Displacement of Indigenous People in Sarawak, Malaysia

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Construction of dams has always been a controversial issue.  Dams have many benefits.  They are used to store water and are able to make up for variations in the flow of the rivers, meeting the demands of water and energy more easily.  The second function of dams is to generate electricity (hydropower).  Hydropower provides about 20 percent of the world’s electricity.  Dams are also used to supply water for agriculture, industries, homes, and they help to control flooding. 

On the other hand, there are major environmental effects that come along with constructions of dams.  Some of them include the deposits of sediments behind the dam, which in turns affects the ecosystem’s flora and fauna.  Dams change the pattern of the flow of rivers.  Storing water in dams delays and reduces floods downstream, which may affect how native plants and animals reproduce and migrate (International Rivers Network 2000).  There are also socio-economic factors to consider when a dam is built.  What happens to people living in the surrounding areas?

The Bakun Dam, if successfully built, will flood an area the size of Singapore (69, 640 hectares).  The Malaysian government has estimated that the Bakun Hydroelectric Project (HEP) will cost RM 15 billion (US $6 billion).  The dam includes a 205-metre-high dam with 2,400 MW of generating capacity; and a 1350-kilometre-long transmission electricity generated from Sarawak to Peninsular Malaysia.  In order for the dam to be built, about 15 communities, consisting of 9,500 indigenous people, including the Kenyah, Kayan, Kajang, Ukit and Penan have to be relocated.  The great majority of the populations are subsistence farmers practicing shifting cultivation.  They get their source of meat and protein from fishing and hunting.  The jungle provides them with vegetables (Rousseau 1994).  They will lose their land, ancient burial grounds and their traditional way of life.  There will also be thousands of people living downstream whose livelihood will be affected (Bawe 1996). 

Moreover, the forest in the area is home to more than 100 species of fauna listed as “protected”; some of which include the great leaf monkey, Borneon Gibbon and Malayan Sunbear (Roodman 1996).  Its catchment area is over 1.5 million hectares of mainly primary forest.  About 16 percent of Sarawak’s total log production comes from this area.  If the project is successful, 170,000 acres of jungle will be cleared.  51 percent of the land of the reservoir area is Native Customary Land, which means that it is legally owned by the indigenous communities.  However, have a NCR does not entitle the indigenous people to a land title or grant.  The government also has the right to extinguish the rights on the land, for the purposes it deems fit (Friends of the Earth 2000).

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Summary of the Bakun Dam     (Source: Sahabat Alam Malaysia)


RM 15 billion

Shelf life

50 years


Concrete Face Rockfill Dam (Highest in the world)

Land inundated

69,640 hectares

Catchment area

Generator of 2,400 MW electricity


1.5 million hectares


Balui river 37 km upstream from Belaga Power


1,500 km overland wires, 650 submarine cables

Turnkey contract

Ekran Bhd (Without tender)

Human dislocation

10,000 persons from 1,700 families from 15 longhouses


      To attain economic prosperity, the Sarawak government wants to make use of the state’s abundant natural resources.  Most of Sarawak’s 48,000 square miles are covered in trees.  Malaysia’s reserves of oil and coal lie offshore.  Sarawak also has some of Malaysia’s largest oil-palm plantations.  Two of Sarawak’s biggest exports are oil and gas, and timber (Tsuruoka 1994). 

The Bakun HEP was originally proposed in the early 1980s, however, it was cancelled in 1990 because there was much opposition to the social and environmental impacts that the dam would bring (Bawe 1996).  The Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad commented that canceling the project was “proof of Malaysia’s commitment to the environment” (Kua 2000).  In the mid-1980s, when the smaller Batang Ai Dam was built, Sarawak natives were displaced.  They were forced to move to an inferior quality land and had to abandon their traditional way of life, which disintegrated their culture.  It is a fear that displaced natives of the Bakun project will suffer the same fate (Roodman 1996).

In the early 1990s, when the economy was booming and growing significantly, the Malaysian government decided to take over the national power agency, Tenaga Nasional, who is a monopoly over power generation at that time, and issued licenses to Independent Power Producers (IPPs).  Also, the Bakun HEP was brought up once again, and this time, it was to be built with private monies.  This would be the first privatized large-scale dam project in the world (Bawe 1996). 

