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Indigenous Malaysian Tribe Resists Masters Of 'Progress'

A woman from the Kenyh tribe in Borneo's state of Sarawak
A woman from the Kenyh tribe in Borneo's state of Sarawak
Rémi Barroux

LONG SINGU — Lost in the Malaysian forest, the village of Long Singu — on the Island of Borneo — is engaging in righteous resistence. Between 200 and 300 Penan people are refusing to leave their land to make way for the Murum dam.

“We want to keep our village and our forest,” is the refrain from young and old tribe members alike.

Their fight is a desperate one, as the the dam is nearly complete and the construction site is buzzing. All along the eight-hour trip from Miri, in the northern part of the state of Sarawak, to Long Singu, there is a constant flow of machines and trucks transporting 15- to 20-meter-long tree trunks, making circulation hazardous. There’s even a ferryboat, directly on the ground and right in the middle of the luxuriant vegetation. It was put there because it will take away the debris once the valley is under water — proof that everything here will soon disappear.

The road to Long Singu is interrupted by numerous check points, where we must show our vehicle registration and leave our ID with agents posted behind the barriers set up by the Malaysian company Shin Yang, the initials of which can be seen on the side of the work trucks. At the end of the journey, we finally discover a wooden shelter built on piles, hidden among the trees. Each Penan family occupies one “door” and the two or three rooms behind it. On that recent evening, several members of the Penan tribe left to obstruct the Murum dam. Women and children stayed behind.

After nightfall, the noises of animals invade the house: squeaking, growling, hooting, each responding to the others. During dinner, which consists of rice, a soup made with wild pig’s feet and fruits from the forest, a few Penan people come to discuss their opposition to the dam. We meet in the “shepherd's house,” where the rare visitors stay.

“Tell the whole world what they’re doing to the Penan,” says one 70-year-old tribesman. “My name is Karang Bo. I was born here and I don’t want to leave. Birds, pigs, monkeys: The animals are all fleeing. We even find fewer and fewer fish because of the polluted water.”

The Penan flatly reject the “progress” promised by the government. “We want to develop, but we don’t want others to decide for us,” says Minah Siap, a woman of 25, holding her three children tight. In the middle of the humid night, and with small lamps connected to a generator offering the only feeble light, 35-year-old Robert Beatle, arms covered in tattoos, says angrily: “The dam is killing us all. We’re gonna blow it up with explosives!”

Defending the dams

They are at war, but their spears and their blowpipes are no match against economic interests. The excavators took their toll, and the forest with it. The worst part is still to come with the filling of reservoirs, which started in September and should take a year. It will mean flooded valleys, thousands of hectares of land under water and displaced villages. Murum will be the third dam of its kind, after those of Batang Ai and Bakun. Built by the company Sarawak Energy Berhad, it alone will produce 944 megawatts of electricity. But it’s only one piece of a huge project for another 11 dams in the state of Sarawak by 2030.

“On the River Baram, there are plans for three dams, but the construction of Baram 1 is already impeded by the Kenyah people, the Kayan and the Penan,” explains Peter Kallang, a 63-year-old engineer born in Baram who is also part of Safe Rivers, an NGO that defends displaced populations. “This dam alone affects 20,000 people in 26 villages,” he says. Hundreds of people have begun obstructing the entries to the construction site.

Sarawak Energy Berhad denounces the “false information” circulating about how it the population will be transferred. “Enough is enough,” says the impatient CEO, Datuk Torstein Dale Sjotveit. “The 2.5 million inhabitants concerned by the program want development, they want better infrastructures, hospitals and a world-class education. Why should the inhabitants of Sarawak and indigenous communities of Murum be barred from the advantages that citizens from developed nations can enjoy?”

[rebelmouse-image 27087493 alt="""" original_size="470x500" expand=1]

In Sarawak — Photo: IHA Central Office

The company and the government also highlight the development of renewable energies: The dams are part of a program called SCORE, Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. The electricity thus produced is supposed to attract several industries, including gigantic steel factories. This, however, is exactly what Peter Kallang fears. “Originally, the government wanted to dispatch this electricity to the peninsula by underwater cable and export part of it to Singapore and Thailand,” he explains. “But they abandoned the project in 1998: too expensive. Instead, the overproduction will be used to over-industrialize the region.”

As we get closer to the heavily-guarded Murum site, we can see the construction engines on the upper part of the impressive site, 140 meters high. Still, it’s no more than the little brother of the Bakun dam, a 205-meter-high and 750-meter-long giant, with eight turbines of 300 megawatts each and a detention surface equivalent to that of Singapore. Fifteen villages and 10,000 people were displaced for its construction.

A few kilometers downstream from the Murum dam, Penan people from four villages along with a group of Kenyah have been camping near a pond of stagnant water since September 17. The police forces watch, in a debonair way, as they block the way for the trucks.

Compensation in dispute

“This is the first time we come here to block, after September 2011 and August 2013. But this time we won't leave until the government pays what it owes us and agrees to save us access to the forest,” says Kilau Lait, who acts as a sort of spokesman for the group, with his cellphone constantly pressed hard against his ear. He explains they deserve compensation for the loss of their homes: “The state had promised to give each family 50,000 ringgits ($15,000). It only paid 10,000 ($3,000)."

Five hundred kilometers away from Long Singu, Kilau Lait’s friend Lugan Usang is on a mission. As one of the five representatives of the village, he’s holding a press conference. His predecessor was dismissed by the inhabitants because he had recommended they stop fighting. “The government pays the leaders of the communities and controls them,” Peter Kallang explains. “Sarawak’s prime minister and his family control everything. They have interests in palm oil, wood, electricity. People are scared and they don’t know their rights.”

Unimpressed by the big town of Miri and its 300,000 inhabitants, 23-year-old Lugan admits he personally is ready to move there in order to earn more. He gets next to nothing working in the palm plantations of Shin Yang. Although he wants to maintain his way of life, he embraces modernity. “I would like my children to go to school. But I also want them to be able, like me, to come back to the village and hunt, fish, cultivate rice and pick fruits in the forest.”

Up until the 1960s, Penan people were nomads. According to Theivanai Amarthalingam, a lawyer for the organization Friends of the Earth Malaysia, this forbade them from claiming the land promised by the state. “They had to be able to prove that in 1958, they lived on land that had been occupied by their families over several generations. And the Penan couldn’t do that,” she explains. “There are numerous disputes in courts on expropriations or buying-offs of land due to the dams and to the palm tree plantations.” The legal fight is fierce between the big companies, the state and the indigenous peoples.

But the Penan people are so few and so far away that the federal capital city Kuala Lumpur doesn’t care one bit about them. On Oct. 2, a demonstration in their favor only gathered a handful of people. “The Penan are isolated. Their cause is scarcely known because the press doesn’t talk about it,” says Harrison Ngan Laing, a lawyer for the natives in Miri. “We do win some cases, but the Penan don’t know their rights. We'll do whatever we can to obtain more compensations.”

Amid the palm trees and the dipterocarp trees, the king of the forests of Sarawak, the young mother Minah Siap says she doesn’t want to move away from Long Singu. “They’re giving us a house and a patch of land, but what we want is to keep our forest.”

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