In 1990, former Greens leader Bob Brown won the inaugural Goldman Environmental Prize — a $150,000 award for grassroots activism — for his role in the campaign against the damming of the Franklin River.
Another recipient of the prize that year was Harrison Ngau, an indigenous Kenyah man from Sarawak, who was working for Sahabat Alam (Friends of the Earth) Malaysia to try to stop the rapid deforestation of the Bornean state.
Ngau had spent two years under house arrest and done a 60 day stint in jail — part of it in solitary confinement, with twice-daily interrogations — under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act for leading blockades and petitioning the government about logging in Sarawak, which was being carried out at the rate of eight square kilometres a day —the fastest in the world.
The meeting of the two men at the Goldman awards ceremony in San Francisco led to a trip by the Tasmanian MP a few years later to see firsthand the impacts of logging in Malaysia’s biggest state.
According to his former communications assistant, Adam Burling, in Sarawak Brown travelled up river to visit villages threatened by logging in the Murum area but was stopped by government security and police from getting to them.
"He went back to his hotel. In the morning he woke up and there was the village headman and a bunch of elders camped out the front of it. So he has this connection with the area," he told NM.
Burling is explaining the genesis of the involvement in Sarawak environmental and human rights issues which has led to him coordinating a speaking tour of Australia’s south-eastern cities this month by two indigenous Sarawakians campaigning against the government’s plan to build a string of massive hydroelectric dams in the state — and particularly, against Australian involvement in it.
The leader of the two-man delegation is Peter Kallang, a former engineer in the oil and gas industry, who is the chairman of Save Rivers, a network of Sarawak NGOs, activists and community representatives.
"The government is planning to build 12 megadams," Kallang says, "to meet the target of having at least 20,000 megawatts of extra hydroelectric power generation by 2030. That’s what they’re trying to do. But these dams will flood thousands and thousands of acres of land in the state and will affect tens of thousands of people, and practically all of these people are indigenous people, the native people of Sarawak, who rely a lot on land."
"We planned to come to Australia because Australia is playing a very big hand in this. They provide people from Hydro Tasmania who are the consultants, using all the technical knowhow to make it possible for Sarawak Energy to build these dams".
Thirty years after a broad environmental campaign in Tasmania stopped the state electricity company from damming the Franklin, Tasmanian environmentalists — along with NGOs from Sarawak and around the world-are again gunning for the company.
Hydro Tasmania, through its subsidiary Entura, has consulting and training contracts worth around $3 million a year with state-owned Sarawak Energy, the dam projects’ proponent, and has seconded several senior staff to it, but the company denies it is playing a significant role in the government’s hydroelectric expansion.
"It is nonsense to suggest [the seconded staff]are key to Sarawak Energy Berhad undertaking its program," CEO Roy Adair told NM. "Critics are deliberately inflating their importance as part of the campaign".
But Burling believes the Australian company can be held to account for the project it is contributing to, regardless of its degree of involvement.
"Hydro can say, ‘We’re just consultants’, but they’re consultants on a project that’s destroying a lot of people’s lives," he says.
The two hydroelectric dams so far built in Sarawak have displaced around 13,000 people, whose resettlement by the government, in the 80s and 90s, is widely considered to have been a disastrous failure. The dam currently under construction on the Murum River will displace another 1500 people sometime next year, and the next project to be built, on the Baram River, would flood the lands of 20,000 more.
Sarawak Energy has 10 other dams on the drawing board and a "shortlist" of another 35 or so possible sites.
Despite the desperate battles of indigenous Sarawakians and the combined efforts of activists both inside and outside Malaysia, the logging companies continued their voracious consumption of Sarawak’s forests over the decades following Ngau’s award.
Borneo Research Institute Malaysia Sarawak (BRIMAS), an NGO which has done extensive mapping of land use in the state, estimates only 15 per cent of Sarawak’s primary forest survives, much of it in national parks.
Logging, while it is still going on, is now referred to by the government as a "sunset industry".
The timber companies are transitioning into commercial agriculture, clear-felling whatever forest is left to plant oil palm, and acacia and eucalypts for pulp. According to BRIMAS, about 30 per cent of Sarawak’s land area is covered by plantation, and the government has targets for several million more hectares of oil palm and fast-growing trees for harvest.
