Megadam Project Galvanizes Native Opposition in Malaysia

by Gan Pei Ling in Long Lama, Malaysia / February 27, 2013 © National Geographic News

Most villages along the Baram River in Malaysia cannot count on round-the-clock electricity. Diesel generators hum at night near longhouses in the northwestern corner of the island of Borneo. Mobile and Internet coverage are almost nonexistent.

A plan to dam the Baram River would generate power far in excess of current demand in the rain forest state: At 1,000 megawatts, the hydropower project would be large enough to power 750,000 homes in the United States.

Yet the promise of power rings hollow for many who live here.

Natives from the tribes of Penan, Kenyah, and Kayan have taken to their traditional longboats, traveling downstream to the town of Long Lama to voice opposition to the plan.

Baram is one of seven big hydropower projects that Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak, is building in a bid to lure aluminum smelters, steelmakers, and other energy-intensive heavy industry with the promise of cheap power. Together, the dams mapped out in the state government’s sprawling $105 billion Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan would harness nearly as much river power as the largest generating station in the world, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China.

The Sarawak project is changing landscape and lives. The dam across the sinuous Baram River will submerge 159 square miles (412 square kilometers) of rain forest, displacing some 20,000 indigenous people.

Open acts of defiance are rare in Sarawak after three decades of authoritarian rule under the state’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has long battled charges that he has amassed personal wealth by selling off swaths of the rain forest in corrupt deals with timber industry. But protests have become increasingly bold among indigenous people opposed to the megahydro plan. Last September, native tribes set up a blockade to protest the Murum River dam project in western Sarawak. And in January, the longboat protest came to Long Lama, with shouts of “Stop Baram Dam” in indigenous languages reverberating through the normally quiet town.

“I don’t care if I’m not reappointed” as the village chief by the government, said Panai Erang, 55, an ethnic Penan, one of several chiefs openly against the state-backed project. “I have to speak out for my people.”

Power Transformation

Baram Dam is part of a grand economic-development vision for Sarawak, which along with Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the northern coast of Borneo (map), along the South China Sea. Borneo, shared with Indonesia and Brunei, is one of the largest islands in the world, and home to one of its oldest rain forests.

Endangered species such as Hose’s civet, the Borneo gibbon, and six different species of hornbills rely on the habitat. The Bornean bay cat, one of the most elusive cats in the world, was sighted near the upper Baram River last November. Sarawak boasts more than 8,000 unique types of flora and 20,000 species of fauna, including one of the world’s largest butterflies, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, and one of the most extensive cave systems on Earth.

Despite its natural resources, Sarawak’s economy has lagged behind the rest of Malaysia. An ever-widening economic gap, as well as a sea, separates Sarawak from the fast-growing states and bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula. But Sarawak’s SCORE plan aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020.”

A government spokesperson close to Mahmud said Sarawak has to tap the hydro potential of its numerous rivers to power the state’s industrial development.

“The people affected [by the dams] will be those who are living in small settlements scattered over remote areas,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named, in an email. “They are still living in poverty.

“To build a dam, not just to generate reasonably priced energy, is also to involve the affected people in meaningful development,” he said. “Otherwise, they will be left out.”

The spokesperson added that Sarawak will also be exploiting its one to two billion tons of coal reserve for power. One of the coal plants is already operating in the developing township of Mukah. Malaysia’s first aluminum smelter was opened here in 2009.

Sarawak’s plan is to grow its economy by a factor of five, increase jobs, and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.


But during the January protest at Long Lama, village chief Panai Erang said he and his people have little confidence that they will benefit from the new industrial development. Erang has visited the town of Sungai Asap, in central Sarawak, where 10,000 indigenous people already displaced by the first megadam project, Bakun Dam, were relocated. The forced exodus began in the late 1990s, and construction continued for more than a decade. With a capacity of 2,400 megawatts, Bakun, which opened in 2011, is currently Asia’s largest hydroelectric dam outside China.

