The Borneo Project: Defending Rivers and the Communities That Rely on Them

By Morgan, Brihannala | Earth Island Journal, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Borneo Project: Defending Rivers and the Communities That Rely on Them


Morgan, Brihannala, Earth Island Journal


Rivers are the lifeblood of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, known for its incredible biodiversity and rich forests. Shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darrusalam, the island is home to orangutans, sun bears, and many other endangered species. It is also home to thousands of Indigenous people who have hunted, gathered, and farmed there for generations.

As is true around the world, communities there rely on the rivers for drinking water, fishing, and bathing. Thousands of miles of rivers crisscross the island, serving as traditional highways of the jungle. Because the waterways are so fundamental to all aspects of life, most communities live directly on the banks of the rivers. Now these rivers--and the communities that live on their banks are being threatened by the development of 12 new hydroelectric dams, scheduled to be completed by 2020.

The people in Borneo's Malaysian Province of Sarawak know how these dams will threaten their way of life. They have taken their lessons from the 2,400 MW Bakun dam on the Balui River that has put 700 square kilometers of virgin rainforest and prime farmland under water. Completed in 2010, the dam displaced about 9,000 residents, mainly from the Kayan and Kenyah Indigenous groups. Those who relocated were forced to pay close to $15,000 for new homes, despite being subsistence farmers with no previous participation in the cash economy. Transparency International included the Bakun Dam in its "Monuments of Corruption" Global Corruption Report in 2005.

The next dam on the list, on the Baram River, could potentially be even more destructive. The Baram dam would require the relocation of 20,000 people--almost all from Indigenous groups. More than 400 square kilometers of land would be flooded, most of which is traditionally (although not legally) owned by Indigenous communities. Much of this land is still richly forested and is a vital habitat for several endangered species. To make matters worse, Sarawak doesn't even need the power that will be generated from these additional dams and no purchasers for the power have been identified yet. In fact, the completed Bakun dam is not even running at full capacity, because there's not enough demand for power. …

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