Of rivers and dams.
I arrived to Long Lama on a rainy afternoon of mid-December. And when I say rainy, I mean it in the usual, tropical, no-room-for-half-measures meaning of the word.
The clouds accumulated for the entire day into massive cumulonimbi but somehow we managed to avoid them, staying below the burning sun as the ferry meandered its way upriver. Only eventually the clouds closed in on the Baram river, and the rain started showering me and my fellow travellers minutes before docking in Long Lama.
At that stage of the trip my serious jungle days had yet to come, and I had yet to learn that the heavy rain is just an unavoidable part of the game. I found shelter in a moldy hotel room and I hid in it, lying on a cheap old-fashioned bed, listening to the rain and wondering how bad and muddy was the way ahead going to be.
The next morning I headed to the pier, diligently inquiring for a boat that could take me further upriver. My goal was to find a passage to Long Miri, a few hours upriver, on one of the many longboats busy with moving durians. Everybody I asked told me “tidak masalah, no problem! Many boats, many boats!” But obviously the boat owners were more interested in their commerce than in indulging my traveller’s whims. As the businesses of oil palm and timber are a prerogative of big companies, the locals got into the growing and trading of durian. That of winter 2015 was the best harvest in years and there were piles of durian everywhere, in the streets, on pick-up trucks, on the overloaded longboats travelling up and down the river. I witnessed a discussion over the price of durian degenerating into a fist fight, with one of the two contenders being left knocked-out among piles of durian (and giggling bystanders). In short, durian growers and sellers were making too good money with their trade to bother of a passing white dude with a white-explorer syndrome, and with such high passions I thought it a good idea to thread lightly.
That was probably the moment of my Sarawakian walkabout when I really stopped worrying and started going with the flow. Not by chance, that was also the moment when many interesting encounters started happening. As I was faffing around on the pier, the t-shirt of one of the durian sellers, reading “Stop Baram Dam”, made me curious. I knew of the infamous Bakun Dam, but nothing about a Baram Dam. The Bakun Dam is a mega-dam built in southern Sarawak in the 2000s to provide cheap energy to the industrial development of the Bornean coast and of peninsular Malaysia. This happened at the expense of 9000 residents, that needed to be relocated, and of an estimated 700 km2 of land, that would be underwater if and when the dam reached its full capacity.
My new friend Joseph (the wearer of the t-shirt) was very keen on practising english and asked me about me and my whereabouts. As I told him that I was an ecologist – a doctor, even! – and that I was taking notes on my trip, he could not hold his excitement. He started telling me about the plans for building a dam on the Baram, and on the local efforts for stopping it. He told me that there was a blockade on the other side of the river: “You must go and visit, my friend. Write about our fight”. He got in touch with his brother Philip, one of the spokesmen for the anti-dam movement, and he arranged a visit to the blockade for me, “the journalist-scientist”. Soon I found myself on a longboat headed a few minutes downstream on the opposite bank. The boatman was serious and silent. He was so simply because he could not speak english and maybe he was also a bit in awe of me, both an “orang putih” from “overseas” and a “journalist-scientist-doctor” (titles make quite an impression in Malaysia and, whether they are true or not, they tend to pile up quickly). For myself, I was interpreting his silence with a little apprehension, weighing the fact that I was being driven to an unknown location by a perfect stranger. Was I just helping some strangers in my own abduction? Once on the other bank, I was passed on to another guy, who also could not speak english, and who was supposedly in charge of driving me to the blockades. I jumped on the back of his motorbike, thinking that in case of need I could just jump off and run away. Soon, in spite of my fears, we arrived at the barracks used as a base by the blockaders.
The blockade was set up by SAVE Rivers, an organization of local Kayan people living by the river banks (Kayan are one of those ethnic groups in which women used to extend their earlobes, as a side note). When I arrived it had stayed in place for 780 days already, and the situation was relaxed, not to say sleepy, with only two men were manning it. A baby babi hutan (wild boar) was kept on a lace, I guess, for being grown to be eventually used as makan (food). A young monkey was kept caged and on a chain, and a burung helang (a bird of prey) was kept laced to its perch, as a pet. I was realizing that the bornean way of environmental activism was different from the western one. Locals were not blocking the building of the dam for a more or less abstract ideal of environmentalism, but for a very practical reason: saving their forests from being cleared, their land from being flooded, their houses from being put underwater.
When Philip arrived, he helped me understanding the situation further. Plans for building the dam started in 2008, allegedly without consultations with the local population. In 2009, a Baram Protection Action Committee was created, and in 2012 it developed into SAVE Rivers, with the financial support of the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF). SAVE Rivers was created with the goal of coordinating local efforts against the constructions of dams in all of Sarawak, but at the time of my chat with Philip it was still active only in the Baram area. Philip told me that, was the dam to be built, about 20 000 people from 30 villages would have to leave. Luckily, at the time of our conversation, the Chief Minister of Sarawak was about to issue a moratorium on the dam, hence the relaxed atmosphere at the blockade. Christmas was near, so I joked: “nice Christmas present, isn’t it?” but Philip had been dealing with promises from the government for a long time: “we will see, my friend. Elections are close, and there are forces in Sarawak already pushing for independence. This may be just another trick of the government to cool the spirits and win another mandate”. Before leaving I asked Philip if I could use his name and take some pictures. He laughed: “go ahead! The government knows me, they have arrested me twice already. But I am still here”.
Months later, back in Europe, I read the news that the plans for damming the Baram river had been shelved for good.
- Notes on the BMF website about Sarawakian dams and the corruption connected to these projects: http://bmf.ch/en/projects-and-campaigns/rainforest-not-dams/
- News that the Baram Dam project has been scrapped, also from the BMF website: http://bmf.ch/en/news/the-baram-miracle-dam-plans-officially-scrapped
Information about the Bakun Dam: