Most villages along the Baram River in Malaysia cannot count on round-the-clock electricity. Diesel generators hum at night near longhouses in the northwestern corner of the island of Borneo. Mobile and Internet coverage are almost nonexistent.
A plan to dam the Baram River would generate power far in excess of current demand in the rain forest state: At 1,000 megawatts, the hydropower project would be large enough to power 750,000 homes in the United States.
Yet the promise of power rings hollow for many who live here.
Natives from the tribes of Penan, Kenyah, and Kayan have taken to their traditional longboats, traveling downstream to the town of Long Lama to voice opposition to the plan. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Water and Energy.")
Baram is one of seven big hydropower projects that Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, is building in a bid to lure aluminum smelters, steelmakers, and other energy-intensive heavy industry with the promise of cheap power. Together, the dams mapped out in the state government's sprawling $105 billion Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan would harness nearly as much river power as the largest generating station in the world, the massive Three Gorges Dam in China. (See related photos: "A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam.")
The Sarawak project is changing landscape and lives. The dam across the sinuous Baram River will submerge 159 square miles (412 square kilometers) of rain forest, displacing some 20,000 indigenous people.
Open acts of defiance are rare in Sarawak after three decades of authoritarian rule under the state's Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has long battled charges that he has amassed personal wealth by selling off swaths of the rain forest in corrupt deals with timber industry. But protests have become increasingly bold among indigenous people opposed to the megahydro plan. Last September, native tribes set up a blockade to protest the Murum River dam project in western Sarawak. And in January, the longboat protest came to Long Lama, with shouts of "Stop Baram Dam" in indigenous languages reverberating through the normally quiet town.
"I don't care if I'm not reappointed" as the village chief by the government, said Panai Erang, 55, an ethnic Penan, one of several chiefs openly against the state-backed project. "I have to speak out for my people."
Baram Dam is part of a grand economic-development vision for Sarawak, which along with Sabah is one of two Malaysian states on the northern coast of Borneo (map), along the South China Sea. Borneo, shared with Indonesia and Brunei, is one of the largest islands in the world, and home to one of its oldest rain forests. (See related story: "Borneo's Moment of Truth")
Endangered species such as Hose's civet, the Borneo gibbon, and six different species of hornbills rely on the habitat. The Bornean bay cat, one of the most elusive cats in the world, was sighted near the upper Baram River last November. Sarawak boasts more than 8,000 unique types of flora and 20,000 species of fauna, including one of the world's largest butterflies, the Rajah Brooke Birdwing, and one of the most extensive cave systems on Earth.
Despite its natural resources, Sarawak's economy has lagged behind the rest of Malaysia. An ever-widening economic gap, as well as a sea, separates Sarawak from the fast-growing states and bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur on the Malay peninsula. But Sarawak's SCORE plan aims to "transform Sarawak into a developed state by year 2020."
A government spokesperson close to Mahmud said Sarawak has to tap the hydro potential of its numerous rivers to power the state's industrial development.
"The people affected [by the dams] will be those who are living in small settlements scattered over remote areas," said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named, in an email. "They are still living in poverty.
"To build a dam, not just to generate reasonably priced energy, is also to involve the affected people in meaningful development," he said. "Otherwise, they will be left out."
The spokesperson added that Sarawak will also be exploiting its one to two billion tons of coal reserve for power. One of the coal plants is already operating in the developing township of Mukah. Malaysia's first aluminum smelter was opened here in 2009.
Sarawak's plan is to grow its economy by a factor of five, increase jobs, and double the population to 4.6 million by 2030.
But during the January protest at Long Lama, village chief Panai Erang said he and his people have little confidence that they will benefit from the new industrial development. Erang has visited the town of Sungai Asap, in central Sarawak, where 10,000 indigenous people already displaced by the first megadam project, Bakun Dam, were relocated. The forced exodus began in the late 1990s, and construction continued for more than a decade. With a capacity of 2,400 megawatts, Bakun, which opened in 2011, is currently Asia's largest hydroelectric dam outside China.
Erang said the settlers were given substandard houses and infertile farmland. Some have returned to Bakun and are living on floating houses at the dam site.
The community leader is fearful for the future of his villagers. Many do not possess a MyKad—the Malaysian national identification card—because of government policies making it difficult for them to prove citizenship. As a result, they cannot vote and would be unlikely to find employment if they were forced out of their ancestral homes into towns and cities.
"This is not the development that we want," said Salomon Gau, 48, an ethnic Kenyah from the village of Long Ikang, located downstream off the Baram River. "We don't need big dams. We want micro-hydro dams, [which are] more affordable and environmentally friendly."
Energy and Development
The concerns of the indigenous tribes are echoed by academics and activists from Malaysia and around the world. They worry about SCORE's potential social and environmental impact.
