatts of capacity.
The Bakun dam, which is the second largest dam in Asia, is already plugged into the Sarawak grid, but is still running below its optimum generating capacity three years after it came online.
The Bakun dam.
Most of the electricity from the Bakun dam is being sucked up by the factories in Samalaju, which get very cheap power.
The dam has already displaced about 10,000 people and flooded 700 square kilometres of rainforest and farmland. Those displaced have been given just three acres of land, on lease to them for sixty years.
In the case of the Murum dam, the fourth and final turbine began operations in June this year. Indigenous people from the Penan communities have been resettled in two locations.
Andrew Aeria from the Sarawak University (UNIMAS) says there is already an excess of power generation in Sarawak. “We have a buffer of between 25 and 30 percent even before Bakun,” he told participants at the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), held in Sarawak on the two-year anniversary of the Baram blockades last October.
WISER brought together anti-dam activists from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Brazil, and the United States.
Berta Cáceres from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, who attended the summit, was assassinated in her home earlier this month.
Photo of James Nyurang courtesy of Caroline Nyurang.