Bakun: Empty promises, damned lives

By Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

The Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s visit to the Bakun area on 15 January 2011 was trumpeted as a gracious offer of largesse to the displaced peoples from the Bakun area who have been resettled at Sungai Asap since 1999. He promised a RM62m road linking Belaga and Bakun; a RM46m clinic, and has “agreed in principle” to write off the remaining housing loans of about RM41 million owed by some 1500 families who were displaced by the Bakun dam. Can this offset the  “ethnocide” of the displaced Bakun indigenous peoples, the “damned lives” at the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme?

More than 10,000 indigenous natives from at least 15 different ethnic communities had to give up their ancestral homes and preferred environment at a time when the dam had been suspended during the financial crisis at the end of the Nineties. Among these groups of indigenous peoples displaced are the Ukits, who are the only ethnic community of its kind in the world with their distinct language and culture. Theirs is now an endangered culture.

I was amazed to read that Najib was “the first Prime Minister to set foot in Belaga town”! That means that the Prime Minister most responsible for this monstrous project, Dr Mahathir had never set foot in Belaga despite the long drawn-out saga of this accursed dam during his reign!

Now, even when I was a young lecturer at NUS, I managed to visit Belaga in 1978. And soon after the resettlement of the displaced peoples, I again visited the area with the other members of the fact-finding mission in 1999.

Yet no Malaysian Prime Minister had bothered to see for themselves this part of Malaysia where more than 15 different ethnic communities lived in some of the most beautiful forest environments of Malaysia and where the biggest dam in SEAsia was to be built to displace these indigenous peoples!

The only word that sprang to mind when we observed the state and morale of the displaced people and their shocking “new” living environment was ETHNOCIDE. That was just six months after the resettlement:

“Ethnocide may be defined as the process whereby a culturally distinct people loses its identity due to policies designed to erode its land and resource base, the use of its language, its own social and political institution as well as its traditions, art forms, religious practices and cultural values. When such policies are carried out systematically by governments in the pretext of social progress, national unity, economic development, military security, then such governments are guilty of ethnocide…”
(Shanthi Thambiah, “Cultural Diversity and Indigenous peoples” in Kua Kia Soong edited, ‘Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian Ethnic Minorities’, DJZHLC, 1998:19)

Having witnessed this process of “ethnocide” at Sungai Asap, I have always said that this displacement of the 10,000 Bakun peoples was the single most dastardly act of the Mahathir administration and the Taib State Government. For this, all component parties of the Barisan Nasional must bear full responsibility. Permit me to refresh your memory regarding “Operation Exodus”.


Affected Communities Not Fully Consulted

Ever since the project was first proposed, concerned Malaysian NGOs have consistently raised the issue of the lack of clear information and accountability with regard to the Bakun project. Just about every aspect of the project, including the plans for resettlement, was shrouded in secrecy, vague promises and poor consultation with the affected victims and NGOs.

It is clear that the hurry to resettle these indigenous peoples was linked to the fact that the contracts for the Asap Resettlement Scheme had been given out before the onset of the economic crisis. It was also calculated that money could be made from oil palm plantations in the resettlement area. The displacement of the Balui population was thus part of the plan to convert them into wage labourers for these plantations. The State is in fact subsidising these plantation interests not only in creating this pool of cheap labour but in the budget allocation for the Asap Resettlement Scheme.


Empty Promises

The affected people were promised, by the authorities, adequate plots of land (3 hectares), reasonable housing, jobs and other facilities at the Asap Scheme. Yet, until their final exodus, they had no knowledge of how the Asap Resettlement Scheme had been designed. Nevertheless, they were required to sign a Sales & Purchase Agreement on arrival as a condition for obtaining the keys to their new homes.

As a further pressure for the indigenous people to move to Asap, the authorities closed all support services (schools, clinics, etc) in the original long houses and all those who stayed behind or moved further upstream were warned that they were trespassing on state land and liable to be forcibly evicted. Those who refused to move to Asap were told that they would lose their right to their compensation payments.

This is hardly the situation within which such a traumatic experience for the indigenous peoples who had lived for generations in their ancestral homes, should have taken place. Instead of receiving all manner of assistance to settle in to the new life, they had to put up with veiled threats and (empty) inducements. The entire “Operation Exodus” has shown a failure of planning and decision planning. The state of the Asap Resettlement Scheme itself further confirms this fact.


