Saving Rivers

Features Stories

FEA_header_Emily Thiessen_web

My mother grew up on an island known for jungles, giant flowers, and orangutans. After getting a degree in ecology, she worked in fisheries research on the second largest river in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on Borneo. For seven years she and her crew travelled up and down the Baram River in motorized longboats. She stayed nights in longhouses and riverbank camps and spent days studying the river and its innumerable fish.

After hearing about this river for my whole life without actually seeing it, the Baram became almost mythical to me. Last year, when my mother packed me along on a trip into rural Sarawak, I was finally acquainted with the river in person, but our meeting was bittersweet. While the Baram—though browner each year with pollution—continues to meander optimistically through the jungle, the rest of us know that it might soon look very different.

The Sarawak government is planning 12 large hydropower projects as part of a program called the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE). Bakun Dam was the first project in SCORE, flooding 700 square kilometres on Sarawak’s longest river, the Rajang. The second, Murum Dam, is being impounded on a Rajang river tributary right now. The Baram is targeted as the next dam site. 

Bakun was built with the capacity to produce 2 400 megawatts of electricity, making it more powerful than the Hoover Dam. Sarawak’s peak electricity demand is only 1 000 megawatts. Altogether, the first 12 hydroelectric projects in SCORE will produce seven times more electricity than the state of Sarawak currently uses. In exchange for a reservoir the size of Singapore, the Bakun Dam’s turbines are not even running at full capacity. The goal is to use this hydropower to attract heavy industries like aluminium and petrochemical extractors to a primarily agricultural state. 

As well as flooding vast swaths of land, the plan will bring industrial pollutants into one of the most biodiverse and endangered rainforests in the world. Sarawak’s forests are already being logged at an alarming rate for timber and oil palm plantations. Locals believe that only five per cent of primary rainforest may be left in the state.

The Sarawak government is widely accused of corruption. Taib Mahmud, the former chief minister of Sarawak, resigned from this position in February. However, he now holds power as state governor, and, since 2011, he has been under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency.  NGOs and news organizations like Al-Jazeera say that Taib is motivated to build expensive publicly funded projects like mega-dams because construction profits are channelled to his family’s many businesses. Laundered money from Sarawak may even have found its way into Canada. 

According to an investigation by Global News program 16:9, and freelance journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown, Taib helped to finance SAKTO, an high-end real estate company founded by his daughter Jamilah Mahmud, who lives in Ottawa with her Canadian husband Sean Murray. Other parties who will benefit from SCORE include various international companies acting as consultants, dam builders, and the industries that the government is counting on to buy the electricity.

Bakun Dam
My cousin’s friend Richard grew up in one of the 15 longhouses now submerged under the Bakun Dam reservoir. As the waters rose, villagers pushed logs underneath wooden buildings so that they floated to the surface and became makeshift houseboats called jelatongs (the Bakun reservoir even has a floating church). On our escapade through Sarawak, my cousin, my mother, and I spent a night in the floating version of what used to be Richard’s farm house. We drove for three hours from my cousin’s home and descended a steep ramp to a dock full of brightly painted wooden boats with outboard motors.  In one of the boats, a woman in a wide-brimmed hat sat next to a huge bundle of edible ferns and two terrified wild boars bound at the ankles with vines.

About 10 000 people were displaced by the Bakun project. The entire population was officially relocated to the settlement of Sungai Asap, but some families, like the people at the dock that day, have found it easier to make a living by continuing to farm, hunt, and fish in the hills around the reservoir. 

Richard and my cousin unloaded the back of the truck and set up the outboard motor on the boat. My mother started talking fish with the people hanging out on the dock.  I stood around feeling, as usual, like a misplaced Canadian kid. 

When the boat was ready, we took off across the vast expanse of water. The Bakun reservoir is eerily beautiful. The tops of dead trees stuck out of the water looking both fantastical and tragic. The farthest shore was a blue line in the distance. 

After 20 minutes skimming over the water, we pulled into an inlet. Richard’s jelatong was floating a short distance from the shore. We spent the evening travelling up newly created river mouths, where Richard caught an abundance of freshwater fish. The steep hills on both sides made it feel like we were sliding through an envelope of rainforest. Richard explained that logging companies were now aiming for these unflooded forests as well. It seems that in Sarawak you are caught in this duality of appreciating beauty only to dread its imminent destruction.

On the way back from the dam, we visited Sungai Asap. Our truck driver, Stewart, had relatives there and swung kids around in circles on the veranda of the longhouse. The Sungai Asap relocation is described as disastrous. Each family was only given a plot of three acres to farm, and the land often turned out to be infertile.  On the veranda, people told us about how difficult it was to make a living and how the entire area was overcrowded. The Sungai Asap relocation took a people deeply connected to a river and moved them 50 kilometres inland to where their intimate knowledge of that water and forest can’t be used.

[pullquote]“I died three times,” said a resident of Sungai Asap. “Once when we were forced off our land, once when our land was flooded, and once when we weren’t even paid fair compensation.”[/pullquote]

Baram Dam
The Baram Dam is the next planned hydroelectric project. It would create 1 200 megawatts of electricity, flood 412 square kilometres of rainforest and displace about 20 000 people.  The affected people belong to three main indigenous groups: Kayans, Kenyahs (like Richard), and Penans. Traditionally, Kayans and Kenyahs are subsistence farmers while Penans are hunter-gatherers. Twenty-seven settlements would be flooded by the dam. Together, the Baram and Bakun dams would submerge both Kenyah and Kayan core population areas in Sarawak.

