CIVIL society groups fighting for the rights of the indigenous people of Sarawak, East Malaysia, have reached out to Britain’s Princess Anne, urging the royal to use her influence to help those displaced by the construction of the controversial Murum Dam.
The NGOs, led by local grassroots network SAVE Rivers, penned a letter this week to the princess alleging that Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB), Sarawak’s power supplier, had glossed over the situation at resettlement sites there when she visited their headquarters in October last year.
They claimed that although three years have passed since local communities were evicted from their homes to make way for the construction of the dam, the government has yet to deliver the compensation package for their resettlement. Vigilant protests and diplomatic pressures have done little to solve the problem and as a result, hope is running thin for those displaced.
The NGOs said they wrote the letter to correct SEB’s allegedly biased presentation and inform the princess of the rights violations inflicted on these indigenous communities, namely the Penan and the Kenyah peoples.
“We are concerned that you were not given the full information about the fate of the Penan communities displaced by the Murum Dam.
“We would like to draw your attention to major human and indigenous rights violations in the process leading to the construction of the Murum Dam, as well as highlight the problems faced by the communities at the resettlement sites,” they told the princess, according to a copy of the letter sent to the media.
Apart from SAVE Rivers, the other groups that signed the letter included Swiss NGO Bruno Manser Fonds, and U.S.-based The Borneo Project and International Rivers.
Princess Anne is the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. During her visit to SEB’s headquarters last year, she was given a briefing on the firm’s sustainability initiatives by its group chief executive officer Datuk Torstein Dale Sjotveit.
After her visit, SAVE Rivers went to the resettlement sites of Tegulang and Metalun and found that families there were still waiting to receive the promised 14 hectares of land per family for farming.
Peter Kallang, chairman of the local grassroots network SAVE Rivers, said it is totally unacceptable that resettled people are still waiting to receive farmland after three years.
“How are they supposed to make a living? There are hardly any job opportunities at the resettlement sites,” he said.
“We sincerely hope that Princess Anne will raise these concerns with Sarawak Energy,” he added.
The NGOs in their letter also informed Princess Anne about the lack of free, prior, and informed consent as well as the delayed Social and Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) in the process leading to the construction of the Murum Dam.
SAVE Rivers said since resettlement, the communities have not only been denied farmland, but also been deprived of access to primary forest for hunting. As a result, SEB and the Sarawak Government are neglecting the peoples’ right to choose their own development path.
Further, there is no effective grievance mechanism in place that would allow the communities to raise these issues with the government and SEB.
A similar letter was also sent to the CEO of the International Hydropower Association (IHA), Richard Taylor. During the IHA Congress in Kuching in 2013, Taylor promised that he would mediate between Sarawak Energy and dam opponents.
During the congress, the government and Sarawak Energy promised fair and appropriate treatment of resettled communities, and released the Murum Resettlement Action Plan. Many of these promises, such as the 14 hectares of land per household, remain unfulfilled.
The NGO asked Princess Anne and Richard Taylor to advocate for the Penan and Kenyah displaced by the Murum Dam. Kallang said SEB and the Sarawak government must immediately provide farmland to the suffering communities.
“We kindly ask you to acknowledge these facts and use your influence to help improve the situation of the people displaced by the Murum Dam. Please engage SEB regarding these very important matters.”
The Murum Hydroelectric Plant (HEP) in the Belaga District, Kapit Division was opened in September 27 last year. The plant provides up to 944MW electricty for Sarawak, and additional power for the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).
Murum HEP is SEB’s first hydropower development project under SCORE, and its second after Batang Ai HEP was commissioned 30 years ago. It is expected the dam will help generate higher income for Sarawak by 2030.
It took a team of 2,500 people to complete the RM4.1 billion (US$923 mil) mega structure. Impoundment of the reservoir started on Sep 21, 2013 and the dam is designed to have a maximum power output of 944MW with an average annual energy output of 5,952GWh. The Murum HEP began its commercial operation in December 2014, and was fully commissioned in June 2016.
“Murum HEP has changed the socio-economic landscape of the Murum area especially the livelihood of the people directly benefiting from this project. We have a strong commitment to continue to work together with villagers from Murum and partner agencies to raise living standards and preserve the cultural heritage at the same time,” Sarawak Energy Chairman Datuk Amar Abdul Hamed Sepaw said during the dam’s inauguration.
Hamed said seven villages in the Murum resettlement areas now enjoy 24 hour electricity, in addition to clean water and access to telecommunication services.
He added significant progress also experienced by the communities at the resettlement areas are better housing, better amenities and facilities, better access to medical and education, increase in literacy rate, increased enrollment in formal education among the Penan children, skill and technical training for the youth and entrepreneurship growth in terms of small business opportunities and production of handicrafts through diversifying the skills of the Penan artisans.
In the development of Murum HEP, SEB claims itself to have been guided by international best practices – incorporating recommendations from the IHA Protocol and the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) as well as local requirements set out under the Social Impact Assessment report and the Resettlement Action Plan.
Read SEB’s media release about the dam.