Damned Lives

As a member of the fact finding team in 1999, I was shocked to witness, first hand, the appalling state of the site, considering it was scarcely a year old. Lack of an adequate sewerage system, lack of rubbish disposal, lack of proper access roads were serious faults, threatening the health and longer-term sustainability of the communities. The plumbing, made of PVC pipes, can be seen under the houses, and is connected to the septic tank. Leakages in some of these pipes were already noticeable, despite the newness of the scheme. No apparent remedial action had been forthcoming from the authorities. Sewerage waste at some of the long houses flowed directly into the river near the long houses (we saw this at the Long Geng and Long Ayak resettlement area).

The long houses do not have a proper drainage system. There are no concrete drains and there are already sections of stagnant and putrid water in the mud drains which take discharge from the houses. This is unsanitary and poses a health hazard, being mosquito breeding grounds and pose risks to children who may play with the water.

Rubbish collection is another problem faced by the community in the resettlement area. It is non-existent. The access road is too narrow for the rubbish collection lorries. Rubbish disposal is an essential service. During our stay at the site, we noticed at one long house residents were tipping rubbish into the stream, while at another, it was being dumped in a heap not far from the long house. They had no alternative. The question is: Who planned this site and how could the design have been passed with such basic flaws?

The situation with regard to the housing provided at Asap is also appalling. Not only is the design and condition of the new houses inadequate, but indigenous people were being forced to pay some RM52,000 for a unit through a contract that has not been explained to them and is written in English legalese. The price of the house was extraordinary, given its shoddy quality, its location and the paltry amount of compensation paid for the original buildings which were of far greater substance and relevance to the people. Sarawak is supposed to be one of the world’s main suppliers of wood. (For comparison, a concrete properly finished low-cost house in Peninsular Malaysia costs only RM25,000!)

The longhouses are of standard design. Each longhouse has fifteen units (bilik). They are arranged on two storeys. Downstairs is a hall and a kitchen, with a bathroom and toilet. Upstairs is just one open room, presumably for sleeping. The common balcony ( ) is much narrower than a traditional longhouse design, meaning it is difficult to use for traditional communal activities. Other than the roughly cemented toilet and bathroom floors, and the bathroom and toilet walls which are of asbestos, the houses are made of wood – very poor quality wood at that. The doors and wall panels are of plywood, the floor boards are thin third-grade soft wood with gaps between the planks, while the main pillars are thin belian wood.

The long houses at Asap had been designed without any indigenous peoples’ inputs. Instead, a British-based company (Bucknall’s) was given the contract! And from our investigations, no Certificate of Fitness had been issued before the resettlement and this was a serious irregularity in the planning process for the site. The State authorities had in fact acted against the municipal laws of Malaysia.

Residents claimed that they had asked for ten acres each at Sg Asap. They were promised seven but only received three acres. Three acres of land is hardly sufficient to meet their needs. The fertility of the soil is inadequate for much of the land is situated on swampy or hilly areas. The size of the land is also inadequate. Further, despite prior warnings, the state authorities had failed to provide for the circumstance whereby the indigenous people had to abandon their previous land (and crops) but thus had no time to cultivate the new land. There was thus a dearth of vegetables and fruits available at the site.

Several consequences had emerged from this. Firstly, the pressure on the existing land meant almost immediately that there was a severe shortage of fish, game and jungle products. This, together with the lack of vegetables and fruits, meant that the communities were thrust immediately into a wholly cash economy, spending significant sums on purchasing food and materials which had previously been obtained for free. High transportation costs also meant that the cost of such purchases was relatively expensive.

To attempt to offset this, some of the indigenous people had begun to cultivate state land, outside of the demarcated land for the resettled communities. Again, there was not enough of this extra land, and this had already led to inter-community conflict. In addition, the cultivation of such land (considered “state land”) was likely to incur the wrath of the authorities, sooner or later, meaning such cultivation would be terminated.

It was not coincidental that while the mission was in Sarawak, the State Assembly actually passed an amendment to the Land Code to outlaw squatting on state land. This would have grave consequences for the indigenous peoples at Sg. Asap who had been using State land beyond the three acres they had been given. The mission found that this was a general practice of most of the people there. The other group of people affected by this amendment would be those who have chosen to move further upriver.