Erang said the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland. Some have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

The community leader is fearful for the future of his villagers. Many do not possess a MyKad—the Malaysian national identification card—because of government policies making it difficult for them to prove citizenship. As a result, they cannot vote and would be unlikely to find employment if they were forced out of their ancestral homes into towns and cities.

“This is not the development that we want,” said Salomon Gau, 48, an ethnic Kenyah from the village of Long Ikang, located downstream off the Baram River. “We don’t need big dams. We want micro-hydro dams, [which are] more affordable and environmentally friendly.”

Energy and Development

The concerns of the indigenous tribes are echoed by academics and activists from Malaysia and around the world. They worry about SCORE’s potential social and environmental impact.

Benjamin Sovacool, founding manager of Vermont Law School’s Energy Security and Justice Program, studied the SCORE project extensively. He and development consultant L.C. Bulan traveled the corridor and interviewed dozens of Sarawak planners and stakeholders to catalog the drivers and risks of the project. Their research, conducted at the National University of Singapore, was published last year in the journal Renewable Energy.

Government officials told the researchers that SCORE would improve prospects for those now living in villages, especially the young people: “They want gadgets, cars, nice clothes, and need to learn to survive in the modern economy,” one project planner told Sovacool and Bulan. “They are not interested in picking some fruit in the forest, collecting bananas, hunting pigs.”

And yet when the researchers visited the Sungai Asap resettlement community, they found people scraping for both water and food, oppressed by heat and rampant disease, with limited transportation options. “We had trouble sleeping at night due to coughing from a tuberculosis epidemic, malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing around our beds, and the smell of urine, since the longhouse lacked basic sanitation,” they wrote.  Many community members had fled.

The squalor stands in marked contrast to the portrait of Sarawak that the SCORE project seeks to paint in its bid to attract new industry, a region of “world-class infrastructure, multimodal interconnectivity and competitive incentives,” strategically located near potential fast-growing markets of India, China, and Indonesia.

Sovacool and Bulan noted that SCORE had encountered difficulties in finding investors and financiers, and flawed environmental impact assessments and questionable procurement practices would further hamper those efforts. (At least one major aluminum smelter plan was scrapped last year over a dispute over finances.) The authors concluded that SCORE might undermine Sarawak’s greatest assets: “[I]t is taking what is special to Sarawak, its biodiversity and cultural heritage and destroying and converting it into electricity, a commodity available in almost every country on the planet.”

And yet, Sovacool and Bulan wrote that such projects may become increasingly common globally, as governments seek to build energy systems and spur development at the same time.

Kayans from the village of Na’ah, nearest to the dam site, are staunchly against the Baram Dam. They have chased surveyors away and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.

Daniel Kammen, founder of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratoryat the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked extensively on alternative energy solutions in Malaysia, thinks Sarawak should explore other renewable energy options before implementing SCORE’s power projects.

“The political and infrastructure challenges are immense, and the ecological and cultural impacts have barely been evaluated,” he told National Geographic Newsvia email.

He said careful evaluation and planning in cooperation with communities could yield better solutions; Kammen’s team’s work was pivotal in the 2011 decision by neighboring state Sabah to scrap plans for a 300-megawatt coal plant in an ecologically sensitive habitat, and provide energy instead with natural gas.

“What is vital to the long-term social and economic development of [Sarawak], and of Borneo, is to explore the full range of options that are available to this resource-rich state, recognizing that community, cultural, and environmental resources have tremendous value that could be lost if the SCORE project goes ahead without a full analysis of the options that exist in the region,” he said.

Mounting Resistance

The natives of Sarawak, including those from Baram, have already lost thousands of hectares of customary land to logging companies and oil palm plantation companies over the past few decades. The state government often cuts land lease deals with companies without consulting natives. Consequently, there are now more than 200 land-dispute court cases pending in Sarawak.

The Penans, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe, have suffered more than the Kenyah and Kayan agricultural tribes as they are entirely dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, and are well-known for their blockades against loggers.