Benjamin Sovacool, founding manager of Vermont Law School's Energy Security and Justice Program, studied the SCORE project extensively. He and development consultant L.C. Bulan traveled the corridor and interviewed dozens of Sarawak planners and stakeholders to catalog the drivers and risks of the project. Their research, conducted at the National University of Singapore, was published last year in the journal Renewable Energy.
Government officials told the researchers that SCORE would improve prospects for those now living in villages, especially the young people: "They want gadgets, cars, nice clothes, and need to learn to survive in the modern economy," one project planner told Sovacool and Bulan. "They are not interested in picking some fruit in the forest, collecting bananas, hunting pigs."
And yet when the researchers visited the Sungai Asap resettlement community, they found people scraping for both water and food, oppressed by heat and rampant disease, with limited transportation options. "We had trouble sleeping at night due to coughing from a tuberculosis epidemic, malaria-carrying mosquitoes buzzing around our beds, and the smell of urine, since the longhouse lacked basic sanitation," they wrote. Many community members had fled.
The squalor stands in marked contrast to the portrait of Sarawak that the SCORE project seeks to paint in its bid to attract new industry, a region of "world-class infrastructure, multimodal interconnectivity and competitive incentives," strategically located near potential fast-growing markets of India, China, and Indonesia.
Sovacool and Bulan noted that SCORE had encountered difficulties in finding investors and financiers, and flawed environmental impact assessments and questionable procurement practices would further hamper those efforts. (At least one major aluminum smelter plan was scrapped last year over a dispute over finances.) The authors concluded that SCORE might undermine Sarawak's greatest assets: "[I]t is taking what is special to Sarawak, its biodiversity and cultural heritage and destroying and converting it into electricity, a commodity available in almost every country on the planet."
And yet, Sovacool and Bulan wrote that such projects may become increasingly common globally, as governments seek to build energy systems and spur development at the same time.
Daniel Kammen, founder of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked extensively on alternative energy solutions in Malaysia, thinks Sarawak should explore other renewable energy options before implementing SCORE's power projects.
"The political and infrastructure challenges are immense, and the ecological and cultural impacts have barely been evaluated," he told National Geographic News via email.
He said careful evaluation and planning in cooperation with communities could yield better solutions; Kammen's team's work was pivotal in the 2011 decision by neighboring state Sabah to scrap plans for a 300-megawatt coal plant in an ecologically sensitive habitat, and provide energy instead with natural gas.
"What is vital to the long-term social and economic development of [Sarawak], and of Borneo, is to explore the full range of options that are available to this resource-rich state, recognizing that community, cultural, and environmental resources have tremendous value that could be lost if the SCORE project goes ahead without a full analysis of the options that exist in the region," he said.
The natives of Sarawak, including those from Baram, have already lost thousands of hectares of customary land to logging companies and oil palm plantation companies over the past few decades. The state government often cuts land lease deals with companies without consulting natives. Consequently, there are now more than 200 land-dispute court cases pending in Sarawak.
The Penans, a nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe, have suffered more than the Kenyah and Kayan agricultural tribes as they are entirely dependent on the forest for their livelihoods, and are well-known for their blockades against loggers.
But the dam development has united different tribes traditionally divided by their disparate interests. Unlike previous upheavals due to logging, the hydro projects will force tribes out of their ancestral land completely. Adding to anger is the appearance of nepotism in several of the deals; for example, Hamed Abdul Sepawi, chairperson of the state utility company Sarawak Energy Bhd, which is building the Murum Dam, is the cousin of chief minister Mahmud.
The tribes struggle to have their concerns heard. The opposition party that organized the longboat protest in January at Baram, The People's Justice Party, collected more than 7,000 signatures but the government-appointed regional chief refused to see the protestors.
In some cases, the opponents have received a better reception abroad. Peter Kallang, an ethnic Kenyah and chairperson of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network, and other local indigenous activists traveled to Australia late last year to draw attention to their plight. "Development isn't just about economic growth," said Kallang. "Will these mega projects really raise the standard of living among our indigenous communities?" With support of Australian green groups, the activists pressured dam operator and consultant Hydro Tasmania to withdraw from Sarawak's hydropower projects. Reports say Hydro Tasmania told the campaigners it plans to leave Sarawak after it fulfills its current contractual obligations, but the company has maintained it has been a small player in the SCORE program.
In any event, the indigenous activists plan to step up their campaign against the dam in the coming weeks in anticipation of upcoming national elections. Sarawak and Sabah traditionally have been viewed as a stronghold for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim now views the rural states on Borneo as key to his bid to unseat the long-standing regime, due to the support he has garnered among increasingly organized indigenous tribes.
In uniting Sarawak's native peoples, the project to alter its rivers may, in the end, change the course of Malaysia.
This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.