Rumblings from Baram

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 March 2013 © Selangor Times

DURING a recent trip to Miri in January, my flight arrived at the same time as the Sarawak Chief Minister’s.

I watched from my economy seat as Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud stepped down from his jet plane, accompanied by his young Lebanese wife Puan Sri Raghad Kurdi Taib, on a red carpet.

Abdul Taib has ruled Sarawak for more than three decades as the president of Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

He took over the reins of power from his uncle, the third Chief Minister Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Yaa’kub, in 1981.

Under his rule, Sarawak, together with Johor and Sabah, is known as the fixed deposit for Barisan Nasional (BN).

At present, DAP only holds two out of 31 federal seats in Sarawak while PKR has none.

The political tsunami, which resulted in a change in five state governments in Peninsular Malaysia in 2008, did not reach Sarawak’s shores.

BN comfortably retained its two-third majority in the 2011 state elections, clinching 55 out of 71 seats.

In the upcoming national polls, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) hopes to wrest a third of the parliamentary seats in Sarawak in their quest to oust BN from Putrajaya.

“We’re confident of winning 10 seats (in Sarawak),” said PKR’s Baram parliamentary candidate Roland Engan.

The indigenous lawyer hails from Long Jeeh, one of several Kenyah villages along the main river of Baram.

Apart from urban seats like Kuching, Sibu and Miri, PR is focusing on rural constituencies such as Baram where the indigenous people are increasingly dissatisfied with the ruling government due to land disputes and corruption.

Legendary valley

I had flown to Sarawak at my own expense to cover the indigenous people’s protest against the Baram hydroelectric dam, which will displace about 20,000 natives from their homes and flood 412 sq metres of rainforest.

PKR had initiated the long boat protest, backed by Save Sarawak Rivers Network.

The NGO was set up last year to oppose several mega dams the state government is building. Its chairperson, Peter Kallang, is also a Kenyah born and bred from Long Ikang, Baram.

The Baram valley is home to Malaysia’s second longest river and many legends.

The river runs strong and wide. It serves as the “highway” for the locals here.

The Baram River

Kenyah and Kayan villages can be found along the main river while Penan villages are scattered around its tributaries.

However, the vast Baram basin has been logged intensively since the 1980s.

Once translucent, the river has turned murky over the years due to soil erosion.

An independent candidate, Harrison Ngau Laing, had won the Baram parliamentary seat by capitalising on logging issues in 1990.

The Kayan lawyer has since joined PKR and is now the party’s Baram branch chief.

In the 2011 elections, he competed in Telang Usan, one of two state seats under Baram, and lost narrowly by 845 votes to PBB’s Dennis Ngau.

But in the neighbouring state seat of Marudi, PKR’s candidate was thrashed by BN, which won with a 3,202 majority.

The Baram parliamentary constituency has a total of 29,042 voters according to the Election Commission’s latest statistics in November 2012.

Engan, who helped Harrison campaign in 2011, hopes to ride on the people’s growing opposition against the Baram Dam to garner support in the upcoming polls.

PR has pledged to halt the construction of mega dams.

But would his strategy work? The villagers’ response to the long boat protest organised by PKR could serve as a gauge.

Rural protest

On Jan 16, the organisers met in Long San, a village about six hour drive from Miri, before travelling upstream to the furthest village reachable by boat – Lio Mato, which literally means Hundred Isles in Kenyah.

Twenty-six villages that will be directly affected by the dam were invited to join the long boat convoy travelling downstream from Lio Mato to Long Lama over a period of five days.

Engan, Kallang and local activists visited the villages one-by-one to mobilise the people and collect signatures.

At the first stop on Jan 17 at Long Tungan, some 40 villagers dressed in traditional costume warmly welcomed the convoy with drums. But the same could not be said about subsequent villages like Long Semiang and Long Selaan, where few villagers were around to receive the convoy.

Villagers at Long Tungan received the protest convoy warmly.

Most village chiefs, political appointees who receive RM450 monthly and other perks from the state, are still afraid to be associated with the opposition party and told their villagers to stay away.