But the dam development has united different tribes traditionally divided by their disparate interests. Unlike previous upheavals due to logging, the hydro projects will force tribes out of their ancestral land completely. Adding to anger is the appearance of nepotism in several of the deals; for example, Hamed Abdul Sepawi, chairperson of the state utility company Sarawak Energy Bhd, which is building the Murum Dam, is the cousin of chief minister Mahmud.

The tribes struggle to have their concerns heard. The opposition party that organized the longboat protest in January at Baram, The People’s Justice Party, collected more than 7,000 signatures but the government-appointed regional chief refused to see the protestors.

In some cases, the opponents have received a better reception abroad. Peter Kallang, an ethnic Kenyah and chairperson of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network, and other local indigenous activists traveled to Australia late last year to draw attention to their plight. “Development isn’t just about economic growth,” said Kallang. “Will these mega projects really raise the standard of living among our indigenous communities?” With support of Australian green groups, the activists pressured dam operator and consultant Hydro Tasmania to withdraw from Sarawak’s hydropower projects.  Reports say Hydro Tasmania told the campaigners it plans to leave Sarawak after it fulfills its current contractual obligations, but the company has maintained it has been a small player in the SCORE program.

In any event, the indigenous activists plan to step up their campaign against the dam in the coming weeks in anticipation of upcoming national elections. Sarawak and Sabah traditionally have been viewed as a stronghold for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim now views the rural states on Borneo as key to his bid to unseat the long-standing regime, due to the support he has garnered among increasingly organized indigenous tribes.

In uniting Sarawak’s native peoples, the project to alter its rivers may, in the end, change the course of Malaysia.

Environmental “hot potatoes” in 2013

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 January 2013 © The Nut Graph

POLITICIANS today ignore environmental issues at their peril. The year 2012 saw major environmental protests against controversial projects in Malaysia. Thousands protested against the Lynas rare earth refinery, the use of cyanide at a gold mine in Pahang and the multibillion petrochemical complex in Pengerang, Johor. In Sarawak, indigenous peoples reluctant to be uprooted from their ancestral homes to make way for the Murum Dam mounted a blockade at the site for almost a month.

It is heartwarming to witness the rise of resistance from environmental groups towards potentially hazardous mega projects in this country. Our citizens are asserting their rights, and holding governments and corporations accountable to the people and the environment.

Kenyahs, Kayans and Penans protesting on 20 Jan 2013 near the proposed site of the Baram Dam.

With the general election looming, activists will likely ramp up their respective campaigns. What environmental “hot potatoes” will politicians have to deal with carefully this year to avoid public anger and opposition?


The Lynas rare earth plant has been a major rallying point for environmental issues. Himpunan Hijau successfully staged several anti-Lynas rallies in 2012. There was a protest in Kuantan in February 2012, a 300km march from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka in November 2012, and a rally at the refinery’s door step on New Year’s Eve.

It is unlikely the protests will stop there. Despite the opposition, Lynas Corp began production in November 2012 after obtaining the official Temporary Operating License (TOL) from the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) in September 2012. Federal ministers have repeatedly claimed the company must ship its waste abroad, but Lynas Corp insists there is no such requirement under the TOL.

It remains to be seen whether Lynas will be able to recycle its low-level radioactive waste into safe commercial products. It can also help sooth public concerns by being transparent about its waste management process. As the regulator, the AELB must also play its part to ensure the company deals with its waste safely and responsibly. Many activists, however, are still adamant the plant should be shut.

Sarawak mega dams

Construction work for the 944MW Murum Dam is expected to conclude this year. About 1,400 Penans and Kenyahs will be resettled to Tegulang and Metalun – 46km upstream from the dam.

It may be too late to stop the Murum Dam, but I think campaigners still have a fighting chance to pressure the government to scrap the upcoming Baram Dam. The 1,000MW hydropower project will displace some 20,000 natives currently living in Baram and submerge 412 square km of forests – nearly double the size of Kuala Lumpur.

Indigenous people in the hornbill state formed the Save Sarawak Rivers Network (Save Rivers) in February 2012 to oppose the dams. The activists travelled to Australia last year and successfully pressured state-owned dam operator Hydro Tasmania to stop assisting Sarawak Energy Bhd. Activists have been visiting villages to mobilise the people and Radio Free Sarawak has been disseminating information via its short wave radio.

