Malaysiakini 31 August: People who would be displaced by the massive hydroelectric dam proposed for Sarawak’s second-longest river have been protesting against the plan by refusing to provide information for a Social and Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) of the project.
Community leaders at Tanjung Tepalit, Long San, Long Tap and Ba Abang in the upper reaches of the Baram river reported last month that the majority of people in their kampungs had refused to give information to visiting consultants, saying they did not agree with the government’s plans to flood their villages.
State energy company Sarawak Energy has contracted consultants Chemsain Konsultant Sdn Bhd to carry out the SEIA study, which, under state law and international project development guidelines, needs to be completed before approval can be given and work on the dam can begin.
Staff from Chemsain are attempting to interview people in the 32 affected longhouses to collect detailed information about their households and income, including the extent and value of land, crops and houses, for the “contemporary ethnography” component of the study.
But a large majority of affected residents are apparently opposed to the dam, which would submerge an area of 388 square kilometres encompassing the homes and ancestral lands of around 20,000 Dayak people.
Village headman James Nyurang Usan said his kampung, Tanjung Tepalit, had agreed at a meeting not to cooperate with the survey process and he had told the visiting Chemsain workers it was not needed.
“I told them on behalf of the kampung people that so far we don’t accept the project, so this SEIA is not necessary to be conducted at our kampung at the moment,” he said.
He also objected to a lack of openness about the survey and the fact that those who completed forms were not given copies of them.
“Though I tried to obtain the form from one of the consultants, they refused to give it to me. They said this thing is secret and only those who fill in the form know what is in it.”
Lack of openness in survey
Anthony Lawai, from Long San, said that around 80 percent of people in his kampung had refused to fill out the forms.
People in the Baram area did not want the dam, the former Baran district councillor said, and there had been a lack of open information and discussion about the government’s plans.
He also said the consultants’ process of going from house to house to interview people was inappropriate.
“The most important thing in our culture is we must gather for dialogue. You must talk publicly. Why go room by room to interview people? The bright people, of course they refused.”
The chairperson of anti-dam group Save Sarawak’s Rivers Network (Save Rivers), Peter Kallang, said that Baram residents were being asked to indicate in the survey whether or not they agreed with the dam when details of their proposed resettlement and compensation have not yet been provided to them.
He also pointed to a lack of openness and clarity about the survey process, saying that interviewers were telling people if they didn’t provide the information, they would get no compensation when the dam was built.
Survey to provide clearer picture
In an emailed response to questions, Chemsain said that information sessions on the proposed dam had been conducted in the villages and that headmen and community leaders had agreed to take part in the survey.
The company cited logistical issues as the reason people had been refused copies of their questionnaires and said these were now being delivered on request and that completed forms would be kept in its office in Kuching, where anybody could view them.
The company further said the purpose of the survey was to collect information that would “paint a clear picture of the current way of life of the affected communities”, and not to assess compensation entitlements.
But it appears that trust, as well as clear information is lacking in relation to the proposed dam and its SEIA process, with many people saying they are not being represented by their government-appointed headmen.
“They use our leaders to betray their own people, their family, their relatives,” alleged Long San shopkeeper Jane Lusang. “Money controls their mentality.”
Lusing said she sent away the two Chemsain staff who came to interview her.
“I told them, ‘I only have one answer for you: frankly speaking I don’t want that Baram dam’. I didn’t entertain them to come in to interview me. I just said I don’t want that Baram dam.”
Save Rivers chairman Peter Kallang said the anti-dam campaign had been advising people not to cooperate with the Chemsain consultants, and that many people from affected longhouses who now live in towns had also refused to take part in the surveys at meetings held in Miri in July and August.
But it is unclear whether this show of opposition will be quantified and considered in the results of the study.
“We can only take note and report that some villagers refuse to participate in the survey,” Chemsain’s statement said.
“As they don’t want to disclose their details such as names, and number of family members, it will be a challenge later on to verify their refusal as we could not capture accurate data of those who have refused”.
Both Chemsain and Sarawak Energy emphasised that the survey was not a referendum and that no decision had yet been made about the dam.
But early in August the Sarawak’s Resource Planning and Environment Ministry published notice of its intention to gazette over 4,000 hectares of land for the Baram dam project, and Sarawak’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud recently told a gathering in Sarawak he was “waiting for the dams at Baram and Baleh to be built”.