Yet, a few village chiefs would openly declare their support for PKR as they pinch their hope on the party to scrap the hydropower project should it come into power.

“We have stayed here all our lives. God gave us this land. We have everything we need here. We don’t want to move,” Long Apu village head Tingang Use told the crowd when met on Jan 18.

Their villagers had lined up along the jetty to greet the protesting convoy.

At villages like Long Anap, Long San and Long Na’ah, the people disregarded their chiefs’ instruction and welcomed the convoy enthusiastically.

Shouts of “Ayen ti dam! Mangna dam! Amai manu dam!”, which means “Stop Baram Dam” in the Kenyah, Kayan and Penan language respectively, rang out as the convoy continued on its journey down the river.

Mobile and Internet coverage were non-existent until we reached Long Na’ah, the village closest to the proposed dam site.

The Kayan villagers had chased the dam surveyors away last year and erected a warning sign at the village’s entrance.

“We told them they are not welcome here and warned them not to come again,” said Enyie Eng, 67, a subsistence farmer who participated in the long boat protest.

At the end of the journey on Jan 20, over 40 long boats converged at Long Lama.

In addition, some 500 people were gathered at the town to listen to speeches by Engan and Alan Ling, the DAP assemblyperson who defeated former SUPP chief Tan Sri Dr George Chan to win the Piasau seat in Miri in 2011.

Ini kali lah?

Following the January protest, Abdul Taib flew to Long Lama last month and announced the establishment of a new township at Telang Usan.

The Chief Minister’s visit aimed to pacify rising opposition against the dam, apart from to shore up support for incumbent Baram MP Datuk Jacob Dungau Sagan ahead of elections.

Sagan, who is also the Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industries, has held the seat since 1994.

But the indigenous people in Baram have lost hectares of their customary land to logging companies over the decades.

The hydropower project, which will force them out of their ancestral homes entirely, may just prove to be the last straw that will break the camel’s back.

Many villagers I met said they tune in to Radio Free Sarawak daily from 6pm to 8pm to listen to the only traditional media outlet that dares critique the Abdul Taib government openly in Sarawak.

The state had threatened to jam the British-based radio station in January as it is fast making inroads into rural areas.

Nevertheless, Sarawak is huge and with its one million voters scattered in remote villages, the task of stopping the radio station has not yet taken place.

Engan has had to dig into his own savings to campaign in the Baram parliamentary constituency, which is as big as Pahang, the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia.

He said PKR allocates RM3,000 a month to the Baram branch but one trip to the interior could easily cost twice as much.

Despite the wealth of its natural resources, Sarawak’s infrastructure development lags far behind Peninsular Malaysia states.

It is also the third poorest state in Malaysia, after Sabah and Perlis.

A short documentary recently released by international human rights watchdog Global Witness laid bare the systemic corruption in the state and its grave implications.

Titled Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, the 16-minutes film exposed the instruments used by certain parties to evade taxes and profit from land deals at the expense of the natives, who were described as “squatters”.

However, PKR candidates will bring the film to longhouses and broadcast it before their ceramah, as Engan would screen documentaries on Bakun whenever the convoy stops over for the night at villages.

If PKR can bring this message to its targeted constituencies, the coalition may just win enough seats in Sarawak to help them throw BN out of Putrajaya in the upcoming elections.


 

Sidebar: Grand development plan

THE Baram Dam is but one of four mega hydroelectric dams that the Sarawak government plans to build by 2020.

This is on top of the existing Batang Ai Dam, Bakun Dam, the largest outside China, and Murum Dam, expected to be completed this year.

The hydropower projects are part of the state government’s Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy plan, better known as SCORE, to produce cheap electricity to attract energy-intensive industries to the state.

The US$105 billion (RM318.5 billion) plan, which would generate nearly as much power as the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, aims to “transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020”.

It is part of a grand development plan to grow the state’s economy by a factor of five, increase jobs and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.

However, the 2,400-megawatt Bakun Dam, located at the Rejang River, had already forced 10,000 indigenous people to be relocated in the 1990s.

