In the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, the confluence of the Rajang and Balui Rivers is marked by the Bakun Rapids. Here, churning whirlpools and crashing white water have undone many an experienced boatman. No sane boatman would even attempt crossing it today - 20 metres above the cataract, heavy excavating machinery is gouging earth from the hillside and dumping tonnes of it into the river below. Diversion tunnels, marking the initial stage of the ambitious Bakun River Dam, are taking shape. And already, just three months into the construction schedule, onsite witnesses have reported 10 deaths - six Korean and four Malaysian workers crushed in accidental cave-ins.
Indigenous labourers recruited from longhouses in the area confirm sighting wooden caskets airlifted off-site by Ranger helicopters, but the deaths have not been reported in the Malaysian press. And when freelance journalist M.G.G. Pillai wrote of the Korean deaths on his Internet website, he was promptly sued for libel by Ting Pek Khing, the flamboyant millionaire executive chairman of the project development company, Ekran Berhad. Ting also applied for a permanent injunction prohibiting Pillai from writing any further articles on the project.
Few facets of the US$5.5 billion Bakun Hydro-electric Project are not secret. Feasibility studies behind the Environmental Impact Assessment are classified under the country’s Official Secret Act, while there has been no public debate or consultation on the project at all. And Ekran actually secured control of it from the Government without the requirement of a public tender - even though the company was totally inexperienced in such major infrastructure projects. The construction site itself is considered a restricted security zone.
Following construction of the diversion tunnels, the main project will see a 210 metre-high concrete dam wall rise from the rapids to create a catchment area of 14,750 rapids to create a catchment area of 14,750 sq kilometres - approximately the size of Singapore - in the centre of Borneo’s tropical rainforest. It will be the largest hydro-electric dam in South-East Asia, and it will inundate hundreds of species of rainforest flora and fauna, many of them protected and endangered. Nevertheless, and contrary to statements by environmental groups and critics of the project, the affected area is far from pristine. Large sections have already been slashed and burned by shifting cultivators and mercilessly logged by East Malaysian timber companies for more than a decade. Primary rainforest is only a small percentage of the proposed reservoir area.
The rising waters of the catchment will displace nearly 10,000 indigenous people who inhabit their distinctive longhouses along the hillsides overlooking the present rivers. In February, Sarawak’s State Government legislated to extinguish all Native Customary Rights held by those people over their traditional lands. Although “fair and reasonable” compensation is promised for their losses before they are resettled en masse in July, they will leave behind not only their rambling homes but also a traditional culture based on farming, fishing and rainforest hunting and gathering.
The Malaysian Government says the Bakun Hydro-electric Plant wil generate 2400 megawatts of power, 2000 of which will b transferred 670km by submarine cable to Peninsular Malaysia. While the country’s economy has grown at more than 7 per cent each year for the past decade, it has been outpaced by energy consumption, which has risen at a rate of 10 per cent a year. The Bakun project will allow the Government to diversify supplies away from its current dependence on coal burning towards a mix of oil, gas , coal and hydro.
However, even the Government acknowledges that power companies generated an energy surplus of some 64 per cent last year. And that merely gives ammunition to critics who contend that Malaysia does not need the Bakun Dam. “At this moment, energy reserves in the country far exceed demand,” says Dr Kua Kia Soong, spokesman for a coalition of non-government organisations opposed to the project. “If the money used to build the Bakun Dam were used by independant power producers, the energy supplied would be two to fourfold what the Bakun project can produce -without the social and environmental disruption.” As Kua points out in his 1996 book “Malaysia’s Energy Crisis”, the country’s wealth of clean-burning natual gas reserves is currently exported to Japan.
But the Government, and in particular Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, believes the project will create low cost renewable power to cater to te nation’s escalating energy needs into the 21st century. Mahathir was succinct in dismissing the dam’s critics last year. “Malaysia wants to develop, and I say to the so-called environmentalists, ‘Mind your own business’.”
To make sure they do just that, 60 security police are stationed at the remote Bakun site. Journalists, in particular, are prohibited from entering the area. The Government says the site is security controlled on safety grounds. Many believe, however, that the secrecy element relates to the suppression of negative reports: criticism of the project on environmental grounds, reportage of widespread discontent among native peoples facing resettlement, the unprecedented, seemingly uncontrolled logging taking place in the catchment area.
I travelled upriver from Sarawak’s coastal port of Sibu into the dam-affected area. At the project site, I witnessed the extraordinary scale of logging: massive hardwood timber logs of mahogany and meranti, many worth as much as A$2000 each, sail down-river in tug-hauled timber barges. Smaller consignments are floated down by local workers. Timber camps with stockpiles of logs awaiting shipment line the riverbanks.
The Merama camp on the Balleh River has a timber output of 30,000 tonnes a month. The Business Times of Singapore estimated the value of rainforest hardwoods in the catchment area at $515 million in 1994: that figure has now climbed at least $650 million as hardwood prices soar. These logging spoils belong to project developer Ekran, but Ting is quick to dispel estimates of big timber profits. “No timber has been felled yet,” he said in a remarkable statement last month. “Furthermore, I don’t need timber from Bakun for my business. The cost of removing [it] is more than the cost of the timber itself.”
In Sarawak, it is difficult to distinguish the loggers from the Government. Conflicts of interest and nepotism stain the project, said to be the country’s largest private development, after Kuala Lumpur shuttled its environmental supervision from federal to State hands. The two sons of Sarawak’s Chief Minister and Resources Minister, Taib Mahmud, hold more than four million shares in developer Ekran Berhad, as well as 17 per cent of Pacific Chemicals, which is contracted to do the current Stage I catchment logging, valued at $62 million. Environment Minister James Wong owns one of the State’s largest timber operations. It’s little wonder Ekran has won “pioneer status” tax concessions from the Government which will see the conglomerate pay no taxes on profits for the project’s 10 year development period.