Baram Valley

The Sarawak government proposes to build a total of 12 mega dams under its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan to “transform Sarawak into a developed state” by 2020. However, the Bruno Manser Fund, an international charity, criticised SCORE in its November 2012 report as an “outdated” development plan. A policy paper published by the National University of Singapore in March 2011 also doubted SCORE’s viability.

Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has not bowed to public pressure to halt controversial projects. Nevertheless, the state’s indigenous peoples are increasingly bitter with his administration. They have already lost thousands of hectares of native customary rights land to loggers and plantation companies over the past few decades. Now, their homes are at stake due to the hydroelectric dams. Taib’s administration cannot afford to ignore the growing public dissent if it intends to stay in power.

Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex (PIPC)

The PIPC is an ambitious project to turn Pengerang into a petrochemical hub. Petronas is investing RM60 billion to develop the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project at the complex located at the southern tip of Johor. Some 3,000 residents from seven villagers, mostly fishermen and small-business holders, will have to be relocated to make way for the complex. A protest was held against the Pengerang project on 30 Sept 2012.

Environmentalists are also concerned that KuoKuang Petrochemical Technology Co will revive its controversial project, cancelled by the Taiwanese government in 2011, in Pengerang. A 2010 Chung Hsing University study found that the average lifespan of people living near the petrochemical project may be shortened by 23 days due to pollution. More protests may be in the pipeline if the government allows the Taiwanese company to resurrect its project here.

Moving towards sustainable development

An increasingly discerning electorate coupled with growing environmental awareness means that governments and corporations can no longer get away with sloppy environmental management. Instead of being defensive, the best way forward for the state and businesses is to engage the public proactively and be transparent about the details of the projects.

After all, if the mega projects are truly beneficial to local communities and harmless to the environment, they should be able to withstand public scrutiny, right?

Gan Pei Ling hopes the growing environmental resistance will help push the nation towards a more sustainable development path in the long term.

The doughnut of justice

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 February 2012 © The Nut Graph

ECONOMIC development and jobs or toxic waste and radiation? The Lynas rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan was granted a temporary operating license by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board on 1 Feb 2012. Lynas claims its company contributes towards “sustainable development” and helps create jobs as rare earth materials are increasingly being used to manufacture green technology products.

But thousands gathered on 26 Feb 2012 to oppose the plant, pointing out that the process of refining rare earths is toxic, which may impact local communities and the environment if not handled properly. This was the case with a plant in Bukit Merah, which left behind radioactive waste.

Thousands gathered for Himpunan Hijau 2.0 to protest the Lynas rare earth refinery in Kuantan, 26 Feb 2012 (© Juana Jaafar)

So, what should take precedence?  Promoting economic growth or preventing toxic waste? Is sustainable development possible? Or must ecosystems and local communities be sacrificed for the general population to achieve economic growth? Is there a way to develop and achieve prosperity while upholding human rights and living within the Earth’s ecological limits?

A safe and just space

Oxfam International senior researcher Kate Raworth has proposed a new framework to think about sustainable development, and it’s shaped like a doughnut.

In her 3 Feb 2012 paper A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?, Raworth combines two boundaries to provide a framework for sustainable development.

Doughnut of justice (source:

The inner boundary consists of the “social foundation” — basic human essentials such as food, water, energy security and gender equality. The doughnut sets a minimum base which must be achieved, below which lies human depravation.

The outer boundary constitutes the “environmental ceiling” of our planet’s nine biophysical systems including the climate, ozone layer, ocean, and freshwater sources. Leading scientists have warned that crossing the critical threshold of these nine areas could lead to drastic and irreversible changes to our environment.

“The space in between the two boundaries — the doughnut — is where inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place,” states Raworth.

Although sustainable development has been talked about since 1987, Raworth’s ideas are noteworthy as she combines two important frameworks — human rights and environmental sustainability.

