Sarawak’s dam builders are learning how hard it is to stem a leak.
The truth about Taib’s monstrous plans and their terrible impact on the people and the environment was finally revealed in a film by Australia’s Dateline programme, Last Frontier.
Ever since that film was broadcast a couple of weeks ago the big players involved have been trying to slap it down and bully the broadcaster SBS into endless retractions. They have even been fighting to get the company to take it off the internet altogether.
The Australian dam builders Hydro-Tasmania, who have been acting as the key advisor on all Sarawak’s future construction plans, has actually been lobbying SBS to issue a formal apology for the programme even being made!
Given the crawling response by the company’s ‘ombudsman’, it looked as if Hydro-Tasmania, Ta Ann and Sarawak Energy’s combined onslaught of self-pitying complaints might well achieve that end.
Think of the barrage of complaints by Hydro-Tas, Ta Ann and Sarawak Energy as the PR equivalent of a mountain of glue and concrete being poured over a crack in Bakun!
With SBS climbing down these companies have clearly judged that the film could be turned into another stick to beat poor Sarawak people, who are protesting against the destruction of their lands.
But, just as the job was being made good, the damaging story has sprung up again on an entirely new Channel! Al Jazeera has run with the story also on its global programme 101 East.
“Alleged corruption, rights violations and environmental degradation”
The TV Channel, which one of the most highly regarded 24 hour news channels in the world and is headquartered in Doha, has long been a close watcher of Taib Mahmud’s management of Sarawak. In its title page it acknowledges that “alleged corruption, rights violations and environmental degradation plague Malaysia’s controversial Bakun dam project”. It goes on to say:
“Thousands are set to lose their homes, as a controversial hydro power scheme gets underway. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Bakun Dam has already flooded an area the size of Singapore. Some of those displaced say they’ve never received the full compensation they were promised. The state government, working with Australian company Hydro Tasmania, is embarking on an ambitious plan to build a further 12 dams – flooding vast tracts of river valley land – and displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people. Hydro Tasmania, an Australian state-owned energy company is involved with dam construction projects in Sarawak by the Sarawak Energy Board while Malaysian timber giant Ta Ann has received major timber harvesting contracts in Tasmania. Both businesses are linked through Hamed Sepawi, who is the chairman of Sarawak Energy Board and Ta Ann. He is also a cousin and close business associate of the state’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, say there is a lack of accountability and transparency over the hydropower projects. Environmentalists and political activists in Malaysia and Australia are calling for the ‘unhealthy’ business ties between Tasmania and Sarawak to be investigated and audited by an independent body. The Malaysian government says the 20 gigawatt project capacity can change the economic face of Sarawak and says its links with Hydro Tasmania are legitimate, while the companies involved deny any wrongdoing.”[Last Frontier, Al Jazeera]
In a previous show in 2009 101 East had already questioned Taib’s close involvement in the plans and examines “how the people of Sarawak lose out when family and business intertwine”.
The programme focuses on the huge sums of money that Taib’s own family company CMS stands to make out of the dams from its monopoly over cement in the state.
Bakun was the single biggest market for CMS cement explains reporter Howard Davies, but the company has also benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other contracts handed to it by Taib himself in a blatant conflict of interest.
“From small beginnings in the cement industry it has built itself up to be the largest company in the state. Typical of its deals is the huge new State Parliament Building in the capital Kuching, a contract awarded by the State Government. Similar state contracts for a convention centre, roads, dams, power stations, hospitals, airports, bridges and a highly lucrative highway repair deals have also come into it, worth hundreds of millions of US dollars” [Fight the power, Al Jazeera]
Al Jazeera also points out that the spokesman for Sarawak promoting the dams was yet another of Taib’s own close relatives, his brother-in-law and the then Managing Director of Sarawak Energy, Abdul Aziz Husain. None of this comes as a surprise to readers of Sarawak Report, who now know also that the so-called Thief Minister has amassed a personal fortune of USD$15billion under conservative estimates.
Hydro-Tasmania cannot avoid blame
So should Al Jazeera brace itself for a barrage of lawyers’ letters and big businesses bullying, now that they have again broadcast this important story right around the world?
