By: Tanya Lee

The blockade to stop the Baram Hydroelectric Dam in Sarawak, Malaysia from being built is now entering into its 21st month, standing as a testament to the strength, determination and hope of thousands of women and men, prepared to go up against all odds. Up to 20,000 indigenous people, known collectively as the Orang Ulu, or upriver people, would be displaced if the proposed 1,200 megawatt (MW) dam moves ahead. Much of the land to be inundated is considered the customary territory of the Orang Ulu. The blockade effort began in October 2013 and consists of two separate sites set up at road access points in the area of the proposed dam.

Simultaneous to the physical defense of their land, Orang Ulu community members are also in the midst of an uphill court battle to halt an unconstitutional attempt by the state government to extinguish their rights to the land. In addition, over the past six weeks, Orang Ulu youth who are working outside of Baram, including in the urban centres of Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Miri, have lodged a series police reports to indicate their unity as a people in opposition to the project. Baram residents working in Kuala Lumpur file police reports asserting their opposition to the dam.

Blockade site at access road to dam. This house serves as a gathering place for Baram landowners joining the blockade | Photo by International Rivers

When I first visited the blockade sites in early 2014, indigenous landowners acknowledged that the defense of their territory would not be won quickly, and were at the time building a settlement at the blockade with housing structures, an assembly hall, kitchen and dining facilities, along with flush toilets and a bathing area. More recently, I re-visited the blockade site with a representative of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM, the national human rights organization), just after the 600 day milestone had passed. If you only listen to the reports of the media in Malaysia and read the international press accounts, you might be convinced that there are only a few middle-aged landowners and dedicated lawyers with a social conscience prepared to speak out against the Baram Dam. However, from the blockade site and surrounding communities, the view is different. There is a palpable sense of anticipation and hope in the air. Colorful flags and banners are draped along the roadside, representing the longhouses that make up all of the communities that oppose the dam. Rows of new sleeping areas and recreational spaces have been created.

Women and men, youth and elders – all articulate and prepared to act as spokespeople – assert that it is their very identity as Orang Ulu at stake if the Baram Dam moves ahead.  While at the blockade site, I heard a group of women passionately explain about the significance of the land and river. They relayed stories of women they have met who are struggling to live in the resettlement sites set up for people displaced by the Bakun and Murum dams, both of which are within a day’s drive from Baram. Near the 2,400 MW Bakun Dam, the water piped into peoples’ homes and in the reservoir is so toxic that people are falling ill. The situation is so severe that local nurses and doctors are joining community protests to demonstrate their disgust with the quality of water and poor support services offered to the indigenous people. Meanwhile at one of the two resettlement sites set up by Sarawak Energy Berhad for the Murum Dam, families have yet to receive promised land allotments. Shockingly, the community is located inside a logging company’s concession area and therefore is surrounded by armed guards, logging machinery and piles of fallen timber. Here, and at Bakun, mothers report they are struggling to feed their families nutritious food and are concerned about increasing drug addictions amongst young people. “This is not the development we want,” explained the women. “We are Orang Ulu; this means the river is central to our livelihoods and to who we are. We want schools, roads, health clinics. We are not anti-development. But a dam will destroy the way we live. It will destroy our land, and that is all we have to pass on to our children and their children.”Blockade site at access road to the Baram Dam. This house serves as a gathering place and look-out point to monitor the  presence of Sarawak  Energy vehicles.International Rivers

Village Mapping to Assert Rights to the Land and Water

While I was at the blockade site, a new initiative at Baram was getting underway. Teams of women and men are learning community mapping techniques with the help of the National Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (Jaringan Orang Asal Se Malaysia) and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association. Their plan is to systematically work village to village in the areas that would be affected by the dam to map out customary lands. By mapping out their traditional territories or “wilayah adat”, they will have stronger evidence to bring forward in court, defend their rights to the land, and demand that companies that intend to propose a project on their land first obtain their free, prior and informed consent as stipulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Precedent-Setting Agreement to Respect Indigenous Rights in Sarawak and Beyond

Adding strength to the mobilization to defend Orang Ulu territory is an international level agreement signed more than ten thousand kilometers away, in Oslo, Norway in June. There, the consultancy company, NorConsult, was the subject of a complaint issued by the non-governmental organization FIVAS, under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises for their failure to conduct due diligence in relation to the environmental, social and human rights consequences of the Murum Dam. The complaint resulted in Norconsult signing a precedent-setting agreement that other consultancy companies working on dams worldwide will hopefully follow. Amongst other measures, Norconsult agreed to “ensure that projects they are linked to comply with international human rights, including indigenous people’s rights […] in accordance with ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” for operations in Sarawak and elsewhere. Norconsult will need to be held accountable for its new policies and will be monitored closely. In partnership with indigenous rights advocates and FIVAS, International Rivers hopes to leverage this agreement to call on other companies considering and currently providing consultancy and engineering services to dam builders to do the same.

In the meantime, as the struggle in defense of indigenous rights to territory and self-determination in the face of proposed dam building in Sarawak continues, we will continue to work with our allies to call for Sarawak Energy Berhad to withdraw from the Baram area, return lands acquired for the project and respect the Malaysian federal court rulings that uphold indigenous rights to customary lands.

Featured image: Baram residents working in Kuala Lumpur file police reports asserting their opposition to the dam | Photo by International Rivers