Duncan Green (source:

After all, as noted by Oxfam Head of Research Duncan Green, “an environmentally safe space could be compatible with appalling poverty and injustice”. Conversely, surging economic development could lead to devastating environmental effects.

Therefore, it is essential to incorporate both frameworks into the concept of sustainable development.

“Human rights advocates have long focused on the imperative of ensuring every person’s claim to life’s essentials, while ecological economists have highlighted the need to situate the economy within environmental limits.

“The framework brings the two approaches together in a simple, visual way, creating a closed system that is bounded by human rights on the inside and environmental sustainability on the outside,” writes Raworth.

The Oxford economics graduate notes that conventional economic indicators such as GDP growth have failed to take into account the social and environmental impact of economic activities.

“Within this framework, social and environmental stresses are no longer portrayed as economic ‘externalities’. Instead, the planetary and social boundaries are the starting point for assessing how economic activity should take place,” she states.

She adds that our economies should focus on bringing humanity within the doughnut – to eradicate poverty, social inequality and increase human well-being within planetary limits.

“[The doughnut] implies no limit on increasing human well-being; indeed, it is within this safe and just space that humanity has the best chance to thrive,” she thinks.

The doughnut in Malaysia

Raworth (source:

Raworth’s ideas build on existing ones that take into account other indices besides economics and production to demonstrate well-being. Indicators like the Gross National Happiness Index developed by Bhutan and the Happy Planet Index introduced by UK’s New Economics Foundation have emerged in recent years to measure human well-being and environmental sustainability in development.

But by using Raworth’s doughnut, it becomes clear that Malaysia, with its addiction to mega projects, is still trapped in the old mindset of pursuing “economic growth” per se, causing local communities’ needs and environmental concerns to take a backseat.

In Sarawak for example, the state government said constructing 12 mega dams as part of its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy initiative would spur more economic growth. However, indigenous communities are up in arms as they would be displaced from their ancestral homes and have formed a Save Rivers Network to rally against the dams.

The dams have little to do with the communities who will be displaced. They are expected to power up energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting plants and create jobs for locals, or migrants, where the industries would be located.

To apply Raworth’s doughnut, the dams’ construction stresses both the inner social boundary and the outer environmental boundary. While it may create jobs, it would destroy the indigenous communities‘ livelihoods, cultures and heritage, as well as submerge large areas of forests and wildlife habitat.

The Orang Asli community demonstrating during the Himpunan Hijau 2.0 protest (© Juana Jaafar)

If Raworth’s concept were to be applied, the policymakers should weigh heavily the views and needs of the indigenous communities involved. Whether they would benefit from the dam project, for example, by being hired by the industries the dams benefit. And more importantly, whether they have any desire to work in those factories.

Raworth’s inner boundary cites “voice” as one of the social foundations. Policymakers would have to respect indigenous communities’ rights and let them determine the kind of economic, social and cultural development they desire, as recognised under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

Lynas and the doughnut

Similar considerations need to be made in the Lynas case. Yes, Lynas will create jobs and bring in foreign direct investment. But is this needed to raise the surrounding communities’ social foundation — to provide better income, education, health and jobs — or can this be done through other means?

On the environment side, large amounts of water are needed to process the rare earths ore. Would the water be treated before it is released back to the rivers and ocean? How would it impact local fisheries? And what about the radioactive waste? Will it be stored next to the refinery, since Australia has refused to take it back? What steps are being taken to prevent radiation pollution?

Malaysian policymakers may not have heard of Raworth’s “doughnut of justice” as dubbed by US environmental news portal GristBut what is clear from it is that more questions need to be asked and answered by our authorities to justify their approval of the Lynas refinery. More public consultation should have been done and is still needed. More information is required.

Youth protesting against the Lynas rare earth refinery during Himpunan Hijau 2.0 (© Juana Jaafar)

The same principles need to be applied for other projects that have a significant impact on local communities and the environment, such as whether or not Malaysia will go nuclear in 2013 or early 2014.

We’ve gone past the age of “the government knows best”. Transparency and accountability are essential in any government decision-making processes in sustainable development. As Gristenvironmental writer David Roberts points out when commenting on Raworth’s doughnut, development should no longer focus solely on economic growth, “but what kind of growth and to whose benefit?”

Gan Pei Ling thinks Raworth’s doughnut of justice should be introduced to all policymakers in Malaysia.

Development? Really? For whom?

by Gan Pei Ling / 17 October 2011 © The Nut Graph

MOST of us living in Peninsular Malaysia take electricity for granted as we have hardly experienced a blackout since the 1990s. But how many of us have stopped for a moment to think where the electricity, that allows us to turn on our TVs and computers, comes from?

What are the impacts of the power plants that generate our electricity — be they coal, hydropower and perhaps in the future, nuclear — on the environment and local communities living near these plants?

Coal plant and fishes


At a climate and energy forum in Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 Oct 2011, Peninsular Inshore Fishermen Action Network president Jamaluddin Mohamad, from Johor, talked about the impact of the Tanjung Bin coal plant.

“They are using chlorine to prevent sea water from corroding the pipes in their power plant. But it is polluting the ocean, and the water that they use to cool the plant is being released back to the sea in high temperature. Our catch has been dwindling over the years,” Jamaluddin told the forum that was jointly organised by Third World Network, Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

Run by independent power producer Malakoff Corp Bhd, the 2,100MW Tanjung Bin coal plant was built in 2003. The power producer intends to expand the plant’s capacity by another 1,000MW.

Jamaluddin noted that Tanjung Bin was rapidly developing into an industrial area: “The areas where we can fish are shrinking and becoming increasingly limited.”

He said none of the affected communities are against “development” but the coal plant and rapid industrial development are threatening their livelihoods: “That’s why we’re protesting against the coal plant’s expansion.”

Dams and livelihoods

Across the South China Sea, natives in Sarawak have been displaced by the Bakun dam and more will be displaced by 12 dams the state government is planning to build to boost its power capacity to 7,000MW, over 600% of its 2008 capacity.

Philip Jau

Philip Jau, a Kayan from the Baram valley, said 20,000 people from various communities will be displaced by the Baram dam the Sarawak government intends to build. “This does not include those who are living downstream yet. Up to 38,900 hectares of our native customary land will be submerged. Our land is our life. We cannot live without it. It is as simple as that,” said Philip.

The Baram dam will also cause deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Philip said the communities affected by these dams are establishing a network to create a united movement against what he described as the “damned” dams. “We want electricity but we hope the government will explore other alternatives like micro-hydro, which is more environmentally-friendly, though it may not generate as much profit as building a mega dam,” he said.

Philip said he has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the affected communities from Bakun were relocated to. “They’re suffering. Most of the villagers feel that they have no future,” said Philip. The communities in Baram do not want to suffer the same fate with good reason.

Of broken promises

The Bakun dam flooded 69,000 hectares of land, around the size of Singapore, and forced the relocation of 10,000 people. Construction began in 1996 and the project eventually cost RM7.5bil.

Wing Mikiu

Wing Mikiu from the Sungai Asap settlement told the forum the Sarawak government only allocated three acres of land to each family that were relocated from Bakun in 1999. “My family has eight children. Three acres of land is not enough for us. We’ve 2,000 new couples in our settlement to date and most of them have no land [to cultivate],” said Wing.

He said the government promised to build the villagers a new town with an airport, jetty, highway and even an international school in the effort to persuade villagers to leave their ancestral homes. But today, many youths have moved to Bintulu or other towns due to the lack of job opportunities in Sungai Asap.

To add insult to injury, Wing said the compensation villagers received for their now submerged native customary lands range from RM0.30 to RM3 million. “If you’re unhappy with the amount, you can bring it to court or complain to the district office, but you’ll have to pay for the cost to resurvey the land yourself,” Wing explained.

“Perhaps the project profited the company and the people in this state [when the dam starts producing energy], but what about us? Our people didn’t enjoy any development as promised, and we’ve lost our land and heritage,” said Wing.

