KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — Bidayuh villagers received scant information about the impact of the Bengoh Dam in Padawan that displaced about 1,600 of them before their consent was obtained for the project, the Bar Council said.
The Bar Council’s Committee on Orang Asli Rights, which undertook a fact-finding mission to Bengoh, Sarawak, from September 17 to 21 last year, found that the affected indigenous people from four villages — Kampung Taba Sait, Kampung Pain Bojong, Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Semban — either moved to higher ground outside the Bengoh Dam area or to the government’s Bengoh Resettlement Scheme (BRS) in Padawan.
“No formal communication was received by the villagers from the contracting companies or the state government before construction began,” said the Bar Council committee’s report released today.
“They were given verbal instructions to relocate or move to higher grounds when the dam was close to completion, prompting protests which resulted in the civil suit. There were attempts to gazette their lands as national parks later, which contradicted with their earlier application for recognition of native customary rights (NCR) to lands,” it added.
According to the report, construction of the RM310 million Bengoh Dam project, which was designed to secure water supply for Kuching and surrounding areas up to 2030, began in 2007 and was completed in 2010. The project was awarded to investment holdings company Naim Holdings Berhad that appointed Sinohydro Corporation of China in 2008 to construct the dam.
The Bar Council said government officials had told villagers, back when the Bengoh Dam was mooted in the early 2000s, that they would benefit from the dam and there was no need to shift from the area, but they only needed to move further up above the water level when their villages were flooded.
“Many of them did not object to the dam project as the impression given then was that their villages would not be affected by the project,” said the report.
“It is noteworthy that there was no official communication from the contracting company or the Government concerning the dam to these villagers. The villagers knew about the dam project through word of mouth and could not identify the source of the information.
“In addition to that, much of the information they received were in bits and pieces. During this period, they were still in the dark about when the construction would start, which areas would be flooded, and most importantly, were they expected to resettle,” the report added.
The villagers filed a civil suit in 2010 against the contractor Naim and the Sarawak state government, seeking recognition of NCR lands, when a local government minister reportedly told them in 2009 that they would not be allowed to stay in their NCR lands even if their lands were above the water catchment area.
According to the Bar Council, all Kampung Semban families moved to the government’s BRS, but 49 families from Kampung Taba Sait, Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Pain Bojong refused to do so and built new settlements on the upper areas near their villages, 20km from the Bengoh Dam, called Upper Bengoh.
“The affected Bidayuh villagers refused to move out as they do not wish to lose their native customary rights over their ancestral land, established through occupation by their ancestors since time immemorial.
“Apart from losing their customary land, the Bidayuh were concerned over issues relating to the loss of income and livelihood, and compensation for the loss of their homes and property including their farms,” said the report.
According to the Bar Council, the people living in the BRS chose to move there because the resettlement had water and electricity supplies compared to their former villages, with their compensation as an added bonus. It was also closer to town, where they could get healthcare and education for their children.
However, they have reportedly not received the monthly RM800 allowance for cost of living for three years. The three acres of land allocated to each household was reportedly not sufficient either for a family of more than six.
“These lands could not be used to rear animals. We have noted that few of the villagers were employed. Most opted to work in the agriculture land provided to them in the BRS and the rest were unoccupied with no activities,” said the report.
The Sarawak state government reportedly tried to overcome the villagers’ NCR claims by gazetting the area in 2013 as national parks. The villagers filed for a judicial review of the gazette.
The Kuching High Court later issued a consent order in December 2014 for the 2010 civil suit that recognised 2,592 hectares of NCR lands, but ruled that the affected villagers must vacate the NCR lands falling under the Bengoh Dam Reservoir area.
The court also awarded compensation of RM3.14 million to 54 villagers, which only took into account the size and condition of their former houses.
“The compensation awarded did not include the value of farmed lands such as corn, pepper and cocoa. Also, the compensation awarded for farmed land was only per household and not for each husband or wife,” said the report.
The judicial review of the proposed national park gazette did not proceed to substantive hearing because of the consent order for the earlier civil suit. The state government agreed not to proceed with the gazette and the villagers decided to withdraw their judicial review application.
The Bar Council noted that there are no schools nor mobile clinics in Upper Bengoh.
“The villagers in Upper Bengoh had to go through the journey of crossing paths in the jungle, untarred roads and rivers to reach the nearest health facility,” said the report.
The Bengoh Dam construction also reportedly split the Bidayuh community between those who stayed in Upper Bengoh and those who resettled in the BRS.
“The villagers do harbour some resentment towards those who they believed, opted the easy way of resettling in the BRS and still maintain their NCR to lands, while those who moved to higher grounds had to work together to create new homes and go through the arduous court process to obtain NCR to lands for all the villagers with no help from those who shifted to the BRS,” said the report.
The report concluded that the government and construction companies should undertake more efforts to consult the community before undertaking any major projects that affect them.
“It is not right to impose external development patterns on these vulnerable communities,” it said.
~ The Malay Mail