Conservation news

Opponents of Malaysian dam project cautiously optimistic about moratorium

  • Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem of Sarawak has put the project on hold, saying he wants to explore other alternatives.
  • The 1,300-megawatt Baram Dam, if built, would have displaced as many as 20,000 people.
  • One major concern is that some traditional lands of the dam’s opponents have already been gazetted for construction of the dam and their status is still unresolved.

When Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, agreed in July to put construction of the Baram Dam on hold until he had heard from opponents of the project, it was celebrated as a small victory.

Now Adenan has put the Baram Dam plan on hold indefinitely, and while the Indigenous peoples trying to stop the dam from being built applauded the decision, they say they are still anxious about the future of the project.

In an interview on Malaysian TV3 last week, Adenan is reported to have said: “I have shelved the Baram Dam for the time being. Now we have Batang Ai, Bakun, Murum [dams]. At this juncture, it is enough. We are now determining our future needs for electric power […]. There is a moratorium on Baram.“

Basel, Switzerland-based Bruno Manser Fund, which translated Adenan’s comments from the Bahasa Malaysia language and sent them to Mongabay in an emailed statement, also said that Adenan plans to look into small-scale energy options such as solar power and micro-hydropower.

The Baram Dam was to be one of 12 dams built by 2030 as part of the the Sarawak Corridor for Renewable Energy (SCORE), which is being built to power Sarawak’s industrial belt. Some 20,000 people are at risk of being displaced if the 1,300-megawatt dam is built. Local communities who feared they would be displaced by the dam had barricaded the two roads leading to the proposed dam site since 2013, stopping all work on the project.

A traditional longhouse that will be inundated if Baram Dam is built. Credit: International Rivers.

Peter Kallang, chairman of SAVE Rivers, a non-governmental organization that works with the local Indigenous communities hoping to stop the dam, said in a statement emailed to Mongabay that news of the moratorium was being treated with caution. “While the people are really glad to hear that there is a moratorium on the Baram-1 HEP dam project, the great sense of anxiety is still there,” Kallang said.

There are two main reasons for that anxiety, according to Kallang. The first is that some of the traditional lands of the dam’s opponents have already been gazetted for construction of the dam and their status is still unresolved.

The second reason for the caution around the Baram Dam moratorium is the ongoing logging activities being carried out with valid permits already issued by the Sarawak government for timber harvesting in the area. Kallang has pointed out that illegal logging is also occurring in the whole of the Baram Basin.

Area of the Baram River to be inundated if Baram Dam is built. Credit: International Rivers.

Adenan’s announcement of the moratorium didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, as there have been indications for the past few months that the Sarawak government was reconsidering its dam plans. Adenan’s July announcement that the project was being put on hold until he could hear from the project’s detractors followed a meeting he took with professor Daniel M. Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley and SAVE Rivers’ Kallang.

At Adenan’s request, Professor Kammen and a team of researchers who had been evaluating the potential of clean energy in Sarawak developed an assessment of various alternatives to the proposed dams.

Kammen told Mongabay in July that Adenan had been receptive to their conclusions, adding: “We found that a community-by-community strategy based around mini-grids with micro-hydro at the core, and augmented with solar or biomass as the case may be, is a very good match to the demands of households in Sarawak.”