Batang Ai – 30 years on


POWER GENERATOR: The Batang Ai HEP large-scale projects have the potential for both positive as well as negative impact on local communities and the environment.

THE Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) which includes a slew of ambitious projects such as manufacturing and heavy industries and industrial areas, is projected to be the state’s main engine of growth over the next few decades.

The state also plans to build a series of large hydroelectric power dams (HEP) as clean, renewable energy sources to fuel the expected demand for cheap electricity by power-intensive industries wooed by SCORE.

However, despite the numerous expected socio-economic benefits, changes to the natural landscape and biodiversity has thrown a spotlight on the nature of man’s relationship with the environment and how closely they are intertwined.

Recently, thesundaypost visited Nanga Sumpa, Rumah Skarok and Nanga Mepi – three villages affected by Batang Ai HEP (BAHEP) – the state’s first and oldest operating HEP – to learn more about how the dam has impacted their daily lives.

The trip revealed that while BAHEP had brought significant improvements in terms of infrastructure and access to public facilities and services such as education and healthcare, it also created a number of additional challenges for the local communities.

For better or worse, those that had depended heavily on a natural resources-based livelihood had to learn to adapt to a cash-based economy. Some are still struggling to adjust and rebuild their socio-economic independence after nearly 30 years.

Interviews with residents from the three longhouses also suggested that while nature is resilient in some ways to relatively drastic changes, it’s also surprisingly fragile in others.

While far from being an accurate survey of the wide range of experiences of the estimated 21 villages affected by BAHEP, the interviews show any decision to modify the environment on a large scale, needs to be thoroughly studied from all angles, and supports the notion that all other options be given due scrutiny before any action is taken.

Tourism model

Nanga Sumpa is seen as one of BAHEP’s success stories for managing to successfully tap into the locality’s eco-tourism potential. An exclusive collaboration with a local tour agency dating as far back as 1987 has opened many opportunities for residents to earn additional income.

The villagers make traditional handcrafts such as baskets, mats, bead and seed necklaces, bracelets, pottery, and wooden carvings. They hang their products on simple boards, nails and strings along the length of the longhouse’s ruai (communal verandah area) — ready for sale to browsing tourists.

Andah Lembang, 65, works as a boatman, ferrying tourists in between creating traditional Iban pottery and taking care of his garden plot.

He receives a monthly salary as a boatman but was reluctant to reveal how much he earns, only saying it’s enough.

NO-MAN’S LAND: Boatman Andah Lembang from Nanga Sumpa carefully steers his boat through floating logs and other river debris trapped in the confluence where dam waters meet river waters.

Andah’s wife helps to demonstrate traditional weaving techniques to tourists.

His granddaughter Lenenggau Manggin takes turns with other villagers to cook for the tourist lodge residents for a small daily wage. In her spare time, she creates bead necklaces and sometimes accompanies Andah to craft exhibitions and workshops.

His son Jackson Engkamat, 32, helps with maintaining facilities at the lodge and accompanying researchers and tourists on jungle walks while also developing his skills as a tattoo artist in his spare time.

The villagers take turns to provide services for tourists to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit.

The tourists stay in specially built lodges adjacent to the longhouse but are able to visit Nanga Sumpa at certain times to buy handcrafts and participate in certain activities.

Most tourists come because they are eager to experience Batang Ai’s natural beauty, learn more about local Iban culture and hopefully, catch a glimpse of orang utans.

Orang utans are often sighted in areas surrounding the longhouse because the longhouse folk leave them alone. So the primates don’t perceive humans as a threat.

“We respect the orang utans because according to our culture, they are related to our ancestors. It is taboo to hunt or kill them,” Jackson said.

Thus, indirectly, tourism has helped to reinforce the wildlife conservation value of Nanga Sumpa’s relatively undisturbed forest areas.

The dam lake has made it much easier for residents to commute to and from the mainland.