The 944-megawatt Murum Dam, also located at the Rejang River, will displace another 1,500 natives from their homes.

Panai Erang, 55, is a Penan village chief who has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the Bakun people are relocated.

The community leader from Kampung Ba Abang, Baram was dismayed to find out that the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland.

Some of the Sungai Asap settlers have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.

“All the Penans in Baram are against the dam. We want to remain in our ancestral land,” he said.

Stateless natives

Erang had travelled with the protesting long boat convoy organised by PKR from Jan 16 to Jan 20 for the entire journey.

From village to village, he would urge the Kenyah and Kayan to protest the dams with their votes.

“Many Penans can’t vote because we don’t have ICs, I hope the Kenyah and Kayan people can vote for PKR so that the dam can be cancelled,” he said.

Erang said more than half of his villagers do not have birth certificates nor MyKad and only five people from his village can vote at present.

The difficulty in securing a MyKad is a long-standing sore point among the indigenous people in Sarawak.

At least 40,000 indigenous people in the state are stateless, the deputy federal regional development minister Datuk Joseph Entulu Belaun estimated in 2010.

A 27-year-old woman of Kenyah-Kayan descent from Long Pillah, Baram, told me she has travelled to Miri to apply for a MyKad last year but was asked to apply again.

“They want the village chief’s and school principal’s support letters and photos of my five siblings. But I have lost contact with them,” said the mother-of-four who declined to reveal her name.

Her siblings are either married to other villagers or working in towns like Bintulu and Kuching.

Without mobile coverage in her village and their addresses, she said she is practically left in a limbo.

Stateless indigenous youths like her are forced to remain in the village to work as caretakers or farmers.

Those who went to work in urban areas risk being arrested by the police.

Life is likely to get tougher for them if the dams are built.

Without a MyKad, it will be difficult for them to look for jobs in towns and cities.

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.

Erang

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?

Lynas

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.

Why are Malaysians living in the dark?

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 November 2012 © The Nut Graph

FROM laptops, smart phones to digital cameras, middle class youth in the Klang Valley these days usually own a few electronic gadgets. It is taken for granted that there will be 24-hour electricity supply to power these devices. But in a remote Penan village in Upper Baram, Sarawak, 1Malaysia laptops given by the government to students have been left idle due to a lack of power supply in the settlement.

1malaysia-laptopHollie Tu, a community organiser with Koperasi Pelancongan Penan Selungo Baram Berhad, says it demonstrates how the Malaysian government is out of touch with the living reality of rural students. “What’s the use of having a laptop when you don’t have electricity?” Tu said in exasperation when met at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok, Sabah on 31 Oct 2012.

What’s the use, indeed? Who else is suffering from a lack of electricity in rapidly developing Malaysia and what can the government do about it?

No electricity in Ampang…

Colin Nicholas

Colin Nicholas

It’s not just the Penan in Sarawak’s interiors that don’t have electricity. Official 2010 statistics show that more than one third of Orang Asli villages in Peninsular Malaysia are still without electricity supply, said Dr Colin Nicholas from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns. Villagers often make do with kerosene lamps or candles at night. Only those better off can afford generators.

One classic case is Kampung Orang Asli Kemensah, which sits among affluent neighbourhoods in Ampang but still has no power supply till this day. Despite having their plight highlighted in newspapers since 2007, Nicholas said national utility company Tenaga Nasional Bhd just started pulling in the wires to connect the indigenous village to the grid a few months ago.

If an indigenous village located less than 30-minutes drive from our capital can be so conveniently forgotten from “development”, what will the government do for villages far in the interior?

Nicholas said the government tried to install solar panels in remote Orang Asli villages but most of these solar electrification projects failed due to poor maintenance. He pointed out that the panels and batteries require a lot of maintenance and the government did not teach the communities to maintain them.

“The government had also spent millions to install water filtration systems [to provide clean water] to villages but most couldn’t work because there is no electricity to power the pump,” said the academic-activist, speaking at the first Southeast Asia Renewable Energy People’s Assemblya gathering of community-based renewable energy system producers across the region.

