|About 15,000 people have been evicted to make way for a $2.6bn mega-dam [EPA]
Indigenous tribes in Malaysia have lost a 12-year legal battle against their ancestral land being seized to build a mega-dam on Borneo island.
A three-judge panel from the Federal Court, Malaysia's highest, gave a unanimous dismissal on Thursday of a series of appeals claiming that a local government's eviction of the indigenous population for mega-dam construction had violated their constitutional rights.
"I hearby dismiss the appeal and uphold the orders of the courts below," Zaki Azmi, chief justice of the Federal Court, said in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The case was brought by members of indigenous tribes including the Iban, Dayak, Kayan, Kenyah and Ukit peoples, some of the many ethnic groups living on Borneo, which is split between Malaysia, Indonesia and the sultanate of Brunei.
Twelve years ago, the Malaysian state government of Sarawak requisitioned land for the controversial Bakun hydroelectric dam and a timber pulp mill on Borneo, famous for its biodiversity.
About 15,000 people were forcibly relocated to make room for the dam and a reservoir about the size of Singapore, which began generating power last month.
Many have made an unhappy transition to life in drab resettlement areas, and representatives of the evicted indigenous people launched a series of legal appeals.
The dam, one of the world's tallest, has been dogged by problems since its approval in 1993, and the delays have incurred large cost overruns.
The construction costs for Bakun have added up to at least $2.6 billion, making it among the most expensive infrastructure projects in Malaysian history.
Indigenous people present at the court said they were devastated by the ruling, while activists said it could encourage the government to requisition more land on Malaysia's part of Borneo and create "internal refugees".
Baru Bian, a lawyer for the group, , said that more tribal people in Sarawak might now be forcibly moved in the name of development.
"There is a possibility the move to displace natives in Sarawak will gain momentum," he said.
About 200 cases of indigenous people fighting state acquisition of their land are ongoing in lower courts.
Transparency International has labelled Bakun a "monument of corruption", and analysts have questioned how the Malaysian government can ever recover the money it has sunk into the project.