Saving rivers, saving lives
Saving rivers, saving lives
There is a big fight between islanders defending their land, rivers, and livelihoods and the Malaysian government’s idea of ‘development’. Veronique Mistiaen spoke with Peter Kallang, the campaigner.
People from villages in Baram demonstrate against the planned dam. Credit: Samban Tugang
‘The government took away most of our resources. The money from our land and rivers goes to the mainland or overseas,’ says Peter Kallang. He is a campaigner for the people of Sarawak. He is fighting for sustainable, renewable energy for local communities and not the very destructive big dams the government wants.
The Malaysian state of Sarawak is on the northern coast of Borneo. It has one of the world’s most endangered and biodiverse rainforests. ‘Sarawak is as big as England with lots of forests and rivers. Indigenous people have lived there for hundreds of years.’
But Sarawak’s economy is behind the rest of Malaysia and many villages don’t have basic amenities. ‘We have rights to our lands, but the government gave our rights to timber companies, palm-oil plantations, and mining companies,’ says Kallang, aged 69. He is a member of the Kenyah indigenous community. He was the 2019 winner of the Seacology prize. They give the prize every year to a person for saving island environment and culture.
Worse than logging and mining, the biggest danger to Sarawak comes from the government’s plan to build dams on its many rivers. The dams are to power the state’s fast industrial development. The project, called SCORE (the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy), has12 big dams. The dams would make much more energy than people need. This is to try to attract big energy-intensive industries, such as aluminium companies.
The project is changing landscapes and lives, and indigenous people do not think it will be good for them. In 2011 the government built the Bakun dam. They did not talk to the people about it first. It flooded old forest ecosystems and 10,000 indigenous people had to move when it flooded their villages and farms.
The next dam, the Baram dam, would flood another 400 square kilometres of rainforest and 25 villages. Another 20,000 people would have to move. It would also mean rare species would be extinct and there would be a lot more greenhouse gases. This is because vegetation at the bottom of the reservoirs produces methane. ‘We were too late for Bakun, but we could fight the Baram dam,’ says Kallang. He was born and grew up in a village in Baram district. So eight local NGOs joined together to form Save Rivers and asked Kallang to lead them.
‘Because we were eight NGOs, we did a lot. We visited all the 25 affected villages in Baram and explained about the dam.’ They brought along people from villages which the Bakun dam flooded.
‘They were farmers. When they had to move, the government promised free housing, water, and electricity, and money for their land. But they gave them sandy, rocky land too small to farm. The farmers didn’t get the money and they had to pay for their utilities,’ says Kallang.
‘Indigenous people in Sarawak speak 30 languages and know everything about the forest. When they have to move to the big cities, they lose their languages and culture. Life is not the same.’
Kallang worked as an engineer for Shell in the past. ‘There were not many jobs for an engineer then,’ he says with a smile. ‘But I was the president of the workers’ union. I was already fighting.’ I ask if his work with Shell gave him any ideas. He says, ‘At least at Shell, if you wanted to complain about something, you could. But you cannot say anything against the government.’
But, Save Rivers made protests against the government, including river flotillas in towns and far away rural areas. The biggest protest stopped the building of the dam for two years.
At the same time, Kallang spoke about the problem internationally and spoke against investors in Australia and Norway. ‘We found links with a company owned by the Tasmanian government. So we went to Australia and spoke to the Green party there. We visited parliaments in Sydney, Melbourne, and Tasmania. They all heard what we wanted to say.’
Save Rivers also spoke to experts in renewable energy at the University of California, Berkeley. They experts that there are other ways to make energy, such as micro-hydro, solar, and wind power.
These could give enough energy in Sarawak and would not destroy the forests, and the local communities could own them and it would bring more equality. Save Rivers spoke about all of this to the government in 2016, with 10,000 signatures against the Baram dam. After five years of protests, the government agreed to stop the Baram dam and SCORE.
Kallang and Save Rivers are now working on renewable energy for Sarawak. They have already helped villagers build two small dams and taught them how to look after them, so they could own them. These projects also help save Sarawak’s forests. Because logging would damage the watersheds necessary for micro-hydro systems.
In 2019, Save Rivers held Sarawak’s first community conference on electricity. More than 300 people came, including from national and state politics (together for the first time). Over 50 community leaders came from across the state.
But Kallang is worried now that the government will go back to the plan for big dams because there are fewer and fewer natural resources now, such as gas, oil, timber, and forests.
‘We need to keep talking about the destruction and injustice from big dams and the community renewable energy projects,’ he says. ‘This is not just Sarawak’s problem, it is a national problem and an international problem. Big dams here will flood one of the most biodiverse parts of the world.’
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL:
(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)