…and in Sabah

Over in Sabah, although nearly 80% of its population has 24-hour electricity supply, in its poorest district of Pensiangan, three quarters of the population have no electricity.

Adrian Lasimbang is one of the key figures helping the off-grid communities set up their own small-scale hydro systems. The trained engineer from Sabah set up Tonibung (Friends of Village Development) in 1991 which helps rural indigenous communities produce their own electricity. Tonibung installed the first pico-hydro for an indigenous village in 1999. (Pico-hydro produces less than 5kW of power while micro-hydro can generate between 5kW to 100kW of electricity.)

“Only 10% of our work involves engineering. The bulk of our time is spent getting the locals involved before the start of the project and training them to sustain the hydro system post-project,” said Lasimbang.

His organisation has helped install 15 pico- or micro-hydro systems in his home state, Sarawak and, over the past few years, in Peninsular Malaysia as well. Lasimbang noted that such small-scale hydro schemes’ impact on the environment is minimal compared to mega dams.

From the youth to the elderly, everyone gets involved in setting up the micro-hydro system for the Murut community in Kg Babalitan (© Adrian Lasimbang | Micro Hydro in Borneo)

However, Tonibung and the local communities have had to rely on foreign aid and corporations to fund their projects as they have found it difficult to source for local funding. It is disappointing that our government doesn’t seem interested in financing these small-scale and affordable renewable energy projects which provide a basic need to rural communities.

Democratising energy production

Instead, the Malaysian government tends to favour large-scale, centralised energy production projects. From the Bakun dam and the 12 proposed mega dams in Sarawak to the scrapped Sabah coal plant, local environmentalists have their fair share of controversial mega projects to protest against.

No doubt it is more energy- and cost-efficient to centralise power supply when electrifying urban areas where populations are concentrated. But the same power distribution model becomes inefficient and costly when applied to rural populations where communities are spread out. That’s why many indigenous communities in Malaysia remain off-the-grid.

lightbulbwaterClearly, our government urgently needs to develop a decentralised energy production strategy for its off-grid communities. Unfortunately, the Renewable Energy Act 2011 does not provide any support for the deployment of small-scale energy projects in these communities. The legislation favours urban consumers and existing corporate power producers.

Power is a basic amenity, not a luxury, for our off-grid communities, and should be treated as such. Often poverty-stricken, these communities need and deserve more government aid to secure energy and clean water supply to achieve a better quality of life. Instead of free laptops and one-off handouts, the government should instead focus on long-term benefits such as ensuring that all Malaysians receive the basic need of electricity. 


Gan Pei Ling thinks the budget allocated for smart phone rebate in 2013 should instead be used to fund small-scale renewable energy projects in off-grid villages. Certainly urban youths can learn to live without smart phones while some of their counterparts are having to make do with kerosene lamps.

Slow death by aluminium smelters?

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 June 2012 © The Nut Graph

WHILE green activists in Peninsular Malaysia are protesting the rare earth refinery that has yet to begin operations in Gebeng, Pahang, villagers living near an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Mukah, Sarawak, have been suffering in silence.

Documentary filmmaker and former TV2 producer Chou Z Nam has highlighted the Iban villagers’ plight in four short videos, all available on YouTube, and a report after a field visit in February 2012. Chou is well-known for his documentaries on the Bakun Dam and its impact on local communities. His Bakun Dam documentaries were axed by RTM and he was sacked after disclosing the self-censorship.

How is the aluminium smelting plant affecting the lives of local communities in Balingian? Should we be alarmed at plans for new plants?

The aluminium smelting plant in Mukah (Source: unireka.com)

Declining health and dying crops

In Chou’s first short video released on 22 March 2012, villager Sandy Dancan, 18, complained of skin irritation and rashes which she has had since 2010. Dancan lives 300m away from the plant owned by Press Metal Sarawak Sdn Bhd.

Another villager, Cynthia Unau, 25, worked as a cleaner at the smelter for six months in 2011. She claimed she fell sick while working there in Chou’s second video released on 24 March 2012.