According to Andah, before the dam, it would take at least two days and one night, depending on the weather, to travel by boat between Nanga Sumpa and Lubok Antu for supplies. Now, the journey takes just 1.5 hours from the dam site to the longhouse.

However, travel is not without its obstacles. During the journey to Nanga Sumpa, boats have to run a gauntlet of floating logs and other debris trapped in the limbo of where dam waters meet the river waters, unable to flow upstream or downstream.

To prevent the logs from becoming water hazards, villagers fasten ropes at certain river stretches to trap them and organise communal work parties to clear the debris from the river.

Despite being so close to a HEP, Nanga Sumpa still relies on generators for electricity. The residents continue to use water from the river and water catchment areas for their daily needs.

While some carry out subsistence farming, many no longer fish or hunt, preferring to buy meat and other daily necessities from the mainland, instead of gathering and preparing what they needed from the surrounding forests and rivers like their forefathers.

Jackson said river fishing was much more difficult now compared to before the dam. Before, fish like the prized empurau were plentiful and easy to find in the clear, fast-flowing rivers around their village. But now, the supply of river fish has decreased.

“Nowadays, even if we could find empurau to catch, they are very small. Not like before when one fish could easily be the size of my leg calf, and we could catch enough to fill a boat within a short time,” he noted.

Andah told thesundaypost the impact of the dam was mostly beneficial to them as their longhouse was located upriver and outside the danger zone and did not have to relocate.

Most of their lands and gardens were also not submerged by the dam, so they could continue to grow rice and farm the land as they did before.

CAPTIVATING: A scenic view of the dam area.

Modern conveniences

Rumah Skarok lies on the mainland, just 15 minutes by road downstream from the BAHEP jetty. While its residents had lost some of their native land to the dam 30 years ago, a significant part was not affected — so the residents did not have to relocate and were able to carry on with their traditional livelihoods of planting rice, rubber and pepper.

Retired tourism industry employee, Christopher Kiding, 58, said they did not feel the loss of the natural forests since much of their land had already been developed for farming and agriculture when the dam was built.

However, rivers are another matter altogether.

“No one dares to bathe in or drink from the river. The water emits a foul smell and causes our skin to become itchy if we bathe in it,” he said.

In other aspects, there’s little doubt the dam has brought great benefits. The present Rumah Skarok is an attractive, spacious concrete longhouse close to the main road and connected to the main electricity grid.

The residents enjoy the convenience of electricity, piped water and mobile phone network coverage round-the-clock.

In terms of income, most of the residents were able to forge a decent living, Christopher said.

The Batang Ai resort, set up by an international hotel chain, as well as the dam itself have helped create jobs for many of their residents who not only work as direct employees but also contractors and other third-party service providers to these two establishments.

But local jobs opportunities are limited. Many of Rumah Skarok’s younger generation take up jobs as offshore workers and government employees outside Batang Ai.

The remaining residents plant rubber, pepper and oil palm for income. A few have also taken up breeding tilapia in the dam with the support of government aid and subsidies.

“The newer generation has benefited a lot from the dam. They have easy access to roads — so it’s easier for them to move around to look for jobs outside our village and in the bigger towns and cities,” Christopher noted.

“Some are working with small-time contractors who train them for projects. Down the road, they will gain the ability and knowledge to become contractors themselves and benefit from local government projects.”

But the upgrading of roads has also made it easier for outsiders with unscrupulous intentions to enter the community. A few years ago, the villagers managed to detect and stop illegal logging on their communal lands with the aid of local police, according to Christopher.

He is also concerned the wide dispersal of the younger generation in search of work will cause them to lose touch with their cultural roots.

A female resident of Rumah Skarok who preferred to remain anonymous, shared Christopher’s concern that the younger generation were less knowledgeable about their Iban culture and traditions.

“Many of our young people don’t know or even, if they have heard of it, have never seen many of our traditional customs which their grandparents and parents practised. Not just our children, even my own generation knows less than what our parents’ generation knew and practised,” she observed.

