The indigenous language radio station Radio Free Sarawak broke the news today that the community of Murum Penan, resettled by Sarawak Energy, are making emergency calls to say they are now cut off by the dam’s rising waters and running out of food supplies.
It was the same day that it emerged that the Norwegian CEO, who has made much of his role in allegedly transforming and improving the lives of the natives of Sarawak, will leave at the end of his current contract later this year.
The Environment and native rights group, the Bruno Manser Fund, revealed the news of Mr Torstein Dale Sjotveit’s departure in a press release late afternoon:
“During his tenure as CEO, Mr. Sjøtveit made himself a fervent defender of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s controversial plans for twelve new hydropower dams in Sarawak. The former Norsk Hydro executive rebutted all criticism but refused to enter into a meaningful dialogue with NGOs and native communities who protested against their forced resettlement and the flooding of large tracts of the Sarawak rainforest.” the NGO observed.
Emergency flight promised
The plight of the native community, who were forced into the resettlement zone of Metalung just before Christmas after a 77 day protest blockade, emerged after phone calls were made to Radio Free Sarawak (a sister organisation to Sarawak Report).
Natives from the new village, which remains uncompleted, said they had been calling officials at Sarawak Energy (SEB) to plea for food and gas, which are running out.
SEB had distributed supplies before Christmas, as part of a highly controversial compensation package.
The compensation for losing their villages, hunting areas and traditional lands and river includes food supplies for 4 years and a derisory RM250 a month per family. It was far lower than the Penan had been led to expect during “consultation exercises” with the company. However, nothing had been formalised through lawyers or in writing.
In this first month, the food left for them by SEB, which included rice and other dry foodstuffs, ran out over Christmas and New Year and the community is also perilously low on cooking gas.
The crisis has been worsened by the fact that the main roads used by the Penan to get in and out of their area have now been cut off by the rising waters of the Murum Dam, which have now risen above the bridges which once crossed a series of rivers that surround the villages.
“They can’t even get out to seek wood to make a fire when the gas runs out” an RFS producer told Sarawak Report.
This predicament, just weeks after SEB heralded the move to the resettlement site as a wonderful new start for the Penan, illustrates the extraordinary and inadequate provision put in place for one of Asia’s last remaining hunter gatherer communities, driven from their lands.
The Penan, who traditionally forage from the jungle, have no means of existence in their isolated new settlement on the edge of a denuded and abandoned oil palm plantation. Entirely dependent on provisions from SEB, they are yet to see promised schools or health provision or to receive running water or proper electricity supplies.
The nearest town is Belaga, which is a 4 hour drive on the shortest roads, which are the ones which have now been cut off.
The Penan say they are fearful to embark on the longer route round the mountains – Sarawak Report is uncertain what transport and petrol supplies have been provided by SEB to assist in any such lengthy journeys.
It appears that as the flood waters rose, SEB staff neglected to check on the community over Christmas and New Year.
Torstein Sjotveit is assumed to have returned himself to his native Norway for the period’s celebrations, although BMF say he has also gone to Burma to check out new job opportunities.
The Penan told the radio station they are holding out in hope on a promise by SEB staff that they will attempt to fly in supplies to their beleaguered community tomorrow morning.
Record to be proud of?
Meanwhile, confirmation is awaited about Mr Sjotveit’s apparent departure, planned for November. It is believed he is due to be replaced by a local.
BMF has demanded that the Chairman of SEB should also be replaced. Hamed Sepawi is Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s cousin and close business associate.
The NGO says that Sepawi is therefore not of sufficient independence to implement the state’s controversial energy plans, which have involved the handing of huge contracts to Taib’s family companies.
Sjotveit, who has proved a flamboyant character, given to grandiose public statements and combative email exchanges with critical NGOs, had indicated that he would be seeing through grand transformations in the state via his hydropower plans.
It seems that he will now be abandoning these dreams almost at the start.
He certainly proved himself impatient of criticism or opposition and numerous conflicts and embarrassments have dogged his tenure over the past year.
These included a major blackout, caused by failures at the newly operational Bakun Dam, which destroyed one of the flagship aluminium plants of SCORE and caused fury throughout Sarawak.
Sjotveit was also under pressure over his claims that he was conducting SEB’s hydro-power programme according to the highest international standards, when NGOs pointed out numerous failures to abide by basic protocols on social, human rights and environmental issues.
Earlier this week Sarawak Report exposed how Sarawak Energy has been reported by Baram natives to the police for what they consider to be attempted bribes, after the company attempted to make cash handouts to villages resisting the planned new Baram Dam before Christmas.
The Headman of Long Lamai has made a further report to the police of a similar alleged bribe by SEB officials today.