It is believed that Bakun dam will generate revenue for the economy, about 11.6 billion in income annually (Tsuruoka 1994).  The state government said that this project would make Sarawak become the powerhouse of Malaysia.  Also, the dam would attract foreign investments with the building of an aluminum plant, pulp and paper plants, steel mills, high-tension and high-voltage wire industry and the development of a tourist resort at the reservoir.  The government claimed that the Bakun HEP will “generate employment and valuable spin-off industries for Sarawak which will add 3% to that state’s growth per year; bringing the indigenous peoples ‘into the mainstream of development’ through resettlement; providing much needed infrastructure to a remote part of Sarawak which will become a valuable tourist destination” (Friends of the Earth 2000).  In 1994, the contract for the Bakun HEP was given to Ekran, a company controlled by the Prime Minister’s friend, tycoon Tan Sri Ting Pek Khiing, without any public or competitive bidding (Roodman 1997).  In March 1995, the first of four Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) was approved and work was started for office construction, an airport, reservoir and diversion tunnels (Kua 2000). 

When the Asian financial crisis occurred in 1997, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad announced in September that the Bakun HEP was postponed indefinitely.  The dam was planned to be completed in 2003 (Roodman 1997).  In 1996, Malaysia’s stock market fell 40 percent, while the exchange rate depreciated by 20 percent, thus raising the cost of the project (Kua 2000). 

When the economy recovered last year, the Malaysian government planned to resume the Bakun HEP on a smaller 500 MW capacity.  This project is strongly objected by many indigenous communities and other political parties. They formed a union of over 40 Malaysian NGOs, other NGOs and individuals (Friends of the Earth 2000).  They gave several reasons to justify their stand. 

Prime Minister Mahathir commented that a lot of money had been spent on the project already and it must not be wasted.  Moreover, he felt that the demand for electricity in Malaysia was increasing (Oil and gas Journal 2000).

The current plan of resettlement is to move the people of the upper Balui in the Belaga river system (in the Penyuan, Asap and Koyan rivers), with a combined area of 45,000 ha, most of which is Class 3 land (which means that it is land of lesser quality than some of the land used by the affected communities) (Rousseu 1994).  This year, many of the villagers have moved to a new town called Asap. However, life in Asap is not what the government promised to be.  Many villagers expressed deep sense of helplessness.  Lime Nokong, 50, of Uma Ukit said, “Before we came here, they said that we wouldn’t have to farm, we’d be having jobs and salaries.  But all the talk about facilities and development- where are they? The three acres that they gave to each unit in the longhouse is insufficient. The place here is not what they made it seem to be.  Their talk is all sweet on the outside, but inside it is sour” (International Rivers Network 2000)

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Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad- Mahathir is a strong proponent for the Bakun HEP.  When the project was first cancelled in 1990, he commented that it was proof that they cared about the environment.  However, when it was revived in September 1993, the Prime Minister said, “Bakun will not only provide the cheapest source energy but will also serve as a catalyst to the country’s industrialization program” (Friends of the Earth 2000).  When it was announced in 1997 that building plans for the dam were to be postponed, because of the economic crisis, Mahathir commented, “Well, the people who don’t want it to be completed by year 2003, I congratulate them because they have managed to achieve the goal by making us poorer now by 20 percent” (Roodman 1997). 

Ekran- A Sarawak-based company, led by Sarawak-born and bred Ting Pek Khiing and backed by key members of the ruling party in Malaysia, UMNO Baru, signed the contract with the government without public or competitive bidding.  Ekran had successfully completed several other projects in the country, which impressed the Prime Minister.  Ting is known to be close friends with the Prime Minister and others in the political circle.  The company also claimed that the contract would have given the investors about 11.5 percent return.  The construction contract has been given to a consortium led by the Swedish-Swiss company Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) and Brazil’s CBPO and also South Korea’s Hyundai (Bawe 1996). 

Indigenous communities- The indigenous communities oppose strongly to the project.  They formed a coalition of over 40 Malaysian NGOs, other NGOs and individuals.  Many of the indigenous communities who are doing to be displaced feel that monetary compensation will never make up for their losses.  Apa Bagie, head of Mothers Against Bakun, commented on the Bakun HEP, “We are not anti-development.  Our tradition and livelihood are linked with the jungle and the land in Bakun.  We just cannot be separated from it.  We are not interested in the amount of compensation any party is willing to pay us.  We just want our land and we want to preserve our culture” (Roodman 1996).

