One year ago, a remarkable win for indigenous rights took place in a little-reported corner of Asia. On the island of Borneo, rainforest communities won a long fight against a hydroelectric dam that was to be built on their land.
After more than two years of muddy resistance, the dam plans were shelved, and land rights were restored to the indigenous population.
This was a landmark win. Malaysia is not celebrated for its human rights record, and rarely puts land rights ahead of deep-pocketed commercial plans. Mapping which lands are protected against industrial expansion is difficult, and sometimes impossible.
The first two dams in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy project charged ahead with neither prior informed consent of the native populations, nor completed social and environmental impact assessments.
Communities already displaced by the Murum and Bakun dams were promised better schools and housing, ten acres of land each, financial compensation, electricity and employment.
What they got instead, was a new life in an impoverished displacement camp. Their villages were submerged, their longhouses and graveyards lost under water. The river turned foul and undrinkable, and the fish disappeared. An ancient connection to their life source was extinguished.
Local advocacy group SAVE Rivers was formed through the grassroots resistance to the dam. They went from village to village on a marathon of community consultations, letting the people living upstream on the Baram river know the realities of what faced them if they were to be displaced.
Two strategically placed blockades halted construction for two years, maintained round the clock by local communities. When the blockades were forcibly removed, new ones would pop up. It was good old fashioned picket resistance, and it worked.
"In a global narrative that pits nature against man, the indigenous people of Sarawak are leading protection of the environment and demanding sustainable development that respects and protects nature."
More than 1200 days since is started, the blockade still stands. In the lower area of where the dam would have been built, a micro-hydro project has been set up to generate sustainable energy. The blockade groups now undertake surveying for illegal logging.
The movement that began in opposition to the dam is building on its experience to create the Baram Peace Park, an ambitious initiative to establish small scale energy systems and support local livelihoods. The dam might be shelved, but there is still much work to be done. Resistance has turned into action, as communities are buoyed by the knowledge that grassroots activism works.
Borneo not only sustains the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples: it is of critical significance in the global fight against climate change. Forest areas such as those surrounding the Baram river are the lungs of the planet, and are significant pockets of carbon sequestration. Much like the Amazon and the Mekong, deforestation via flooding compounds the effects of climate change, not only through generating emissions, but also by destroying the remaining forest lands that absorb excess carbon.
As we mark the anniversary of the Baram dam victory on 21 March, we must take note of all that remains to be done. More dams are scheduled to be built, and these struggles often go unnoticed. In a global narrative that pits nature against man, the indigenous people of Sarawak are leading protection of the environment and demanding sustainable development that respects and protects nature.
Supporting forest communities to protect their lands and the fight against climate change go hand in hand. Around the world, we see grassroots groups striving not only to protect their own history, but to safeguard all of our futures. They need and deserve our support.
Fiona McAlpine is the Communications and Media Manager for The Borneo Project.
Image courtesy The Borneo Project
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18 March 2017
Important work by dedicated volunteers.
20 March 2017
Unexpected good news about deeply important issues. Strength to the powerless, a reprieve for our aching earth. 'Eternal vigilance' is the lot of warriors everywhere. Thanks Fiona for bringing this story to us.
20 March 2017
Fiona, I think you're drawing a long bow to say that land rights have been restored. A number of recent court cases have shown how little land rights Orang Ulu have
Dr. Amy Daniel
23 March 2017
Thank you so much Fiona for this article, and for highlighting this "remarkable win" for indigenous people's human rights.
Overall I do appreciate your efforts but feel strongly that your account is not accurate in referring to the whole incident as happening in "Borneo", when in fact it happened in Malaysia. As you well know, the majority of Borneo island belongs to Indonesia. Anyone skimming the headlines are likely to have been misled into thinking the human rights violations were perpetrated by the Indonesians, not the Malaysians.
24 March 2017
Paul: I would certainly agree - much work remains to be done and the recent court cases are an enormous shame.
Amy: we do indeed focus on Sarawak at The Borneo Project - so only the Malaysian side. I'll be sure to make that more clear next time.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock
04 April 2017
Thank you Fiona. At the present time when there is so much bad news about the environment, it is great to hear a very good news story.
In her book, "This Changes Everything - Capitalism Vs The Climate", Naomi Klein states that successful struggles of indigenous peoples around the world are crucial in the struggle to combat climate change, to protect our environment and to prevent pollution.
The battles by indigenous peoples to preserve their environments do not always have such a happy outcome of course.
In 2016, Bertha Caceres an Honduran indigenous environmental activist was murdered by state agents with the indirect help from the US.
Bertha won the prestigious Goldman Environmental award in 2015 for her leadership work in rural sustainability and opposing the construction of a dam.
SInce 2009, after the removal of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya during a military coup, at least 124 environmental campaigners have been killed in Honduras alone. Zelaya had made massive improvements for poor Hondurans and the indigenous people.
On 5.2.2015, the Australian Business Insider ran a report indicating that hundreds of environmental activists are murdered in developing countries every year.
Fiona's final paragraph is very important. Supporting these courageous people is a necessity if we are to protect our environment.