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Indigenous communities in Sarawak left in the dark about hydropower proposal

A rainforest pool in the Lambir Hills, Sarawak. Image by Rhett Butler.

  • Malaysian officials recently announced new dam projects on three rivers in the Bornean state of Sarawak without the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of local people.
  • The managing director of the Sarawak-based NGO SAVE Rivers, Celine Lim, says her community relies on the Tutoh River for food and for transport, so the announcement “definitely threw the community into a frenzy because no one knew of this plan before the announcement.”
  • Project opponents have gathered 650 signatures on a petition calling for more information from the government before the project can move forward, after initial requests for information were ignored.
  • Lim joins Mongabay’s podcast to share with co-host Rachel Donald how the potential dam projects could impact the rivers and human communities, and reflects on lessons learned from a recent visit with Indigenous communities in California who successfully argued for the removal of dams on the Klamath River and are now restoring its floodplain.

Abang Johari Openg, the premier of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, recently announced three new dam projects on Bornean rivers and suggested that local communities there had given their approval.

But Celine Lim, managing director of civil society organization SAVE Rivers, based in the Sarawak town of Miri, tells the Mongabay Newscast that her community in Baram district wasn’t consulted beforehand. “When this happened, it definitely threw the community into a frenzy because no one knew of this plan before the announcement,” she says.

Before Lim helped gather a 650-person petition for more information, she says the letters communities wrote and sent to representatives were ignored.

Listen to the full conversation here:

Among the reasons Abang Johari has given for the dam projects are increased power supply to the state, quelling crocodile population growth, and residents asking for them — but sources contacted by Mongabay have said otherwise.

“They [Sarawak officials] are only trying to lobby the investors,” says Willie Kajang, an activist and Tering Indigenous elder. “What they want is money from overseas, and the foreign investors [do] not know anything” about what is happening in Sarawak.

Rather than being used locally, as the premier suggests, the electricity generated in the state is currently exported to the neighboring Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, with plans to export more to Brunei and Singapore. Sarawak already has five hydro dams, four of which provide 61% of its energy.

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Banner image: A rainforest pool in the Lambir Hills, Sarawak. Image by Rhett Butler.

Rachel Donald is a climate corruption reporter and the creator of Planet: Critical, the podcast and newsletter for a world in crisis. Her latest thoughts can be found at 𝕏 via @CrisisReports and at Bluesky via @racheldonald.bsky.social.

Mike DiGirolamo is a host & associate producer for Mongabay based in Sydney. He co-hosts and edits the Mongabay Newscast. Find him on LinkedInBluesky and Instagram.

Related Reading:

Sarawak government’s hydropower plans worry Indigenous communities

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