In Sarawak, you can hardly find a human settlement that didn’t form dependent on a river. Rivers provide a supply of water and fish, and for centuries they were the only highways between villages. The Kenyah and Kayan name for the Baram is Telang Usan. Usan means rain, and telang refers to a thick liquid, like milk or gravy, that nourishes life like the river does.

Many of Sarawak’s indigenous people have moved from villages into cities to work.  However most return at least once a year to reunite with their family during festivals. Most people consider their ancestral villages to be an anchor to family, land, and culture. 

“Being forcefully resettled by mega-dams would definitely have a great adverse impact on the culture of the indigenous peoples,” says Peter Kallang, a Kenyah anti-dam activist. “It starts with the impact on land ownership, which is part and parcel of the peoples’ culture and tradition. Forced resettlement is a form of cultural genocide for the indigenous people of Sarawak.”

Kallang founded Save Rivers, an indigenous-lead organization opposed to mega-dams. A big problem with dam projects is that affected communities are not properly consulted until construction actually begins. For the Baram, indigenous activists are prepared. Save Rivers has been organizing workshops for several years to inform riverside communities about the proposed Baram Dam and to explain native land rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The workshops end with direct action training. 

Kallang is inspired by his father, a penghulu (area chief), as well as the U.K. labour movement that he witnessed while studying engineering in the 1980s. A month before I got to meet Kallang, I found out that he is also my other cousin’s close friend’s father. I noticed a coincidence like this every week in Sarawak, where connections between people are as tangled as jungle creepers. 

In May 2013, the International Hydropower Association held its annual conference in Sarawak. Save Rivers communities worried that their concerns would be undermined by the glistening portrayal of hydropower, so 300 people protested directly outside the conference centre. After, they held an alternative conference of their own. Here, my mother gave a presentation on Baram fish ecology. I was in charge of her PowerPoint slides and spent the rest of my time taking pictures and working up the guts to gather impromptu interviews. 

People from the city voiced their concerns about living downstream. Those displaced by past dam projects in other parts of the state encouraged Baram residents to stand their ground. Talks were interspersed with dances, and two musicians played the sape, Sarawak’s haunting version of the guitar. The audience played the role of the chorus for each speaker. When pictures of Bakun Dam appeared on the overhead they murmured “drowned” in Malay: tengalam, tengalam

 “I died three times,” said a resident of Sungai Asap. “Once when we were forced off our land, once when our land was flooded, and once when we weren’t even paid fair compensation.”

“We do not want the compensation,” said Marian Jew, whose village of Long Apu would be flooded. “We want to stay in the lands of our ancestors.”

Connecting Vines
I’m lucky to have some roots in this beautiful state, thanks to my mother’s ancestors who migrated to Malaysia from China many decades ago. But visiting Sarawak to ogle at remaining patches of primary forest would be doing a disservice to the reality of the place. I need to offer something in exchange to my mythical browner-every-year river, the dreading-imminent-destruction rainforest, the late-night crash courses in culture and politics from Sarawakian friends.

To displace an indigenous people from their land is to erase a way of living in the world that does not and will not ever exist anywhere else. The Baram Dam proposal is part of a global plot arc in which indigenous people are pitted against resource-extraction projects. Baram activists are one front in a debate about what we want to see the world look like. It raises the question: does every part of the world inevitably have to be industrialized in the same pattern as the West? Can we have a society where subsistence livelihoods coexist with monetary ones, where multiple cultural ideas about economics and ecology are considered legitimate?

Despite widespread opposition, the Sarawak government has not changed its line from “the dams will be built.” Kallang’s direct action training was put to use starting last October when Save Rivers set up two blockades. The blockades are intended to block access roads to site testing and construction. They are manned by rotating groups of people from affected communities.  As of July 10, they have been holding out for 261 days.

In B.C., we are at another dip in the plot. As Baram blockaders build increasingly permanent structures, blockaders from the Wet’suwet’en Nation are building pit houses and permaculture gardens. Their Uni’stoten’ camp is digging in its heels in the path of the Pacific Trails and Northern Gateway Pipelines. 

A few weeks ago, I spoke to Meaghan Champion from the Somena Nation. We veered into economics. “I believe there are so many ways to create wealth without plundering the earth,” she said. “The best route for protecting the environment is to protect the rights of indigenous people, because indigenous people will protect the earth.”

At the end of the Save Rivers conference, I snatched a conversation with Phillip Jau, an activist who is frequently pictured in documentaries standing on a longboat yelling  “Stop the dams!” into a megaphone. I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Long Laput, that it was a beautiful place, and that I should visit sometime. I said that I would love to on my next trip, if Long Laput was still intact by then. 

“No no no!” said Phillip Jau with a well-practised sense of drama. “It will be there, don’t worry. I will fight to the last drop of my blood.”

More information can be found at Save Rivers’ website

FEA_footer_Emily Thiessen_web