Source of inspiration

Protesting against a coal plant or dam may seem daunting, but local communities can look to Green Surf for inspiration. Since 2007, the coalition has successfully pressured the government three times to cancel plans to build a coal plant in Sabah.

Wong Tack

Wong Tack from the Sabah Environmental Protection Society, which is one of the five environmental organisations in Green Surf, said it was most important for communities to be united. “Locals must take responsibility. If the people are united [in the struggle], then we can solve any problem,” said Wong.

Wong pointed out that it is also crucial to build partnerships with national and international partners. “When the government proposed to build the coal plant for the third time (in Kampung Sinakut in 2009), we knew this could no longer be a Sabah issue.  We had to turn it into an international issue.

“We went to the Parliament and built partnerships with international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) so that the government would have to listen to us, and finally they did,” said Wong. The government scrapped the plan to build a coal plant in Sabah for good in February 2011.

Development? Where?

Those with vested interests in mega projects have a tendency to demonise local communities and environmentalists who oppose such projects as “anti-development”.

But if there’s anything to learn from the stories of community leaders, it is not just about conserving the environment. It is about defending communities’ source of livelihood and preferred way of life so that they can continue to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and continue to work and fend for their families.

Of course, the government and corporations involved can continue to ignore local communities’ interests and voices. But surely, they do so at their peril? If communities are adversely affected economically by development projects, surely these communities would have nothing else to lose in fighting back.

Gan Pei Ling believes government and businesses must always take into account not just environmental impact but social and economic consequences on local communities when proposing mega projects. If not, they risk earning public outrage.

Green issues: Top 10 in 2010

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 January 2011 © The Nut Graph

WHAT were the environmental highlights and low points of 2010? Do we stand a chance in conserving Malaysia’s amazing biodiversity and rich natural resources?

With the help of several “greenie” friends, I made a list of 10 major environmental happenings in Malaysia in 2010. These events give us an indication not only of how the environment continues to be under threat in Malaysia, but also how efforts are being made to combat that threat.

What stood out for you environmentally in 2010? What appalled, encouraged or enlightened you? List them down so that we may have a better picture about how we Malaysians are caring for our environment.


1. Nuclear power plants

(Pic by merlin1075 /

The federal government decided to go nuclear, announcing in May 2010 that Malaysia would build a nuclear power plant by 2021. Serious concerns were raised regarding safety and feasibility, considering the disastrous effects of accidents and shoddy radioactive waste management. Activists also questioned whether the government had exhausted renewable energy options, especially solar and biomass.

Despite this, Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin announced in December 2010 that Malaysia intended to build two plants, the second expected to be ready a year after the first.

To date, the government has not made public its nuclear waste management plan or emergency plan detailing what steps it would take in the event of a radioactive leak or natural disaster.

2. Sabah coal plant

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning to build a 300-megawatt coal plant on Sabah’s pristine east coast. Environmental coalition Green Surf and other activists have been campaigning tirelessly against the plant, reminding the government to consider cleaner alternatives like biomass and geothermal.

The plant’s detailed environmental impact assessment was rejected by the Environment Department. However, Chin said last December the proposed coal plant would go ahead, claiming it was the best option to ensure uninterrupted power supply.

3. Bakun Dam

The flooding of the Bakun Dam began in October 2010. The flooding of the 69,000ha area, roughly the size of Singapore, to the top of the Bakun Dam wall, about half the height of the Petronas Twin Towers, is expected to take over seven months.

Disputes over compensation for the approximately 10,000 indigenous peoples displaced from their land remain unresolved. The construction of the Bakun Dam began in 1996, and its cost was reported to have ballooned from RM4.5bil to RM7.5bil due to cost overrun and compensation for delays.

Despite that, Bakun is just the beginning. The 944-megawatt Murum dam is currently being constructed, and it was announced in February last year that five more dams with a combined capacity of 3,000-megawatts are in the pipeline.

4. Renewable energy bill

(Pic by ronaldo/

The long-awaited Renewable Energy Act was finally tabled in Parliament in December 2010. Once passed, the Act will enable the public to sell electricity generated from renewable energy, most likely solar, to the power grid through the feed-in tariff scheme. Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) will buy user-generated electricity at above-market rates. Concerns, however, are that TNB might pass on the cost to consumers by raising general electricity tariffs.