There are several reactions of the indigenous communities to the resettlement program.  The affected populations want to be informed and consulted about the entire planning process.  They were not invited to voice their opinions and the meetings were not welcoming as part of it was in English.  Also, there is not communication between the authorities and the communities; the authorities just went ahead with the project.  The people want negotiations to start as soon as possible.  Another request is that the existing communities want to maintain their autonomy.  Plus, the proposed resettlement area is not big enough for all the communities to practice shifting cultivation.  People are also fearful that they will not receive sufficient compensation for their land.  They demand that they receive their compensation in full before moving to the resettlement sites.  The people are skeptical about their chances of benefiting from this project and have fears because of the problems that the Batang Ai project experienced (Roodman 1996). 

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The population of Malaysia is made up of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous people.  The Malays are the major ethnic group in Malaysia, comprising more than half of the nation’s population.  The Malay language is also the national language.  The Chinese migrated to Malaysia in the 19th century and they currently form about 35percent of the population.  Another 10 percent of the population is made up of Indians, who migrated to Malaysia in the 19th century, of the poor economy in India. 

The oldest inhabitants of Malaysia are the indigenous peoples. They make up 5 percent of the total population in Malaysia.  In Sarawak and Sabah, these groups are the majority (www.interknowledge.com/malaysia/cultures.html). Sarawak is the least populated state in Malaysia.  It is estimated that the population of Sarawak, in June 1995, is 1.88 million. Since 1980, the average annual growth rate of the population is at a constant rate of 2.5 percent. By the year 2000, it is estimated that Sarawak's population will reach 2.133 million. There are 27 distinct indigenous ethnic groups that speak 45 different languages and dialects (www.sarawak.gov.my).  The tribal people prefer to be named by their individual tribes.  In most states, the indigenous people are usually known as the Orang Asli (a general term for Original People).  In Sarawak, the dominant tribal groups are the Dayak (tribal people who live in longhouses).  There are the Iban (Sea Dayak), and the Bidayuh (Land Dayak).  All of Malaysia’s tribal people feel a strong spiritual connection to the rainforest (www.interknowledge.com/malaysia/cultures.html).  

Majority of the populations in the Balui area are subsistence farmers who practice shifting agriculture.  As population increased, at the local level, the ownership of fallows by domestic units has become the norm.  Each village is an exclusive, tight-knitted community and has kept its name for over 200 or 300 years.  The people of the upper Balui have a hierarchy system.  There are two major groups of people: the aristocrats and the commoners.  Village chiefs are chosen from the aristocrats, with the position passed down from past generations.  Even though the area is remote, there has been great changes especially improvements in public health and access to schools.  Many educated villagers have also moved to settle in towns where they have modern jobs such as being teachers, or businessmen.  However, the people who move still keep ties to their communities (Rousseau 1996). 

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Friends of the Earth, together with other groups such as International Rivers Network and the Ecologist, sent letters to hundreds of institutional investors and fund managers in February 1997, warning them of the problems that the Bakun project will bring (Friends of the Earth 2000).  In November 1995, a group of indigenous people managed to meet some potential British corporate investors at the Bakun site to indicate clearly their intentions of not wanting the dam to be developed.  They wrote a letter which stated “we do not want to be resettled from our native lands… (and) will die with this our ancestral land” (Bawe 1996).   

Also, in 1996, Nijar, Meenaskhi Raman and M. Thayalan, represented three natives from Sarawak -- Kajing Tubek, Tahu Lujah and Saran Imu, and took legal action against Ekran Bhd, the director-general of the Department of Environment (DOE) and the Malaysian Government. They asserted that the Environmental Quality Act (1974) did not give the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment power to limit or suspend the operation of any provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in any state.  Under the Act, the Minister also did not have the authority to “delegate or transfer the power to approve EIAs to a State authority. It was wrong of the Minister to allow the Sarawak State Government to have jurisdiction over the Bakun dam project (Utusan Consumer 1996).”  The three natives also argued that the EIA was illegal because of its lack of public participation.  The indigenous people had been denied of their rights to be heard  (Bawe 1996).