The key complaint by Hydro-Tasmania over the film has been that their role in Sarawak had been “exaggerated” and that they should not be held accountable for any shortcomings in the environmental or social management of Taib’s planned dam projects.
Sally Begbie, the SBS ‘Ombudsman’ cravenly accepted this argument within a matter of hours. But how much research did she do?
The internationally respected and renowned NGO International Rivers knows all about the rules relating to dam building and it has written a devastating response to Ms Begbie’s ruling in favour of Hydro-Tasmania:
“The evidence of corruption and human rights abuses surrounding the Sarawak dams is well documented, and the Dateline story highlighted many of these concerns.” says International Rivers in its statement entitled Hydro-Tasmania washes its hands of human rights violations in Malaysia.
The NGO continues, “The head of the Sarawak government, Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, has been in power for over 30 years and his family members have controlling ownership of many of the companies receiving contracts. While promoting the development of the dams, Chief Minister Taib simultaneously oversees the environmental board that is in charge of reviewing the projects for potentially harmful impacts.
Malaysian government officials have also acknowledged the human rights concerns surrounding the dams. In 2011, after 10,000 indigenous people affected by the Bakun Dam had spent a decade of severe poverty in the resettlement town, the Prime Minister of Malaysia visited the community to promise more compensation. In 2009, the Malaysia Human Rights Commission identified several ongoing concerns with the Murum Dam that is now under construction. No official investigation has examined the next-in-line Baram Dam. However, over the past year, hundreds of indigenous people have actively spoken out against the project and the lack of meaningful consultations. Despite these concerns, the Sarawak government has not made public any information about the Murum’s or Baram Dam’s environmental and social impacts”.
In answer to the question whether Hydro-Tasmania’s role in all this is merely minor and should not be criticised the respected NGO says this:
“As a consultant, does Hydro Tasmania have a responsibility to pay attention to human rights violations in the projects that it supports?
According to the United Nations, the answer is unambiguously yes.
In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which outline international standards for how companies are expected to act when faced with potential human rights violations in their operations… Hydro Tasmania has committed publicly in its Sustainability Code to follow international best practice, presumably including this one.
It does not matter if the company only provides consulting services and is not the lead developer—it is still expected to conduct due diligence to ensure that it is not contributing to human rights violations. In a state such as Sarawak, where corruption is well-documented and deeply embedded at the highest levels of government, heightened due diligence is required before a company decides to engage.”
Forced to admit further involvement
Furthermore, Hydro-Tasmania has just been forced to admit that its involvement in Sarawak’s dam projects is much more extensive and important that it has been attempting to make out.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from a Tasmanian Green MP, Kim Booth, the company has acknowledged documents relating to its contracts with Sarawak, but it has denied access on commercial grounds.
These contracts entail numerous key services, including advice on the design of key features of the Murum Dam, providing an assessment on “numerous contractual disputes” and, even more significantly, providing feasibility assessments on a number of locations to provide technical opinion on the most suitable locations for the next stages of Taib’s 12 projected new dams.
Hydro-Tasmania is also providing feasibility studies for the two next hydro-electric projects in Belaga and Metjawah. Some of these services are laid out below:
So, when the evidence shows they are up to their necks in involvement with Sarawak’s dam projects what right has Hydro-Tasmania to claim their role has been ‘exaggerated”?
And since they have been involved in so many feasibility studies, on what grounds are these studies, which should be made publicly available in line with good practice, being kept secret?
According to their own refusals, Hydro-Tasmania accept that the release of these documents would be in the public interest, but say that it may harm their business interests. Do profits for Australia come first and the lives of the local people and the future of the Borneo Jungle come second?
Sarawak Report questions how is it that Hydro-Tasmania has the brass neck to claim that it maintains the highest benchmark of standards on social and corporate responsibility when feasibility studies that should be made public are kept private?
The PKR leader and State Assemblyman Baru Bian, who has championed native rights for decades as a leading lawyer, has also written to challenge the decision by SBS to apologise for the show. The letter head on Bian’s letter quotes an illustrative proverb from the Bible:
“let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream” Amos 5:24
Hydro-Tasmania can send in their lawyers all over again. But now this story has sprung its first leak, like the proverb says, their arguments may be washed away in a torrent of truth!