Anti-dam activists continue to make presence felt at hydropower congress
Friday May 24, 2013
Passionate: Kallang airing his views at the 'Working with Project-Affected Communities' focus session yesterday.
KUCHING: From donning traditional gear during protests to wearing suits and speaking as conference delegates, anti-dam activists continue to make their presence felt at the International Hydropower Association World Congress.
On the second day of seminars and talks at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching here, activists such as Peter Kallang managed to raise criticism about proposals to build more dams in this state.
Other critics who managed to speak during question time and at focus sessions included Ding Seling and Ding Juh, longhouse residents near the proposed Baram dam, and members of state government recognised bodies like Asap Koyan Development Committee director Henry Luhat.
Arguably, it was Kallang, who is Save Rivers chairman, who garnered the most attention.
He told delegates at two different talks yesterday that, one, the Government must not act and speak only “like a lawyer”, and second, some in the rural areas have protested simply because they felt they “didn’t have a voice”.
He also lamented access to information like environmental impact assessments was bound in red tape, leaving undereducated rural dwellers ill-informed, confused and easily manipulated.
Kallang then asserted that it was not wrong for the affected to stage blockades and protests.
“I will not apologise. We will go on demonstrating,” he said, addressing the delegates during the “Working with Project-Affected Communities” focus session, which was packed to the brim, despite other concurrent sessions.
When asked to respond to a state government official who said authorities were acting above and beyond what the Malaysian law required when resettling people, Kallang told reporters: “Is there a law to love your mother and father?
“It is an unwritten law, it is a general law that, if you do something like this, you must consider what the impact is. He (the official) is speaking like that because he is a lawyer. It’s quite inhumane.
“Go to the Sungai Asap resettlement, where there is just one school. The Penan resettlement is about 10km away (from the school). Because they have little money, they cannot afford the school bus. During lunch time, they cannot eat, because they don’t have money.
“The school says food is only provided for boarders. Why is the Government not doing anything? Is it not very sad?” he said.
However, Kallang did agree with certain relocation mechanisms. When asked on the large amounts of compensation requested by some affected, he said it was right for the Government to adopt a systematic way of helping rural communities, rather than give big payouts that could be squandered quickly.
Earlier, Sarawak government advisor and former state attorney-general Datuk JC Fong told the focus session it would be irresponsible for the authorities to allow large sums of one-off compensations.
He said significant compensations were provided to those resettled during the construction of Sarawak’s first hydropower dam at Batang Ai in the 1970s.
“I speak from experience. I saw these huge compensations, but those compensated became poor very soon thereafter, because money was not properly spent. They were back at the same level of poverty.”
Fong defended the state government’s track record and intentions for future development. He said there had been shortcomings in the past but that the state was a developing economy that was responsible to meet consistent growth rates, while tackling a steep learning curve.
The biggest challenge, Fong said, was to balance needs between those already developed — like urban folk and highly educated graduates — and rural people still living in a subsistence economy.
“These (latter group of) people affected are the ones who are transiting from the subsistence economy to being part of the modern, mainstream, cash economy,” Fong said.
Speakers like Labang Paneh, 36, married with five children, from Murum, spoke about his unhappiness with relocation.
An ex-timber camp worker, who could not speak English and needed the help of a translator, Labang told the focus session that those in power needed to pay greater emphasis on local needs.
Labang highlighted that the resettlement houses for those affected by Murum were “of high quality, but that none wanted a gas (cooker hub in the) kitchen”.
He said locals had submitted complaints and followed up with proposals for a “wood burning” kitchen instead. He said it was small details like that which would ease the transition.
“Tell the people simple things like when is the time to move, who will be moving first. If we don’t know clearly, then there will be resistance We know why we have low standard of living, and we know why others have higher standard of living — it is because they have better education.”