The failure by the planners to properly provide adequate alternative land again reflects an apparent inability to respect and honour what the indigenous people themselves had asked for, to properly respect and honour their culture and traditions, to respect and support sustainable farming and to respect and support provision for future generations. It further indicates how the indigenous communities have been treated like objects in a process which has provided a hopelessly inadequate alternative life for them, under the guise of ‘development’.

The residents have been displaced from a subsistence/part-cash economy to a totally cash economy. Almost everything has to be paid for, including their staple rice, vegetables, wild boar, fish, even buah pinang and sireh which they used to get in abundance. There was a general loathing toward having to pay electricity and water rates. As they have no income, they have been living off their compensation money and this is almost finished now.

The cost of living for the households has increased dramatically after they move into the new resettlement area at Sg. Asap. Now, the people are burdened with electric and water bills, which they never paid before. In their origin home, they were using a diesel generator to generate electricity (the diesel was provided by the logging company at no cost) and the water supply came from the natural streams.

Although the State Government had envisaged the displaced people as wage labour for oil palm plantations, in 1999 only one company had moved in. Even so, the seedlings would take at least five years to mature and allow harvesting work to be done. From interviewing some local people at Asap, the plantation company Samling prefered to pay local people RM8 per hectare but they paid Indonesian labourers RM20 per hectare. Five companies had been given the green light to open up plantations, including the Sarawak Enterprise but only one had started. This again showed dismal planning by the authorities.

New social problems had arisen such as breakdown of family relations, distrust within communities; lack of social and recreational outlets for the youth; conflict between different communities, and disempowerment of women. We saw widespread despondency among the residents at Sg. Asap; alcoholism had taken root and there was no motivation to produce their traditional handicraft beyond the plain floor mats…the symptoms of ethnocide.


Who Benefits from the Bakun Dam?

The whole displacement process raises the fundamental questions of who defines and who benefits from development. The fact is that the indigenous population affected by the Bakun HEP have been asked to sacrifice their entire natural and cultural heritage in the name of development. Indeed, government spokespeople and others have lambasted critics as being anti-development and traitors. Yet on closer examination of the way this whole project has been planned and implemented, it is clear that the indigenous people feel utterly betrayed and degraded by this so-called “development”. They have been made to change a lifestyle which they controlled and from which they could plan their future, to one where everything has been planned for them and which has robbed them of their dignity, autonomy and ability to sustain their livelihood through integration with their traditional land and its resources.

It must be pointed out that the indigenous peoples of Bakun are by no means “backward” and living primitive lifestyles. Far from it. Most communities have been participating in part cash economy for a long time now. Their original long houses have produced quite a few university graduates and professionals. The Member of Parliament for the area in 1999 was himself a former headmaster who had grown up at Bakun.

What they could have done with to improve their quality of life at their original long houses were better services: transportation, education facilities, clinics and hospitals, marketing and credit, etc. They could do with some sustainable means of power for each of their long house communities. In other words, development must be based on the needs of the community and not the socially destructive projects such as the Bakun dam. Now their forest has been destroyed, their rivers have been depleted of fish and drinkable water and even the only means of transport since the days of their ancestors – the upstream tributaries of the Rajang – has been terminated by the accursed Bakun Dam.


Lest We Forget

For the young Malaysians as well as the grown-up politicians who are particularly prone to selective amnesia, permit me to remind you of the twisted integuments of this long drawn-out project which concerned Malaysian NGOs have consistently condemned as not only socially disruptive and environmentally destructive but also economically disastrous and a burden on Malaysian tax payers.

1970s: Initial studies to assess the hydroelectric potential of Sarawak’s rivers were done by SESCO, the Sarawak Electric Supply Company.

1980:   The SAMA Consortium, a joint venture of German and Swiss consultants together with the Malaysian authorities, was commissioned to conduct feasibility studies. Bakun was identified as one of four possible dam sites. It was to have a power generating capacity of 2,400MW even though the projected energy needs for the whole of Sarawak was around 200MW in 1990. This project was thus coupled with the proposal to build a (world’s first) 650 kilometre undersea cable across the South China Sea to carry the excess electricity to Peninsular Malaysia. The SAMA feasibility studies were, and continue to be classified information under Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act (OSA), under which there is a mandatory jail sentence of two years for offenders.


1980s: There were protests against the dam by Malaysian NGOs and the indigenous peoples whose ancestral lands were to be drowned by the Bakun Dam. There were also protests against a proposed heavy energy-consuming and highly-polluting aluminium smelting project in Bintulu.

