Drowning the dreams of indigenous Malaysians

One of the world’s last hunter-gatherer tribes has been forced from the forest it called home by a major dam project.

The Penan people of Sarawak state have been pushed out of their forests by dam projects [AP]

Sungai Asap, Malaysia – Layo is among the last of her community who still remember life in the forest.

For decades, the 50-year-old ethnic Penan woman and her reclusive tribe lived quietly in the mist-swept jungles of central Borneo. Her husband, like most Penan men, would hunt for food during the day, scouring the forest armed with spears and poisonous darts, while she weaved rattan handicrafts for local trade.

But everything changed in 1998 when they were evicted to make way for the largest hydropower project in Southeast Asia – the Bakun dam. Now she lives in a decaying resettlement site encircled by oil palm plantations. Year by year, they have fallen deeper into poverty.

“The government made us sweet promises so we came, but now we are suffering,” said Layo, squatting on the creaky terrace of a wooden longhouse. “We have no money, no food, and no forest.”

Layo said the Sarawak state government promised them a good life, with 10 acres of farmland, good schools, free electricity and clean water supplies. Instead, each family received a small plot of land as far as 15km away from their resettlement site. Layo’s husband couldn’t afford the daily travel costs and now works as a labourer for a local timber company. She can’t earn a living because there is no source of rattan nearby.

“Before we could get everything from the river and the forest, but here everything is about money,” Layo explained. “They cut off our water supply when we couldn’t afford to pay.”

‘Fish out of water’

More than 10,000 indigenous people have already been displaced as part of a government drive to dam almost every major river in Sarawak. The Bakun dam, completed in 2011 after numerous delays, is one of a dozen hydropower projects planned for the region, expected to submerge more than 2,000sqr km of pristine rainforest by 2020.

Layo was relocated to this village [Hanna Hindstrom/Al Jazeera]

The government says the $105bn project – formally known as the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy – is necessary to boost development in the impoverished state. But anti-dam activists say it will only benefit big business, which has earmarked the vast majority of electricity for export.

Most of the communities affected are ethnic Kayan or Kenyah, but the once-nomadic Penan are among the most vulnerable.

As one of the world’s last surviving hunter-gatherer tribes, the Penan have little experience of subsistence or commercial farming, and have struggled to adapt to a cash economy. Many have migrated across the country in search of employment, while others have succumbed to alcoholism and depression.

“Taking the Penan from the forest is like taking fish out of the water,” said Peter Kallang, head of Save Rivers Sarawak, an NGO lobbying against the dams. “They are totally lost at the moment.”

The tribe, which numbers fewer than 15,000 people, has spent decades fighting land encroachments from logging and oil palm companies. But according to Malaysian law, communities must be able to prove that they cultivated their land before 1958 in order to claim customary ownership rights. Since most of the Penan settled down after the 1960s, it is difficult for them to challenge cases in court, or even claim compensation for the loss of confiscated lands. Today, fewer than 400 Penan live as nomads.

“Their problems have multiplied,” said Harrison Ngau, a lawyer who works on Penan land rights issues. “Most of the land surrounding the resettlement areas is already allocated to the big companies for logging and oil palm plantations. So it is like being put in a cage – you have no freedom.”

Corruption allegations

Activists claim that politicians have carved up Borneo for personal profit, gradually depleting as much as 95 percent of Sarawak’s rainforest. Allegations have been fixed on Sarawak’s former chief minister, Taib Mahmud, whose family owns lucrative stakes in the state’s extractive industries. Worth an estimated $15bn, Taib has been accused of running the state as his personal fiefdom for more than 30 years – a charge he denies.

In a cable released by WikiLeaks, the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur described him as a “highly corrupt” ruler who “has done little to assist the state’s indigenous peoples as they attempt to establish legal ownership of their ancestral lands”. 

Deforestation has ravaged Sarawak [Hanna Hindstrom]

Citing a discussion with the Sarawak representative for the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), the cable said, “Taib appoints ‘compliant local leaders’ from various tribes into ‘financially rewarding’ government positions as a means to stifle potential opposition.”

It added Taib and his relatives “are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts” awarded in the state. Last year, several of his family members were filmed openly negotiating bribes in exchange for land concessions during an investigation by Global Witness, an NGO. They later denied the accusations.

The Sarawak government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

After 33 years in office, Taib resigned in February amid mounting controversy surrounding a public graft probe. The new chief minister, Adenan Satem, has pledged to curb the use of nepotistic business transactions. But he has vowed to push ahead with new hydropower projects, including the proposed Baram dam, which is expected to displace another 20,000 people and has provoked a backlash of communal protests.

Critics note Taib handpicked his successor, who also happens to be his former brother-in-law. The former statesman has since drawn criticism for accepting a new position as governor of Sarawak.

“There has been no sign of change [since Taib resigned],” said Ngau. “I think the governor still controls things from the back.”

Report: Stop evicting indigenous communities

But others are more optimistic.

Suhakam is currently waiting for the government to implement the findings of a major national inquiry on the land rights of indigenous peoples, which called for a significant overhaul of Sarawak state policy. Francis Johne, the Sarawak commissioner of Suhakam, told Al Jazeera while there have been “no major changes” since Taib resigned, he is hopeful that the government will respond to their concerns.

The report of the national inquiry described indigenous peoples as “among the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Malaysia”. “Successive amendments to land laws since the British colonial period have eroded indigenous peoples’ customary rights to land,” it said.

I had to move here because they started to impound the dam. I cried three times thinking about what was going to happen, about losing everything.

by - Pahok, Penan tribesman

It issued 18 recommendations, including calls for the government to create an alternative mechanism to resolve disputes, improve access to customary land rights, and to immediately stop evicting communities from their traditional territories. The report emphasised that land offices should adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption.

However, Suhakam is not necessarily opposed to further dams.

“It is a question of having to balance the interest of the nation and the people affected,” said Johen. “It is a difficult decision to say whether the dams should be built or not, but what we want to see is that the rights of the affected people are considered and taken care of. This should be done at an early stage and not, as we’ve seen in the past, where people are resettled and there are issues that have yet to be resolved.”

In December, hundreds of Penan were forced to abandon a blockade against the recently completed Murum dam after water began to flood their villages. They have since begrudgingly accepted a resettlement deal offered by the government.

“I had to move here because they started to impound the dam,” said 83-year-old Pahok, sitting in a freshly painted concrete longhouse in Long Wat, Belaga. “I cried three times thinking about what was going to happen, about losing everything.”

Aid ‘easier’ than hunting

No doubt, the Penan from Murum have received a better compensation package than those from Bakun, with free electricity, water and 850 ringgit ($268) per month for five years. Pahok admitted that relying on aid is “easier” than hunting for survival, adding this is the first time his community has had free electricity and running water.

Sarawak Energy, the state-owned company behind the Murum dam, has accused NGOs of spreading lies about the project, which it insists will benefit indigenous communities.

“To date, most information offered by the NGO have been at best ‘selective’ and at worst, ‘entirely misleading’,” Puvaneswary Devindra told Al Jazeera by email. “We encourage the NGO to channel its efforts to assist in the development of Sarawak.”

The company argued the project has created job opportunities, better infrastructure and educational opportunities for the Penan, who are among the poorest communities in Sarawak. Since 2012, Sarawak Energy has taught 341 Penan from Murum to read and write under a corporate-sponsored literacy programme. It has promised further training in agricultural practices to help the tribe transition to modern life.

But distrust runs high, and Pahok fears they will be let down.

“I regret moving in here with only promises,” he said. “If the government fulfils them, I will be a very happy man.”

Source: Al Jazeera