The grand plan for Sarawak, though, under which these targets fall, is the industrial transformation of the state, over two decades, on the back of its rivers.
The scale of the government’s Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) scheme is stunning. Journalist Paul Malone, writing in the Canberra Times in September, compared it to the Soviet Union’s vision of the 1930s or China’s Great Leap Forward.
The $100 billion-plus infrastructure development plan would see a 70,000 kilometre square "development corridor", stretching 320 kilometres down Borneo’s west coast and into the interior of Sarawak’s central region, incorporating five growth "nodes" — including a "smart city", an industrial port and a heavy industry centre —to be connected by a new road system.
"The current strategy envisages a fivefold expansion in GDP by 2030, with 1.6 million more jobs and the population almost doubling to 4.6 million," Malone writes.
The government says the "clean, renewable electricity" the dams generate will launch Sarawak into a firstworld future, with SCORE providing infrastructure, jobs and services.
But opponents of SCORE have so many criticisms of the initiative they find it difficult to decide which of them to focus on. Kallang points out that the electricity from the dams is to be used to power energy-intensive, dirty industries and says the dams would result in a loss of biodiversity and the production of significant greenhouse gases. He also criticises the government’s business case, ability to handle big projects, and lack of honesty and transparency, and claims the scheme would violate human rights, including the native customary land rights of the indigenous inhabitants of the areas flooded.
Many of Kallang’s concerns are echoed in a 2011 report by energy researchers for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at Singapore University, which, in its executive summary, exhaustively lists the "challenges" the authors explored in relation to the SCORE agenda:
"Technical challenges range from lack of supporting infrastructure to dam excavation and construction. Economic challenges include cost overruns, financing difficulties and uncertainty concerning power purchase agreements for hydroelectricity. Political challenges involve hubris, claims of corruption and low political literacy…"
For those in Sarawak who oppose the hydro projects, the most compelling argument against them is the experience of the people affected by dams already built in the state.
"The native people require jungle," says Kallang. "If you move them to land which is barren or planted with oil palm, this is a total change of their way of life. It has a very bad impact on the lives of the people. And we can see now from the past two dams that have been built that these people do not have any way to sustain their livelihood."
In a 2009 report on the impact of the Murum dam on the Penan inhabitants of the area, Malaysia’s human rights commission, SUHAKAM, referred to problems with the dam resettlement programs already done in the state, which had left many of the displaced people without communal forest or fertile land to sustain themselves and without the running water and electricity which had been promised to them.
In relation to Murum, SUHAKAM highlighted that access to information was a right, observing that it was "paradoxical" that work on a megaproject had been contracted out without an impact assessment having been finished. The commission noted concerns about ongoing participation in planning and decision making, the fact that "the relevant government agency" had misrepresented the affected people’s desires in claiming they wanted to relocate, and that a previous environment impact assessment done for an oil palm plantation in the area erroneously stated that no-one was living there.
"While there is no ‘one way’ to address all the issues affecting the indigenous communities in Malaysia," the report’s conclusion stated, "it has to be emphasised that taking away their native land and leaving them unassisted in resettlements would definitely not encourage their development."
More than three years later, the impact assessment for the Murum dam, which, according to SUHAKAM, had "been with the government since 1994" has still not been made public, and in late September, 200-300 of the 1500 Penan whose land will be flooded by it staged a four-week long blockade of the site, demanding the government talk to them and meet basic demands relating to their resettlement.
Sarawak Energy executives claim the adoption of international standards for new projects will ensure better outcomes for the people these impact, but dam opponents in Sarawak say past experience doesn’t dispose them to believe these assurances.
More than two decades after Ngau went to jail for campaigning against the deforestation of Sarawak, the same leader, Abdul Taib Mahmud, is still in power there, and speaking out against the government is still dangerous.
"A lot of people don’t want to do it," Kallang says, "because they are aware of the problems they can face — harassment from the police and being followed by the special branch all over the place, like some vultures coming around. And our campaign is not very well covered in the media because all of the media is owned by these big companies that belong to the political parties, the ruling parties."
Despite the difficulties, Save Rivers has run a strong campaign in Peninsula Malaysia, as well as in Sarawak. Now its chairman is trying to spread the group’s message in Australia, and says he’s looking forward to meeting Hydro Tasmania CEO Roy Adair in Launceston next Monday.