Batang Ai Hydroelectric Project and the Resettlement
As the state by-election of N29 Batang Ai nomination is due on 29th March, and polling on 7th April 2009, public’s attention in the area suddenly increases. Named after the same of the river it blocks, Batang Ai Dam is currently the largest operating hydroelectric project (HEP) in Malaysia, next only to the yet to complete Bakun Dam of Belaga, Sarawak. Batang Ai dam is located some 14 km from the interior town of Lubok Antu, close to the national boundary with the Indonesian Kalimatan in the Division of Sri Aman (also known as the 2nd Division of Sarawak where the Iban disperse from some 4 hundred years ago).
The dam is constructed in 1984 by Kaeda Okumar Joint Venture. It began service when the first of the four turbines started to turn on 1st April 1985, and subsequently the other three to fully operational on 1st December 1985. Designed by the Snowy Mountain Engineering Company of Australia with a maximum output capacity of 108 mega watts eventually turns up with actual output (plant factor) to less than half. This has usually been the case for large project in developing country while consultants take a bigger slice by jacking up the scale.
The project cost RM600m with multiple sources of finance, including Asian Development Bank, Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, EPF, Federal Government, Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Australia), Export Credit Guarantee Department (UK).
Batang Ai dam is 85 meters high. It floods an area of 8500 ha (21,000 acres) of forest and land and displaced 21 longhouse communities with a combined population of about 3000. A study conducted by the Sarawak Museum in 1978-79 revealed that 52.3% of the people interviewed were unwilling to move and another 14.7% were uncertain. Of those who were prepared to move, one-third felt that they had no other option since the project is already decided and half felt that their leaders were probably acting in their best interest.
The affected communities were involuntarily resettled in two phases in 1982 and 1984. Each family was compensated with RM8000 for their original home while they were required to pay another RM27,000 by monthly installment of RM120 for 25 years for the new house. This would total up to RM44,000 per unit. The new houses were constructed by the Sarawak Housing Development Corporation with design similar to the traditional longhouse. However, they are apparently smaller in size (half of their former house) and with poorer materials. The communities had since refused to pay the installments.
When their first moved to the new area the houses were not completed. They were forced to built temporary huts or squat underneath the still constructing longhouse. During a visit of NGO in 1983 many felt that they had been tricked:
“The government promised us free longhouses. But now we are charged RM27,000 per pintu (door) and have been asked to pay RM127 per month. Where are we to go for the money?”
“We were told we would get free electricity. Now they have put up meters in every door and they are charging us monthly.”
The submerged farmlands were compensated with RM600 per acre and those not submerged RM300 per acre. The people consider the amounts unfair. They also consider tree crop compensation insufficient, such as RM18 for rubber, RM25 for pepper, and RM77 for durian per plant.
Official report reveals that a total of RM50 million tax payers’ money was paid out as compensation. It was estimated that each family received RM90,000 (totally submerged) and RM62,000 (partially submerged). Studies revealed that except a few better informed investment most of the money were not spent wisely. They are spent on cock fighting, alcohol drink or being cheated due to lack of cash management knowledge. Many also bought cars but eventually unable to pay installment and their cars got trawled away.
The official resettlement scheme offered 11 acres of farm land for each family, of which 5 acres were for rubber planting, 2 acres for cocoa, 2 acres for paddy and 2 acres for Dusun or other traditional crops. The scheme was managed by SALCRA, the state statutory body for the development of native land, while the people were treated as passive participants.
In 1985, NGO’s study found that the allocation is far insufficient for a decent living of a longhouse family. Further the cocoa crop had failed due to pest problem. Many of them went back to their old farm above the reservoir where they could farm as well as hunt and fish as they did before.
The women interviewed in 1989 express their deep fear about their future.
“There is no land for our children, unlike the old place where land can be shared equally. Here, all the land belongs to the government except for the small piece of dusun which is not even enough for our own survival” (Utusan Konsumer Mid-Feb 1989)
NGO’s follow up visit in 1993 found that the farm land allocated for the families were yet given titles. The people were merely working for wages 15 days in a month for Salcra scheme. The people express harder live that members of the families were forced to look for job as far as Bintulu, Brunei, Johor Baru and Singapore, while other are compelled to fell new state land for paddy farming.
Today, more than a quarter of a century has passed, Nicholas Bawin, the state deputy of PKR is still urging the state BN to immediately issue the land titles to the 400 families. (http://dayakbaru.com/weblog08/).
Other studies reveals that resettlement scheme erodes women rights as the properties are issued to the men who are recognized as the heads of household. This put women to further disadvantages that they could not entitle to land or building once they were divorced. Women also complained that cash compensations were given only to the male members of the families while traditional the husbands and wives could own land or crops separately. In some cases, the cash compensations were spent by the husband or son-in-law without the consent of the women.
No doubt people in the resettled area enjoy better road connection to other towns and government facilities such as hospital and school. Nevertheless, these are the duties of the government to look after the welfare of the people.
According to the principles set by the World Commission on Dam (WDC) that dam induced resettlement must ensure better living qualities than the people used to enjoy before. In this case of Batang Ai and also Bakun and Murum as well as the fort coming 11 HEPs of Sarawak do not seems to demonstrate the principle.
Compiled by MC Wong
18 March 2009