ANTIDOTE The anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, or TI, faces an internal split over its support for the World Congress of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), to be held in Kuching, Sarawak from May 21 to 24.
Transparency International-Malaysia (TI-M) secretary general Josie Fernandez told Malaysiakini that she and other Malaysian members were “disappointed and embarrassed that TI is a sponsor of the World Congress hosted by Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), a public company controlled by Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Sarawak chief minister who is being investigated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on allegations of grand corruption.”
The IHA is run entirely by representatives of the global hydroelectric generation industry. SEB’s Norwegian chief executive officer Torstein Dale Sjotveit sits on the IHA board of directors.
In a recent letter, 604 Penan villagers from Sarawak appealed to Norway’s King Harald to summon the CEO home, saying he had “no right to come from Norway to Sarawak and destroy our rainforests”. The Penans’ desperate call made the national television and print news in Norway.
In response, Sjotveit has promised that SEB will conduct a social and environmental impact assessment, or SEIA, for each of the planned dams. Unfortunately, it has become clear that this is a particularly inadequate fig leaf - the SEIA for the Murum Dam, in the headwaters of the Rejang, for example, was released only after three-quarters of the dam had already been built.
TI’s senior adviser, Dr Donal O’Leary, a former senior power engineer with the World Bank, emailed Malaysiakini from Berlin to emphasise that TI’s participation in the Congress “does not mean that TI is endorsing or supporting the hydropower projects in Sarawak” but “will bring into the forefront the issue of good governance and the necessity to ensure that abuses do not occur” and “will provide the opportunity to give our expertise in areas of the IHA protocol and help with compliance by project owners.”
The IHA protocol (or in its full glory, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol or HSAP) was first released in 2010, with the collaboration of TI, Oxfam and the World Wildlife Fund, among others. However, the odds appear remote that the Sarawak government will pay any more attention to the HSAP than it has done to legal requirements for SEIAs, or to the demand in the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous People’s Rights (UNDRIP) for free, prior and informed consent by native people affected by the dam. Natives displaced by the Bakun and Murum dams have been herded into squalid resettlement schemes, with disgracefully poor land compensation.
Impact assessments merely window-dressing
Indigenous communities’ representatives have protested that the congress is an attempt to whitewash Taib’s unpopular plans to build 12 giant hydroelectric dams throughout Sarawak, displacing tens of thousands of poor farmers from their ancestral Native Customary Rights (NCR) land. Companies owned by Taib’s family have already benefited greatly from existing dam contracts, from Bakun to Bengoh. “How does the IHA ensure that Sarawak Energy, a dam builder linked with corruption, doesn’t abuse the IHA and its HSAP by presenting itself to an international audience as ‘sustainable’, (while) hiding poor practice and corruption?” wrote Peter Kallang, chairperson of Save Rivers, a Sarawakian indigenous people’s network, to the IHA.
Save Rivers pointed out that the Murum Dam’s HSAP assessment had never been made public, while the eventual release of Murum’s SEIA had merely been “a last-minute public relations exercise”. “How can you state that applying the HSAP to the Murum Dam has actually improved... stakeholder relations, when affected communities so clearly reject the dam?” Kallang asked.
The congress will take place at the Borneo Convention Centre, a complex owned by the state government. The contract, worth at least RM195 million, was awarded to PPES, a subsidiary of CMS, a company controlled by Taib’s family.
Taib’s sister Raziah Mahmud is the chairperson of the convention centre, and Taib’s son Mahmud Abu Bekir is a director. Taib defends the state government’s distribution of enormous state government contracts to his family members, saying he is not directly involved in meetings that consider such deals.
“It is an absolute scandal that the IHA has chosen the Taib family’s Borneo Convention Centre for their congress,” said Lukas Straumann, director of the Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO advocate for indigenous people.
“The congress centre’s operators are the very same people who are the main beneficiaries of Sarawak’s corruption-driven dam plans. We demand that the IHA immediately change the conference venue. Otherwise, the IHA will lose all credibility in addressing corruption in the hydropower sector.”
The London-based IHA did not respond to an emailed request for comments.
“How will an industry that develops and promotes hydropower address corruption, in a sector riddled by corruption, and with no transparency around the financial flows?” demanded Fernandez. “As TI-M secretary-general, I raised serious concerns over TI’s sponsorship of the congress, (approved) without adequate consulation with the exco of TI-M.”
Fernandez said it was ironic that TI-M’s existing Forest Governance and Integrity Programme engages with Sarawakian natives to address corruption, protect the rights of indigenous communities and halt forest loss.
“Our work is not just (confined to) anti-corruption tools but is also about human rights, social and environmental justice,” she said. “We should be in solidarity with the communities and their struggles against injustices and corruption.”
International scrutiny needed in Sarawak
TI’s Donal O’Leary and TI-M president Paul Low, newly appointed minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, are both scheduled speakers at the upcoming congress.
They explained that Labang Panah, an indigenous people’s representative from Murum, will be a speaker in the panel entitled ‘Working with Project Affected Communities’ and said the IHA had informed them that they expect “up to a further ten representatives of affected people”. The entrance fee for the congress is a prohibitive US$1,950 (RM5,850).
Both O’Leary and TI-M president Low said the congress “will bring world-wide attention to Sarawak and its hydro projects including the problems associated with these projects” and place them “under international scrutiny more so than ever before.”
“As a panellist, I will be advocating... to examine the need for each project and that the issue of good governance and effective safeguards must be in place pre and post implementation... (including) independent monitors in each phase of the project, starting from the need analysis phase,” Low said in an email interview.
Local environmentalists point to the electricity glut in Sarawak as evidence that the dams would benefit only a handful of select, politically influential companies.
Fernandez also questioned whether it would be ethical for TI to offer its training services to Sarawak’s energy company. “The SEB has met with TI-M’s Business Integrity programme, which is a company limited by guarantee, and (which) offers paid advisory services. I believe mixing paid services and protecting the interests of communities is not as easy as it seems. After all businessmen are not bishops, mullahs or swamis.”
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’.