International indigenous anti-dam activists meet in Sarawak
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International indigenous anti-dam activists meet in Sarawak

Foreign dignitaries and guests arrived in Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia, this week as the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER Baram 2015) kicked off. The event, which runs from October 19 to 24, was organized by Save Sarawak Rivers Network to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the blockades on the proposed Baram Dam. The event comes shortly after Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s announcement of a moratorium on the dam.

Anti-dam activists from various corners of the world came to connect and network. The event is an opportunity to provide a forum for indigenous peoples who are fighting to stop invasive dams. International delegations came from Brazil, Honduras, USA, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as from all over Malaysia.

In 2012, the Sarawak state government, along with Chinese investors, announced plans to construct 12 more dams to provide 28,000 MW of electricity and to create an industrial complex in Sarawak’s remote jungles.

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Chief Minister of Sarawak Adenan Satem.

Many local communities held protests against the dams amid arrests and allegations of bullying by authorities. Save Rivers said the proposed 12  hydroelectric dams pose risks for tens of thousands of indigenous people, who make up 48 percent of the state’s population, comprising of many distinct ethnic groups, including Penan, Iban, Kenyah, Bidayuh, Kayan, and Ukit. These communities claimed to have learned the lesson of the Sungai Asap people, who were earlier displaced by the Bakun hydroelectric dam, Asia’s largest dam outside China. About 10,000 indigenous people were forcibly moved out of their ancestral land when the project started in 1998. They warned the 1,200MW mega-dams will submerge some 400 square kilometre of land.

Recently, local communities claimed victory when the Chief Minister of Sarawak Adenan Satem publicly announced a moratorium on the controversial Baram Dam. They say it is a victory for all indigenous communities that have been struggling to defend their traditional land. For the last two years, they have been manning two blockades and have successfully stopped all work in the area.

Adenan Satem, who was interviewed on Malaysian TV3, said he shelved the project as the government needs to review its energy plan.

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Anti-dam activists are protesting against the dams. Pid: Save Rivers.

However, not everyone is convinced. Some suspect the moratorium has a hidden political agenda ahead of the state’s upcoming election. The indigenous peoples of Baram are treating the news with caution. Peter Kallang, chairman of SAVE Rivers, the grassroots network fighting Sarawak’s dam initiative, commented: “While the people are really glad to hear that there is a moratorium on the Baram-1 HEP dam project, the great sense of anxiety is still there. This is due, firstly, to the status of their native lands which are already gazetted for construction of the dam. Secondly, it is because of the ongoing logging activities being carried out with valid permits issued by the government in anticipation of the dam.”

Jettie Word, director of The Borneo Project, also said, the announcement was met with cautious optimism as illegal logging is continuing on the dam site “and people feel Adenan may be just waiting for the elections to be over next year.”

Word said part of the success may be due to recent studies published by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at UC Berkeley that prove that the dams are an unnecessary ecological and human rights disaster. Existing infrastructure in Sarawak is sufficient to sustain a very ambitious 7 percent energy demand growth rate (the full dams portfolio would be around 16 percent growth rate through 2030). RAEL researchers met with Chief Minister Adenan in June and he subsequently asked for an alternative energy development proposal.

The indigenous delegates are visiting the proposed Baram dam site, villages that risk inundation, and the blockade sites. The summit will culminate in a conference in Miri where the delegates will adopt a declaration on indigeous peoples and dams.

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