Indigenous Peoples Protest Destructive Sarawak Dams, Corruption at Industry Conference in Malaysia

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More than three hundred indigenous people of the Penan, the Kenyah, the Kayan, and Iban ethnic groups protested this morning against the recently finished Bakun Dam, the Murum Dam currently under construction, and a series of controversial dams on the island of Borneo, at the opening of the International Hydropower Association’s (IHA) biennial conference.

Cumulatively, the dams would affect tens of thousands of indigenous people and flood over 2000 square kilometers of rainforest.  Dam builder Sarawak Energy has not published the environmental impact assessments of any of the dams, despite persistent calls to do so from affected communities. China Three Gorges Corporation began construction on the 944 MW Murum Dam in 2012 before its environmental impact assessment had even commenced, leaving affected communities with no option to negotiate resettlement outcomes.

We call on the Sarawak government to stop building these dams as long as it continues to disrespect our rights,” said Peter Kallang, chairman of SAVE Rivers, a network representing affected indigenous peoples.

SAVE Rivers demanded that Sarawak Energy and the Sarawak Government respect indigenous peoples’ native, customary rights, as protected in Malaysian law in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  The communities have demanded the government resolve outstanding impacts left from Batang Ai, Bakun and Murum dams, and for the IHA to suspend Sarawak Energy’s association membership, as well as remove CEO Torstein Dale Sjotveit from the interest group’s board until the Sarawak state government and Sarawak Energy attend to the grievances.

In a show of distrust and poor relations with affected communities earlier this week, Sarawak Energy barred Mr. Kallang from participating in a workshop organized by the IHA and the International Finance Corporation to discuss regional stakeholder cooperation. Mr. Kallang had paid to attend, and filed a police report upon being prevented entry. In a statement, SAVE Rivers decried the tactics as an example of civil society repression.

The Sarawak state government has been marred by allegations of corruption, as a recent undercover video filmed by Global Witness illustrated contract hand outs to family members of Chief Minister of Sarawak Abdul Taib Mahmud, who was returned to power in a tense election in early May. Transparency International dubbed the recently completed Bakun Dam a “monument of corruption,” and has criticized the IHA’s choice to engage with Sarawak Energy.

The congress is the world’s largest gathering of dam builders and financiers who convene every two years to discuss industry topics. In 2011, the IHA launched a voluntary auditing tool for dam builders to assess their social and environmental performance, called the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP).

While the HSAP may be useful to guide dam builders and governments internally, there is a risk that dam builders could use it to greenwash the worst dams, especially given such a context of heavy-handed repression and corruption,” said Zachary Hurwitz, Policy Program Coordinator at International Rivers.

The controversial dams would form the energy backbone of the Sarawak government’s SCORE Initiative, a plan to rapidly industrialize the state primarily through the expansion of aluminum smelting facilities, palm oil plantations, and other commodity sectors.