There are signs that the proposed hydroelectric dam, which is still in the feasibility study stage, is slowly tearing up the social fabric of the ethnic communities living in the area of the dam site – even those least affected by the state's grand project to harness Sungai Baram to power its industrialisation plan.
It has now pitted government-appointed community leaders, who are tasked with winning support for the dam against their sceptical “anak biaks” (longhouse folk).It reportedly turned out to be an accusation and counter-accusation session between those who were apprehensive and sceptical about the benefits of the dam and the government-appointed committee chairing the meeting.
“Once, it was unheard of and taboo to go against your elders. Now there are signs of people rebelling against those they had revered,” one longhouse representative said as he related a recent meeting in Miri among “below the dam” village representatives to discuss their collective demands for benefits and compensation they would present to the government if the dam was built.
The committee comprised Temenggong Pahang Ding, the paramount chief of the Orang Ulu, Pemanca Elizabeth Ding and its adviser, former Baram district officer Richard Pahang Lah.
One outspoken representative at the meeting was Uma Bawang village headman Pius Lihan Ding, who reportedly questioned their role in the meeting when he told them they “sounded like they are the mouthpiece of the government when talking about the dam”.
He reportedly said: “We look up to you people as our leaders but you are not leading us and looking after our interest.”
Peter Kallang, an anti-dam activist who gatecrashed the meeting, said the representatives of the affected villages – Long Kesseh, Long Pilah, Long Miri, Uma Bawang, Sungai Dua and Long Laput – are also sceptical about the committee members’ impartiality and ability to protect their interest.
Kallang, who is president of the environmental NGO Save Rivers Network Sarawak, said the one incident that still rankled was the refusal of the Temenggong to hand over the 7,000 signatures of opponents of the dam they had collected last year to Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud.
The dam, reportedly designed to generate 1,200Mw of electricity, could, when built, submerge 400 sq km of land and displace 20,000 indigenous people from the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Penan and even Iban groups.
The meeting at the Miri youth centre in Brighton was only attended by representatives from six villages out of about 13 scattered downriver from the dam and would indirectly be affected by it.
These villages would not have to be relocated unlike those upriver of the dam but river communication in that part of Baram would be affected as the water level could drop dramatically during the expected year-long impoundment.
Kallang said some of the village elders present dismissed the claim that they would benefit from the 60km or so access road that had been planned from Long Lama to the dam site.
“They are sceptical because the road does not run through their land. It only runs through land on the upriver side of the dam,” Kallang from Uma Bawang said.
“The dam is dividing the people. While the appointed-community leaders are encouraging the people to support the project, the sceptics are questioning why and if there is a need for it.”
The more radical opponents of the dam have mounted three blockades to deny workers and contractors of Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB) access to the dam site.
They mounted one blockade to stop the construction of the access road near Long Lama, one to halt survey work on a potential quarry site and one to stop geological surveyors collecting core samples at the dam site.
The Baram hydroelectric project is located between Long Naah and Long Kesseh, some 200km from Miri, and will displace 26 villages. – February 2, 2014.
~ The Malaysian Insider