1986:   Bakun project was abandoned because of the economic recession although the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir announced just before the UN Conference on Environment and Development at Rio that it was “proof of Malaysia’s commitment to the environment” (New Straits Times, 13.6.90).

1987:   At least two NGO activists were arrested and detained under “Operation Lallang” using the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial, for their anti-Bakun Dam activities earlier.

1993:   With the upturn in the Malaysian economy in the early Nineties and the energy crisis with the national blackout in 1992 (See Kua Kia Soong, Malaysia’s Energy Crisis: The Real Issues, Oriengroup 1996) the Government announced the revival of the Bakun HEP project. To cushion the expected protests, the Energy Minister announced in Parliament that it would not be one large dam but “a series of cascading dams” and that it would be a privatised project. Before long, it was announced that the Bakun Dam would be a massive 205-metre high concrete face rockfill dam, one of the highest dams of its kind in the world, and it would flood an area of tropical rainforest the size of Singapore Island (69,640 hectares). Transmission of electricity required 1,500 km of overland wires and four 650 km long high-voltage cables to be laid under the South China Sea.     As far as the State government was concerned, “Bakun would ensure that Sarawak will become the powerhouse of Malaysia”. The spin-off effects of the project were to be the attraction of foreign investment to the State and therefore industrial development in which the establishment of an aluminium plant, a pulp and paper plant and perhaps the world’s biggest steel plant were specifically mentioned; the development of a high-tension and high-voltage wire industry; and the development of the Bakun area as a tourist resort.

1994:   The contract for the 2,400 MW Bakun Dam project was awarded to Ekran Bhd without an open tender process.

1995:   The first of four Environment Impact Assessments was approved in March 1995 and work started on site clearance for office construction, an airport, reservoir and diversion tunnels.    

1997:   With the onset of the Asian financial crisis, the Bakun project was put on hold for the second time. Concerned NGOs and indigenous peoples were relieved that at least they could remain in their traditional ancestral homes while the fate of the project was still unclear. Meanwhile, Ekran Bhd had sunbcontracted another Ting Pek Khiing company, Pacific Chemicals, to harvest 1,000 hectares of forest and extracted 79,000 cubic metres of timber within the Bakun area. On 7 September 1998, the federal Government offered to pay Bakun HEC Bhd RM811 million to take over its assets and liabilities in order to enable the federal government to take over the implementation of the project. More than half of this sum was intended for reimbursing Ekran Bhd for the expences incurred in management and implementation of the project prior to its takeover by the federal government. In the process, a total of RM950 million will be paid out by the Government as a result of its decision to take over the project. This includes RM390 million to Ekran Bhd; RM436 million to financial institutions; RM24 million to Dong Ah, the contractor for the river diversion tunnels; RM100 million to equity holders of BHEC whose shareholders are Ekran Bhd (42.6%), Sarawak Government (25.3%), Sesco (12%), Khazanah Nasional (6.67%), Tenaga Nasional (6.67%) and EPF (6.67%). Assets and liabilities of the company include the river diversion tunnels, Bakun Resort, Bakun airport, Tubau jetty and RM100 million in cash.

1999:   The Malaysian government announced that the project would be resumed albeit on a smaller 500MW capacity rather than the previous 2400 MW capacity. Despite the fact that the design for the downsized dam had not been prepared and the fact that the area to be filled by the new reservoir would be at least one-fifth the previous size, all the indigenous peoples (nearly 10,000) from 15 longhouses had been forcibly resettled at the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme by August 1999 under “Operation Exodus”.

2000:   The Sarawak State Government continues to call for reviving the Bakun HEP project according to the original 2,400 MW scale and the government flip flops over the undersea cable project to transmit power to the peninsula.

2010: The dam was completed in September 2010. The final cost of the dam has still not been finalised but it is expected to exceed its initial cost of RM7.3 billion. Sarawak Energy Bhd is looking into buying or leasing the project from Sarawak Hidro Sdn Bhd, the owner of the dam, and the Finance Ministry, which in turn owns Sarawak Hidro. Meanwhile, another dam, the Murum Dam has started construction and this will add another 944MW capacity by end 2013. Sarawak’s current peak demand is only 900MW while the total installed capacity from these two new dams alone will be 3,344MW, giving rise to a major power glut situation in Sarawak. The impounding of the river in October 2010 left Belaga folk “high and dry” – there was little water flowing from upstream and this affected river transport, the only means of transport in these parts.