A simple health survey conducted by Chou and local activist Matek Geram found that villagers from three longhouses located 300m to 2.5km from the factory reported symptoms of breathing difficulties, coughing and dizziness, among others. The affected families say they spend RM150 up to RM500 a month for medical treatment.

It was also observed that plants growing 50m to 200m from the factory including nipah, coconut, sago, banana, oil palm and ferns, were dying.

Farmers living within 12km of the smelter have claimed loss of livelihood as their crops cannot bear fruit, while fisherfolk at Batang Balingian alleged that their catch has dwindled, possibly due to acid rain pollution.

Chou’s documentary also records an unidentified former employee accusing the smelter of only using one out of its three compressors to treat air pollutants including hydrogen fluorideand sulphur dioxide in order to save energy costs. The informant claimed that although the plant was equipped with the required pollution control facility, it wasn’t fully utilised when he was working there.

Press Metal Sarawak refuted these claims in a Borneo Post report published on 8 May 2012. Its human resources general manager, Soh Siew Ong, said the smelter only released clean gas into the air and that no water is discharged from the plant.

A screenshot of Cynthia Unau’s testimony featured in Chou’s video

More smelters in the pipeline

While villagers in Balingian are still grappling with the health impact of living near an aluminium plant, at least two new larger smelters are expected to be built in Bintulu.

Press Metal Bhd secured a RM350 million loan in May 2012 from two local banks to finance the construction of its second aluminium smelting plant in Bintulu’s Samalaju Industrial Park. The plant is expected to produce 240,000 tonnes of aluminium annually, double the capacity of the existing Balingian plant.

Smelter Asia, a joint venture between Gulf International Investment Group Holdings Sdn Bhd and Aluminium Corp of China, also plans to build a smelter in the same industrial park, with an even larger annual capacity of 370,000 tonnes.

Aluminium smelting involves a chemical process to extract pure aluminium from its oxide called alumina. But the process leaves behind fluoride pollutants, including the pungent and toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as perfluorocarbons (PFCs), which are far more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

In addition, an aluminium smelting plant is an energy guzzler as a high temperature of 970 Celsius is needed to melt the alumina. For example, while the Mukah district consumes two megawatts of electricity per month, the Balingian smelter alone uses up to 200 megawatts a month, according to Press Metal Sarawak. Smelter Asia is also in talks with Sarawak Energy Bhd to secure over 600 megawatts of power supply.

Heed the warning signs

The process of extracting aluminium is an environmental challenge. Yet, aluminium is highly sought after to make vehicles and for food packaging, and is arguably a necessity in modern life. The aluminium industry is one of the primary forces behind the Brazilian government’s plan to dam rivers in the Amazon to meet the industry’s high energy demand. Sarawak seems to be going down the same path with its grand plan to build 12 mega dams despite growing local opposition.

Unlike the case with Lynas, a detailed environmental impact assessment was done for theBalingian smelter. But given the current complaints, the government authorities need to be more proactive in addressing villagers’ complaints on health problems, pollution and dying plants. These are merely warning signs of a potentially larger underlying problem. If, as Press Metal Sarawak claims, no air pollutants have been released by its smelting plant, then what is the real source of pollution in Balingian? Shouldn’t the authorities be investigating?

Taib Mahmud (Wiki commons)

As Chou recommended in his fact-finding report, a more thorough health study needs to be conducted to ascertain the cause of the villagers’ sicknesses. Rainwater and plant samples ought to be collected by the state Department of Environment to find out if they are contaminated with pollutants from the smelter.

The Balingian smelter is located Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud’s constituency. Surely he wouldn’t want an environmental and public health scandal in his own backyard.

In addition, the Sarawak government ought to rethink its development strategy. Building more smelters may indeed spur the state’s economic growth, but not at the expense of the health and quality of life of the locals, unless the companies are held to strict environmental standards.


Gan Pei Ling thinks more public attention needs to be given to the health and environmental impact of aluminium smelting plants in Sarawak. They certainly deserve equal, if not more, public scrutiny than Lynas.

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: grist.org)

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: oxfam.org)

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: oxfam.org)

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.