The fight to save the Baram River in Sarawak province, Malaysia, Borneo
Borneo has long been a final frontier of exploration. Dense jungle and stories of head hunting native populations left the great tropical jungles largely unexplored, unstudied and undeveloped. This was the case until the early 80’s when the last nomadic tribe of South East Asia (The Penan) and other indigenous groups (Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murut, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan) began to hear the deafening roar of chainsaws, bull dozers and the freight train of exploitation. Life in Sarawak has not been the same since. In the last 35 years over 95 percent of the primary forest has been torn from the Island of Borneo for lucrative offshore tropical hardwood markets. Large development companies and corrupt politicians are now looking for new ways to make big money in Malaysian Borneo, their Answer: Mega Dams.
12 mega dam projects are currently proposed for Sarawak. Following the completion of the Bakun Dam in 2010 the Malaysian Government has began work (to the best of its ability) on the Baram Dam, The proposed 1200 megawatt dam, which plans to flood an area over 400 km2 and displace around 20,000 people from 26 villages, had access roads cut through Native lands in 2013. Different indigenous groups from the entire catchment area have banded together at two main blockade points, cutting off access roads to the proposed site. They have put aside historic cultural differences to fight together to protect their land and to ‘Stop the Baram Dam’ the time of publication the Baram Dam blockades have been manned for over 650 days, ceasing further development.
Mega Dams are not green energy. They have a limited lifespan and have devastating impacts on the surrounding area. The issues that plague large dam projects are only amplified in the tropics. With wide spread deforestation in Borneo and a monsoonal climate the level of erosion is huge. These days brown, silt laden rivers appear to be carrying half of Borneo into the South China Sea. Jungle Rivers that were crystal clear only 10-20 years ago are now flowing veins of mud through palm oil plantations and what is left of the Jungle. How long will a mega dam last before siltation fills the reservoir with soil? Estimates suggest as little as 30 years.
Over 20 years the Methane emissions from the decomposition of the biodiverse flora in the drowned area is expected to have the same global warming effect as 7.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. It seems that the “green-ness” of the Baram Dam refers less to attention to the environment, and more to the money flowing into and out of this project.
Local populations need power though. Development is welcomed in remote communities that have limited access to power and poor infrastructure. Yet the proposed Baram Dam will surpass Sarawak’s energy demands 4 times and it is only one of 12 proposed dam projects. The government’s plan is to bring large power hungry industrial developments to coastal Sarawak, for example aluminium smelters, as was the case with Bakum Dam. With a surplus of power, proposals to even send electricity via under water lines to Peninsula Malaysia have been put forward but proven not economically viable. They are building dams for the sake of building dams, which bring money to off shore development tycoons and corrupt politicians. These projects ensure only the loss of land and identity to the local people, not to mention the death of rivers and the entire ecosystems.
Other options to supply the rural populations of Sarawak with power have long been on the table and do not require wide spread destruction, death of the forest, rivers nor displace local populations that have lived off the land for generations.
Other proven solutions to local energy demands include Biogasification, micro hydro and solar.
What can you do to learn more and help the fight to stop the Baram Dam?
Support Save Rivers group, which is the community lead group that is fighting the dam and manning the blockade also check out the Borneo Project which is a American organisation that has been fighting for conservation in Borneo since 1987.
Great changes can be made in the world if people educate them self’s and work together to save the world’s wild places.