Malaysia: The road to Murum dam
The government-built tarred road to Murum dam is pitted with large potholes: a casualty of overflowing, under-regulated logging trucks. This road begins from the junction leading to Bakun dam, off the old Bintulu-Miri highway in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak. It then merges into a logging road at the turn-off where a large sign beckons with the words, Murum dam.
The road to Murum dam abruptly stops with a thin piece of rope at Sungai (Malay for "river") Seping. One end of the rope is attached to empty oil barrels, and the other end is held by young Penan men, sheltered under a piece of discarded aluminium. Abandoned company trucks are left on the wayside. On the other side of the barrier, Penan families of different villages mingle with shared food to the drifting sounds of Radio Sarawak, a non-governmental radio show.
This simple make-shift blockade has captured the imagination and sympathy of many people. Since its commencement on September 26th 2012, the state government has tried to intimidate the Penan community into abandoning their protest by sending armed police. A heavy-handed action in contrast to the simple rope held by determined Penans, depicting a symbolic no to the construction of the Murum mega-dam on their ancestral lands.
The government's reaction towards the blockade has been predictable: that the Penans have been manipulated by outsiders, and that they are resisting development.
This could not be further from the truth.
Little has been reported about this Penan community, who have more or less resigned themselves to the fate that they cannot stop any changes made in their forests.
While the blockade remains, thus stopping all progress on the construction of the mega-dam, the rope nevertheless goes down for a logging company that apparently enjoys a good relationship with the Penan communities.
"They [the logging company] keep their promises," I was told by a Penan elder during my visit to the blockade, "But the government does not."
The government has promised to each Penan family in return for constructing a mega-dam on their lands RM500,000 (about USD164,000) per family. After 75% construction of the mega-dam, the community was told that their promised housing, farmlands and other development would come out of that fund, potentially leaving the Penan community with no cash in the end.
It was just too much to give up - to become destitute in lands they can no longer hunt or farm on. And so, that symbolic piece of rope went up, witnessed by over 300 Penans on one fine September day.
Malaysia is a signatory of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which includes the principle of Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC).
Such acronyms may not ber familiar to this Penan community, but the knowledge of their inherent rights speaks volume through the blockade.
The road to Murum dam may be rocky, but hope remains for a better passage for Sarawak's indigenous people.
Photo: Penan blocking a road in Sarawak in 2008
Credit: Friends of the Earth International