Even though the indigenous people tried to organize their communities to defend their land and rights, their efforts were unable to combat the power of the government and the corporations.  “In the increasingly authoritarian and centralized Malaysian polity, with public accountability and governmental transparency considerably diminished deliberately by those in power, the strengthening of private business interests, especially of those who are politically well-connected, is very likely to transform, and even increase… the opportunities for rent appropriation (Bawe 1996).”  The government had given contracts to hand-picked businesses which seemed to have close ties with the government.  These businesses were not more productive as compared to other companies.  For example, Mahathir has openly admitted that he granted the contract for the North-South Highway because there was a need to clear the UMNO Baru debt on its building in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur (Bawe 1996). 

The corporations also became more selfish in the process.  In this Bakun example, Ekran tried to gain as many benefits from the projects as they could for their corporate and political partners.  Companies like Ekran took up big-scale projects and then monopolize them by giving sub-contracts to their own subsidiaries, for example, Wembley Industries Holdings Bhd and PWE Industries Bhd.  (Bawe 1996).  The sale of part of the timber rights of the reservoir area was given to Pacific Chemicals, a company that was controlled by Ting, in which Taib’s two sons had considerable interest. 

Currently, according to Shamila from Friends of the Earth, they are assisting 5 natives representing all the people from 5 longhouses, (both groups -- those who have moved to the Resettlement Scheme and those who courageously chose to remain upriver) in challenging the extinguishing of their Native Customary Rights for purposes of the dam.  They are petitioning that the extinguishing of the NCRs was in violation of the Federal Constitution, their right to life, to property and their right to be treated equally under the law (Shamila, 2000). 

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News reports stated that the displaced indigenous people would get about US$40 million for compensation.  That is only about one-tenth of what Ekran estimated that the timber is worth.  Given the number of indigenous people involved in this project, every person would get about US$8,000 for compensation.  This figure is four times the average per capita income in Sarawak, however, this compensation is not sufficient to replace the sustainable livelihoods of the people and their way of life on their ancestral grounds (Rainforest Action Network, 1994).

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People from Friends of the Earth are trying to organize the people in a resettlement plan. They are trying to raise a awareness about this resettlement program because it was reported that the people in the resettlement plan were not doing well. Some of them been eating a skimpy meal of rice with salt.  

There is no public protest among the indigenous people.  According to Friends of the Earth, those indigenous people who moved are the ones who did not dare to defy the State.  They were also the ones with responsibilities, whose children needed to go to school and whose family members were sick.  The State has closed all their facilities in their old homes.  Different grassroots organizations are trying to get the community organized to defend themselves.  The best thing to do right now as an individual will be to write to the Malaysian government and demand them to scrap the project (Shamila, 2000).

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Shamila Annie Ariffin

Friends of the Earth, Malaysia

Sahabat Alam Malaysia
E-mail: shamila73@yahoo.com


“A Brief on Bakun Dam.” Sahabat Alam Malaysia. Internet. Nov 12.



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12. www.nativenet.uthscsa.edu/archive/nl/9409/0019.htm


“Bakun Hydroelectric Project- Sarawak, Malaysia.” Friends of the Earth website. Nov

12. www.foe.co.uk.campaigns/biodiversity_habitats/forests/bakun/bakunhom


Bawe, Laurens. “Private Profit at Public Expense: the Bakun Hydroelectric Project.” The

Ecologist v 26 Sept/Oct (1996): 229-233.


Kua, K. “Never-ending Folly of Bakun.” International Rivers Network website. Nov 12.



“Malaysia to revive Bakun dam project” Oil and Gas Journal online. Nov 12.



Roodman, D. “More Indigenous Land Condemned.” World Watch v 9 July/Aug (1996): 7-8.


Roodman, D. “Giant Dam Postponed Indefinitely.” World Watch v 10 Nov/Dec (1997):9

Rousseau, J. “Review of Socio-economic Studies and Preliminary Recommendations for

the Resettlement of the Kayan and Lahanan of the Upper Balui.” 27 September 1994. www.itn.org/progra,ms/bakun/review.html


Sarawak Government website. Internet. Nov 12.


“Sarawak natives take legal action” Utusan Konsumer. Nov 12.  www.capside.org.sg/souths/cap/title/sar.htm

Sarawak and Tourism. Internet. Nov 12. www.interknowledge.com/malaysia/cultures.html

Tsuruoka, D. “Asia’s Next Powerhouse.” World Press Review v.41 Nov (1994): 36- 37.

“Uprooted Lives, Unfulfilled Promises.” International Rivers Network Website. Nov 12.



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