It was a casual comment that brought home the magnitude of the dam planned for this remote corner of Borneo.
We were having lunch at the headman's house in Long San, a small community in the interior of Sarawak. Outside, the children, who were home from school for the holidays, were playing. There were the ubiquitous sounds of chickens and dogs in the background and it was hot and humid. The village is just one degree north of the equator.
"This community will be submerged by 168 metres of water," said the person describing the project, "so yes, it's a very big dam."
Long San is on the mighty Baram River, the second longest river in Sarawak, and it's easy to see how it and its hundreds of tributaries would quickly fill the valley, particularly during the rainy season. Depending on who you ask, the dam will be either half or all of the size of Singapore and will affect between 10,000 and 20,000 people in 34 villages like Long San.
The dam is one part of a government plan to attract foreign industries to Sarawak with the offer of cheap energy, since the scheme to sell the electricity to peninsular Malaysia or Singapore through a deep sea cable turned out not to be viable. At least 12 dams are planned, according to Anna Meier, who works for the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss NGO active in rural Sarawak. Two dams have already been completed: one is near completion, another site is ready to be flooded as soon as the communities who live in the area have been moved.
But the resettlement of the local indigenous people is fraught because so much has already gone wrong on a previous dam and at least some of the local people are sceptical.
The projects have been receiving coverage in some of the papers in peninsular Malaysia because a coalition of environment groups has just staged a march across the country in an attempt to present a petition to the federal government.
The issue is becoming more visible in Australia too because campaigners have arrived this week to draw attention to the role played by Hydro Tasmania, a consultancy firm which is supplying staff and technical expertise on this and other controversial dam projects in Sarawak (the link was divulged by SBS program Dateline
). Maier claims that one of the officials seconded from Hydro Tasmania, Peter Pattle -- who later became a senior manager at Sarawak Energy -- recently downplayed concerns about safety and environmental issues in Sarawak.
Peter Kallang, who heads a local organisation called "Save Sarawak River Network" and is leading the delegation to Australia, thinks Hydro Tasmania should not do in Sarawak what it would not do at home. Kallang points out the industries that will be attracted by the dam's cheap power will be high energy-consuming industries like aluminium smelters. The implication is that this is not the kind of development local people in Sarawak want.
But Kallang's main argument is that the people are resisting the loss of their ancestral land on which they depend for survival. In Sarawak, indigenous communities have native customary rights to the land on which they live and farm padi (rice), and on which their fruit trees stand and where their ancestors are buried. In recent decades excessive logging has diminished the livelihoods of these communities, which are dependent on the forest. The conversion of logged forest to palm oil plantations has further reduced the amount of available forest. And now the dams.
Logging, plantations and the dam projects are among the strategies which the Sarawak government and chief minister Taib Mahmud promote as development for the rural regions. The three are connected: the same companies who are given the concessions to log the forest and which are converting land to palm oil plantations are also involved in the construction of the dam. And they are all linked to the companies owned by the chief minister and his extended family, according to Maier.
The issues have been made public by lobby organisations but aren't widely known in Sarawak. Local newspapers are owned by the same companies and can have their licenses revoked by the government.
The situation in the indigenous communities has been difficult due to the lack of roads, electricity, schools and clinics in the villages. There are few opportunities to earn a cash income, and high rural-to-urban migration rates, but it seems the dam issue is now rallying the local people. In Long San, posters, banners and graffiti reveal how villagers feel about the dam and how their support for the opposition party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is growing. The current governing party coalition has held political power since the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963; Mahmud has been chief minister of Sarawak since 1982. The next election results will show the extent of local discontent in Sarawak.
In the meantime the fight for the Baram promises to become extremely contentious.