Other than the feed-in-tariff, it is unclear how the government intends to fulfill its target of generating 11% electricity from renewable energy by 2020.


5. Rejang river logjam

This bizarre incident last October involved Malaysia’s longest river, the Rejang. Logs and debris choked the mighty river for 50km, making many places inaccessible by boat.

The Sarawak government tried to pass off the incident as a “natural” disaster due to floods. A BBC report, however, quoted the blog Hornbill Unleashed, which blamed poor infrastructure and excessive logging for the logjam.


6. Capture and trial of wildlife trafficker Anson Wong

In August 2010, Wong was caught with 95 boa constrictors in his bag at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I, personally, was delighted when the High Court substituted a Sessions Court sentence of six months’ jail and a RM190,000 fine with a five-year jail term. The heavier sentence will be more likely to serve as an effective deterrent.

In addition, Parliament passed a tougher Wildlife Conservation Act, which came into force in December 2010. Punishments include fines of up to RM500,000. and up to five years’ jail for smugglers of protected species like tigers and rhinos.

7. GM mosquitoes

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

Dengue, carried by the Aedes mosquito, has been endemic in Malaysia for years. Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes have been proposed as a solution to curb its spread. The mutant male mosquitoes do not produce any offspring and help lower the mosquito population.

Great fears, however, have been expressed over this experiment as experts say removing the mosquito from the ecosystem could wreak havoc on other species, and ultimately, the environment.

Despite these concerns, the Health Ministry intended to release GM mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca. Protests from local and international groups resulted in a cancellation of the programme.


8. Selangor State Park

The federal government intends to build the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR) through the Selangor State Park to ease traffic congestion. This is in spite of the park being categorised as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (Rank 1) under the National Physical Plan-2. It serves as an important water catchment area, and as such, no development, except for eco-tourism, research and education purposes, should occur there.

The highway was originally designed to cut through the park and a potential Unesco World Heritage site,  the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge. The Selangor government convinced the developer to dig a tunnel to avoid damaging the quartz ridge last November. But it remains to be seen whether they can persuade the developer to re-route KLORR away from the state park, too.

Public outcry, not just from environmental groups but also concerned residents, continue. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will scrap its plans.

9.  Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest

Wong (front) visiting the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest in December 2010.

The Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation proposed in 2010 to convert the 7,000ha Kuala Langat forest reserve into oil palm plantations. The clearing of the forest could reportedly generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Selangor executive councillor for the environment Elizabeth Wong has led opposition to this proposal. A biodiversity audit, done with the assistance of environmental groups, found tapirs, sun bears, white-handed gibbons and rare trees.

The audit report has yet to be presented to the menteri besar, but I’m hopeful he will make the right decision. After all, the Pakatan Rakyat-led government promised to ban logging for 25 years when it came into power in 2008.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

10. No plastic bag day

The no plastic bags campaign, pioneered in Penang in 2009, is now nationwide. Plastic bags are no longer free on Saturdays except in Penang, where they’re not free every day.

Plastics manufacturers’ indignant reactions amuse me. Although the campaign may reduce our reliance on plastic bags, it is mainly symbolic. The campaign helps us rethink the impact of our use-and-throwaway consumption on the environment, but is unlikely to eliminate all use of plastics bags, or plastics, in our lives. Perhaps the manufacturers need to start listening and evolve in accordance with consumer demand for more sustainable products.

Although I initially found the above list a bit depressing, I realised that the story of public resistance against potential ecological destruction echoed throughout. And there are many more environmental heroes that did not make it into the list. A rural Kelantan community that successfully solved the human-elephant conflict in their village, for example. Or the Bukit Koman community that continues their attempts to protect their village from pollution from a gold mine.

And I’m sure there are many, many more such stories.

Again, Gan Pei Ling finds herself more inspired by grassroots communities and individuals than governments in 2010.