Still, the project’s greatest human impact is on the local tribes - the Kenyah, Penan, Ukit and Lahanan peoples resident in 15 longhouses earmarked for submersion by the dammed rivers. The Government plans to resettle them near the present outpost of Belaga. Each family will receive 1.2 hectares of land for farming and will be housed in an apartment block costing each family A$25,000. Farming will take place in zones designated for various crops, dominated by palm oil plantation. While river-dwelling natives are enthuthiastic cultivators, it is commonly believed palm oil production on 1.2ha could never support a family of four.
Kuala Lumpur remains locked into the project. The Government is adamant the longhouse natives must be resettled for their own good. “In the new site, there will be jobs on the plantations and the cahnce to work as commercial farmers,” says Energy Minister Leo Moggie. “It is really only the old people who want to stay.” That’s a view not shared in the longhouses. Some young people do look forward to the change of lifestyle, but the prevailing attitude is one of powerless resignation. Says one Kenyah woman, “We do not want to leave but the Government tells us we must go. What can we do? We cannot say no the the Government.”
Still, some are. In April last year when protestors from various NGO groups gathered at the Ekran offices in Kuala Lumpur to deliver a memorandum condemning Bakun, police sprayed them with tear gas. Another demonstration in the dam area was crushed in similar fashion, alhtough one did succeed in making its statement. Last December, a small group arrived at the site’s airport overnight and unrolled banners saying “Do not invest in this project” and “This project will destroy our culture” just as a planeload of prospective British investors arrived. After speaking with the investors, the tribeslfolk returned home by riverboats before a truck-full of police arrived.
Most believe the resettlement will result in their working as plantation coolies for subsistence wages, divorced from their river/forest culture. “Native people are very poorly educated so real job opportunities will not be given to us,” says Siem Liong of the Indigenous People’s Development Centre. “What jobs can we have? We can clean up rubbish. We can be the laundry worker. Is that a good job opportunity?”
Discontent over resettlement has fomented within the longhouses, many of which have populations of more than 1000. A Malaysian High Court suit by three native litigants affected by the project shook Malaysia in July last year when Justice James Foong surprisingly ruled in their favour. He ordered Ekran to stop all work on the site immediately because the project had not met necessary environmental approvals. That stop-work order lasted four days. In a side-stepping move, Ekran appealed the decision then restarted work before the appeal was heard.
Today, just a few weeks before resettlement is scheduled to begin, there is confusion in the longhouses over promised compensation. How much and when? “The people have not received any detailed information as to what compensation they will get for their homes or how much per acre they get for their land,” explains Thomas Jalong of Malaysia’s Friends of the Earth, which works closely with affected native people. Neither has the Government specified when the compensation is to be paid. The tribespeople themselves don’t understand why they need to be resettled at all. “The high wate line is the best place for us to go,” says Kajing Dubek from Long Bulan, one of the three native High Court litigants. “I don’t know whey should put us to the relocation area where we are all compacted together. My family will not be resettled.” They are tempted to move themselves to the high water mark but “if we do,” says Liong, “we are afraid they will bring in their police and guns to chase us out.”
It’s clear Malaysian authorities want the natives out of the soon-to-be-established reservoir. Their published plan for the area is to create a haven for international eco-tourists. But with the wildlife having fled to the interior and the indigenous people resettled, why would tourists want to visit anyway? The underlying reason the Government wants complete control of the catchment probably lies with the the Sarawak economy’s insatiable dependence upon logging. While most logs are exported to Japan and Taiwan, Australia also imported $175 million in timber products from Malaysia in 1995.
Since the early eighties, logging has fluorished along those waterways, taking first the established primary forest and later attacking secondary forest and re-growth. Re-planting is unheard of. Logging permits were handed out as political favours by State ministers, which resulted in a steady destruction of Sarawak’s rainforest/riverine ecology. As chainsaws ripped through the forests, the wildlife fled deeper into the uncut Indonesian Borneo. Extracted logs left a barren surface on the forest floor; this has caused massive erosion for kilometres along the area’s riverbanks. Silt washed from the topsoil pours into the rivers, transforming clear water into the milky-brown sludge it is today. The Government is yet to initiate any moves to improve the quality of water used for drinking and washing.
The rise of the dammed rivers to the new height will also allow loggers access to a previously inaccessible level of forest, free from the interference of native customary owners. It will extend the life of Sarawak’s timber industry, if not by much. Even the International Tropical Timber Organisation, which environmentalists regard as pro-logging, warned in 1991 that Sarawak would be denuded in 13 years should logging not be drastically reduced. Since then, given the acceleration in logging in the Bakun Dam catchment, that Armageddon figure would be closer to the year 2000.
While many see the Bakun Dam construction as a fait accompli, opposition to the project continues actively around Malaysia. Opponents see their last opportunity to stop it in the difficulties being experienced by Ekran in arranging financial backing. A report written by former Chase Manhattan Bank director Mark Mansley last year, “Bakun High Dam - High Risk”, casts doubts over official estimates of the dam’s capabilities, as well as its potential investment prospects. It reports the hydro project will almost certainly be incapable of reaching capacity energy production targets.
Mansley’s report for energy analysts Adelphi International was not published in Malaysia, but it has given prospective investors cause for concern. Financial settlement is still to be resolved. The report has also given dam opponents like Dr Kua Kia Soong fresh resolve to keep fighting, “We know that prospective investors are very dubious.” he told me. “As long as the fate of the natives is still uncertain, and as long as the forests have not been completely logged - we have faith we can stop the project”
Courtesy: The Australian Magazine
Muslimedia - May 16-31, 1997