The Orang Asli in Gua Musang, Kelantan have said a resounding “No” to the planned construction of the Nenggiri hydroelectric dam project.
They have protested against plans to uproot them forcibly from their homes and ancestral lands.
The Orang Asli women, men, youth and children are aware of the huge price they have to pay if the dam is built. They note that the benefits accrue to a small minority, such as those controlling the market-driven notion of ‘development’.
With the active support of members of the Kelantan Network of Orang Asli Villages (JKOAK), the villagers are reportedly planning to take legal action and calling for a mass movement against the project.
The Orang Asli located around the proposed dam site, together with JKOAK members, have organised themselves to gather peacefully and protest against the Kelantan state government’s ambitious plans to begin preliminary work on the dam, including the resettlement of the affected Orang Asli communities.
The villagers were able to raise their objections to the dam project in a timely manner because they neither depended on nor waited for the intervention and funding of external or outside NGOs to assist them in organising the protest.
In any case, with the coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions in place, the concept of having outsiders come in to the communities to facilitate and support their work is not sustainable.
Ideally, support from civil society groups is helpful to add pressure on the authorities, especially after some form of protest was led by the communities themselves. For instance, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) has supported the Orang Asli in calling on the Kelantan authorities to respect Orang Asli rights and to scrap the construction of the Nenggiri dam. They argue the proposed dam will only enrich crony capitalists, burden the people and destroy the community’s livelihoods.
Unsustainable in the long term
The Kelantan authorities and Tenaga Nasional Berhad see the Nenggiri dam as necessary for hydroelectric power generation and flood prevention.
Despite the Orang Asli’s opposition to the project, including their objections during a recent meeting between the villagers and the state secretariat, the authorities seem determined to go ahead with the dam construction and the resettlement of the Orang Asli.
Floods in Malaysia have occurred as “a natural result of cyclical monsoons during the local tropical wet season” with heavy and regular rainfall usually between October and March.
So the rationale for building dams for flood mitigation is often questioned. This is especially true if extreme torrential downpours put pressure on existing dams, levees and other water control systems beyond their limit.
This risks even greater loss of life (human and others) and damage to homes and properties, when more water is released to already-flooded downstream communities.
Over the years, rapid urbanisation of housing and industrial buildings, transport and other infrastructure, and indiscriminate deforestation (logging, monoculture plantations, etc) have worsened climate-related hazards. We have seen so many instances of landslides, flash floods, erosion and intense drought, afflicting many ordinary people, particularly the poor.
Disturbing issues and facts
The history of dam projects in Malaysia is plagued by stories of forced displacement and resettlement, particularly of the indigenous communities.
My research and many other studies on dam-induced forced displacement and resettlement in Malaysia and the lived experiences of displaced peoples have shown that governments have a poor record in implementing resettlement and rehabilitation programmes in dam projects.
Common issues include inadequate compensation, poor settlement conditions, the poor quality of resettlement land, and post-resettlement social and gender impacts.
Worryingly, the huge costs paid by communities affected by these dams are often eclipsed by claims made by both state and federal governments and industry stakeholders that dams and related infrastructures are pro-people ‘development’ projects. They claim that dams are necessary for flood prevention, electricity generation, industrial and domestic water supply, irrigation for agriculture and tourism.
The catchment area of the Nenggiri dam and its reservoir will result in the loss of species-rich forests, biodiversity and wildlife – as well as the loss of the customary land and territories of Orang Asli communities in the area. The projected is expected to flood 5,834ha of land.
Ironically, the government, industry or some environmental NGOs zealously launch tree-planting activities across Malaysia. A case of destroying existing natural forests in one area and creating ‘urban’ forests for ‘greening’ in other parts of the country?
Even more astonishing, until the river is dammed, the state government website writes:
The Nenggiri River is the main network of river drainage system in the Gua Musang Region which offers de-stressing activities to the visitors especially for activities such as kayaking and rafting as well as fishing.… Nenggiri River and its streams are the main communication systems for rural settlements such as the Brooke Post, Mering Post and Pulat Post which are orang asli (indigenous) settlements, Kg. Kuala Jenera, Kg. Kuala Penep and others. Among the activities executed to attract tourists is the “Nenggiri River Cruise” .… Among the places visited along the way which includes Gua Cha (ancient historic site) and orang asli settlements – Kuala Jenera and Pulat Post (to appreciate the culture and lifestyle)… (my emphasis)
Some academics are also involved in archaeological rescue excavation projects in the area that will be ‘developed’ by the Nenggiri dam project soon. Did the state authorities decide on the construction of the Nenggiri dam project and related infrastructure without knowing what kind of invaluable archaeological treasures are to be found and soon-to-be-submerged there?
Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer