Malaysia: Indigenous groups contest mega-dams in Sarawak
Sarawak — a forested Malaysian state on the island of Borneo — is home to 2.5 million people and 40 indigenous groups. The rights of many of these groups are now under threat as three of China’s state-owned companies are helping to build as many as 51 controversial dams in Sarawak. These projects will displace large numbers of indigenous communities who lack the legal protections to uphold their customary land rights.
The Sarawak government wants to build the first 12 dams by 2020 and argues that the cheap electricity produced by the dams will help attract industry to Sarawak and lead to rapid economic growth. The Sarawak government has reached agreements with several Chinese investors to build the dams. In 2011, Sinohydro’s controversial Bakun Dam became operational after a delay of almost five decades. This project flooded a forest area the size of Singapore and displaced 10,000 indigenous people. The 2,400-megawatts of electricity produced by the dam already far exceeds Sarawak’s current demand of 972-megawatts of electricity, and the state government has still not found enough willing buyers for the excess electricity.
But despite having no immediate use for the electricity, the state government has continued to seek Chinese investment to build yet more dams. China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro have started to build the 900-megawatt Murum Dam, which will displace a further 1,500 indigenous people. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) found that affected people have not been consulted, the environmental impact assessment was not completed, and conflicts over land rights have not been resolved. After roads were built around the site, a logging company also began encroaching on people’s land.
At least four other dams are scheduled to be completed by 2018. The Sarawak government has signed an US$11 billion deal with China State Grid Corporation to develop several of the projects. Concerns continue to rise. The government has extinguished the land rights of indigenous communities living near the Baram Dam site to build access roads, although the project has not yet been formerly approved. Around 20,000 people will be displaced by this dam and most of the area that will be flooded belongs to indigenous communities.
The Chinese companies involved are relying almost entirely on the Sarawak state government to manage the extensive environmental risks of these projects. This has weakened the legal protections for indigenous peoples. The Sarawak government is led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has been in power for 30 years. As widely reported in the Malaysian media, Taib and his family have a controlling ownership stake in many of the local companies that have received contracts to work on the dams. But he also chairs the board that reviews the environmental and social impact of dams. This is a clear conflict of interest.
Indigenous communities have tried to enforce their traditional land rights in Malaysian courts. According to Mark Bujang, the head of the Borneo Resources Institute of Malaysia, there are 327 ongoing court cases related to native customary land issues. As Mr. Bujang explains, “the courts are beginning to accept the concept of customary land according to the customs and practices of the natives.” Still, the recognition of customary land rights is not keeping pace with the construction of the dams.
But Chinese investors, who have failed to respond to numerous allegations of corruption against their business partners, this is a ticking time bomb of local opposition and a public relations disaster waiting to happen. The dams of Sarawak offer an important lesson for companies. It is not enough for multinational companies to rely exclusively on the host government to prevent human rights violations and corruption. Companies should conduct their own due diligence, consult directly with local communities, and never proceed with a project until a robust environmental and social impact assessment has been completed. This is already common practice among many of the world’s leading multinational companies and will hopefully be embraced by Chinese investors in Sarawak as well
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM)
State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 (published 28 June 2012)
Photo: A Penan family at a temporary shelter in Malaysian Borneo. Credit: Sofia Yu