In 2011, 700sq km of Indigenous land and forest in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo–an area equivalent to the size of Singapore–was flooded by the controversial Bakun Dam. Leaving only a few isolated ‘island’ areas unsubmerged, this venture destroyed the homes and livelihoods of some 10,000 Kenyah and Kayan peoples (known collectively as Orang Ulu, ‘Up River People’) as well as innumerable animals and plants in one of the earth’s most biodiverse regions.
Now, to add insult to injury, the communities living on these dam-formed archipelagos and international supporter The Borneo Project, face the challenge of fending off a contentious new plan to convert the remaining Indigenous lands into a new national park.
Abdul Taib Mahmud, government Chief Minister and Minister of Resource Planning and Environment, is spearheading the plan to create the ‘Bakun Islands National Park’. The announcement made by his central government concerning the island project stated that, if no complaint had been lodged within 60 days: “No claim to any rights or privileges in or over the area intended (for the park)… shall be entertained.” In other words, Native Customary Rights (NCR) claims will be ignored in the process of making the park a reality.
The Borneo Project have indicated that the creation of the park will likely displace another 500 Indigenous peoples and raised concerns about the complete absence of a consultation process. Neither the communities who are marooned in the dam catchment, nor those re-settled previously in the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme were made aware of the new plan.
Baru Bian, Sarawak PKR Chief, has also voiced his dismay at the lack of fair process, asking: “Why was there no dialogue or consultation with the people before the notice was issued?” He also argued that news of the plan to take control of the 18 islands would never likely reach the affected, as it was only printed in the legal notices section of the Borneo Post and Utusan Borneo Newspapers: “How many people in the interior does the State government expect to have access to the newspapers, or be able to read, and even assuming that they do read the papers, how many would actually read the legal notices?” Bian asked.
Whilst the government have technically followed procedure, this unjust process, and the lack of community involvement, indicates that the Indigenous right to Free Prior and Informed Consent, according to the UNDRIP, has been transgressed. In light of this, Bian has suggested that the plan to gazette the 18 islands to create the park is a straightforward attempt to extinguish the last Indigenous claims to the land, embodied by its remaining 500 inhabitants.
The establishment of the park would be a parthian shot for both those who have managed to remain on their land and those resettled at Sungai Asap, many of of whom are now trapped in poverty, unable to live a sustainable way of life.
Despite being forced to leave by the dam’s construction, the already-displaced Orang Ulu assert that they still own the land, as Wing Miku, who originates from Bakun, was told by his father, who was resettled to Sungai Asap: “The people in Sungai Asap always thought that even though they had made way for the dam project, they still owned the lands in Bakun.” The displaced Orang Ulu support their friends and family who continue to live there.
According to Bian, the law may also be in support of these ancestral claims and has warned the government to “bear in mind” that a Court of Appeal recently affirmed that NCR lands encompass the pemakai menoa (territorial domain). “The peoples’ rights should not be extinguished, but admitted and preserved under section 15 of the National Parks and Nature Reserves Ordinance so that they can continue to exercise and enjoy the rights and privileges belonging to them, including hunting and fishing rights and rights to collect jungle produce” he said.
The task is now to hold the government to account and make it clear that their current plans are unacceptable. The government, after all, is obligated to engage in a transparent and fair consultation process with both the displaced and remaining Indigenous peoples of Bakun, according them the right to lodge their claims to the land and refuse their expulsion.
To add your voice to the fight to save the islands please sign the petition started by The Borneo Project.