Monday, 16 August 2010

The fight against Kaiduan Dam

Aug 14, 2010

A village's fight against 'drowning' by development

By Rusaslina Idrus, For The Straits Times

LESS than a year ago, the remote village of Buayan, deep in the Borneo forest and six hours' walk from the nearest paved road, lacked electricity. But last month, the subsistence-farming villagers joined millions around the globe in watching the World Cup football tournament on television.

This is not just another case of national development, with the government finally extending the power grid to distant and deprived corners. This village in the heart of the Crocker Range rainforest in Sabah, East Malaysia, has plugged in largely through its own efforts.

With technical advice from a non-governmental organisation and funding from local and international donors, the villagers built a micro-hydroelectric system that has transformed their lives.

Energy-efficient light bulbs have replaced soot-covered oil lamps. A 'telecentre', courtesy of a local university, houses a public satellite phone service and computers linked to the Internet. Facebook is fast becoming popular among the young.

Micro-hydroelectricity is a cost-efficient and environmentally sustainable form of technology that makes use of the natural resources abundant in the area - water from the river flowing over the steep hills of the range. The system works by harnessing river water flowing downhill to spin a turbine. The kinetic energy is then converted into electricity.

Apart from the turbine, which was designed by a local company, the villagers helped to build much of this system from scratch, including scouring the forest for the right trees to use as electrical poles. After almost two years of hard work, the US$140,000 (S$191,000) project was completed last year. To contribute to the upkeep of the system, residents pay a monthly tariff that goes into the community coffer.

Living next to the Crocker Range National Park, the villagers work together with the park authorities to maintain the natural resources in the area. The pristine forest and ancient salt-trading trail along the range are fast attracting adventurous trekkers. Villagers welcome this venture into ecotourism and are proud to showcase their scenic village.

Buayan, in short, is an example of a robust and dynamic village. Open to adopting new technology and projects, it is a model of ingenuity and sustainable living.

The irony is that it is being threatened with extinction by 'development' - government plans to build a RM2.8 billion (S$1.2 billion) dam to supply water and electricity to Kota Kinabalu, the state capital.

The villagers, whose ancestors have farmed the area for generations, fear they and the residents of eight neighbouring villages will be relocated, as happened to the indigenous people with the construction of the massive Bakun Dam in Sarawak.

Studies examining the impact of relocation on communities displaced by such projects - such as the Bakun and the Babagon Dam in Sabah - reveal high rates of poverty, food shortage and social problems such as sexual violence and alcohol abuse.

Ms Irene, my host on a recent visit, told me she has been sick with worry since she first heard rumours of the project, known as the Kaiduan Dam, two years ago.

'Our lives are here,' she said. 'Here we have everything that we need. The river is our icebox and the forest is our supermarket.'

The nine villages have come together to protect their way of life. They have formed a task force to try to block the dam, though they are having trouble getting information about the project and feel they have been brushed aside by officials.

In the meantime, soil testing is being carried out in the Kaiduan valley. Villagers were alarmed when they learnt the company commissioned to conduct the dam feasibility study was also the developer of the controversial Bakun Dam in Sarawak.

Earlier this year, a task force handed a petition to the Chief Minister of Sabah making clear the villagers' unanimous objection to the dam. They say it will displace 1,400 residences and destroy farms, orchards, community halls, clinics, schools, churches, ancestral graveyards, ecotourism sites and watershed areas.

They also point out that the project contradicts the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Malaysia is a signatory. According to the declaration, indigenous peoples have the right to determine the use of their lands and governments need to obtain their free and informed consent before embarking on any project of this nature. So far, the community in Buayan has not been consulted about the dam.

As the days go by, the villagers are feeling more apprehensive. But they plan to keep making their voices heard as there is too much at stake. Village chief John Sobitang told me: 'We are 100 per cent against this project and we will continue to defend our customary rights over this land.'

In a much publicised visit to rural Sarawak recently, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak promised the people of Borneo that his administration would ensure inclusive development in the name of social justice for all. Here is his chance to make good on his promise: He can scrap the Kaiduan Dam project and channel funding to support more community-based micro-hydroelectric projects in Sabah and Sarawak instead.

Last month, hundreds of people from the nine villages gathered at the proposed dam site. They constructed a blockade to halt ongoing soil-testing work. The predominantly Christian community also erected a 1.8m-tall wooden cross at the site and held a prayer session. Together they prayed that their government would not sweep their lives away.

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