“But even if we forget our traditions, what’s important is that our budi budaya (cultural mindset) and budi bahasa (respect for elders and traditions) are preserved.”

PASSING THE TIME: Children watching boats passing by in front of their school on the banks of Sg Delok.

On-going struggle

The last longhouse thesundaypost visited, Nanga Mepi, was one of 10 villages identified as in the danger zone due to their proximity to the dam. Thus, it was and continues to be more deeply affected by BAHEP than Nanga Sumpa and Nanga Skarok.

Present headman Lawin Sidai, 54, estimates up to 70 per cent of Nanga Mepi’s NCR and communal lands were affected by the dam.

He hails from Debak but moved to Nanga Mepi in July 1982 just after his marriage and was thus able to witness the uncertainty and difficulty prevailing at that time.

“I arrived a few months before the village moved to the resettlement area in October 1982 just in time to help pack up and move everything by boat,” he recalled.

“The first few years were difficult for everyone. Everything required money. Before, our life was easier. We did not need much cash as we could take what we needed from the forests and rivers.”

“When we moved to the resettlement area, everything was there – house, water, electricity. But where could we find our resources? At that time, we were not entitled to gather resources from the land. Everything we needed to pay (for the right to gather).”

There was also the general misconception that the displaced villagers were cash-rich and could afford anything they wanted.

“Because of the government compensation at that time, outsiders were saying Lubok Antu kaya (Lubok Antu is rich). But it was only for some. New families like me and my wife, and also small families like my father-in-law’s had it difficult,” Lawin said.

Each family was allocated three to four acres to plant oil palm and five acres for rubber, managed through agencies such as Salcra.

Each family was also given one acre of land to plant vegetables and promised two more acres for planting padi. However, the government could not find enough land to purchase due to shortage of land at that time.

In the end, the villagers were given RM4,000 in 2007 or 2008 in lieu of the two acres.

To farm enough food for their families and to make ends meet, the villagers had to rent out additional land from surrounding villages. They also had to adjust to not living next to a river.

There was also a lot of confusion on the status of the land which were not submerged under the dam waters. The villagers were given to understand the said land still belonged to them but Lawin said they were prevented from farming the land by Sesco.

The shortage of land continues to affect them even today. When Nanga Mepi first resettled, there were 26 families. Now, there are 40 families and the longhouse is bursting at the seams from lack of land to build additional housing.

Lawin shared that they had recently petitioned the government as well as their elected representatives for a secondary site for the second generation of villagers to live on so that their families can stay close together.

He also hopes the relevant government agencies would look into creating more job opportunities in other sectors that would have a spillover effect on the community such as setting up factories to process the tilapia being bred in the dam into products like keropok.

Conclusions and considerations

The varying experiences of Nanga Sumpa, Rumah Skarok and Nanga Mepi show that managing the socio-economic impact of a HEP is a complex issue and that there is much room for improvement in terms of ensuring local communities are able to fully reap the purported benefits of HEPs.

While government economic assistance and resettlement programmes often have good intentions, successful implementation requires continuous, concerted inter-agency efforts that can adjust to changing local needs and social-economic eccentricities.

Local communities being thrust into the current of urbanisation need support and guidance that will enable them to grow and adjust to their changed surroundings at a pace they can manage so that they can achieve socio-economic independence.

For example, many locals were unable to sustain aquaculture efforts to breed tilapia for sale despite the provision of government aid, infrastructure and fish feed subsidies.

However, a few individuals have succeeded on their own. This suggests that socio-economic programmes meant to benefit locals need to be customised to suit local practices and peculiarities, and that continued, consistent advice and support from the government is just as important as financial and infrastructure aid and subsidies.

The experience of these three villages highlights the immense socio-economic and environmental challenges that come with changes to the natural environment and relocation of communities that accompany HEP construction.

The interviews suggest that the impact on biodiversity can be both positive and negative and that more in-depth research into the influence of HEPs on natural capitals, especially in areas of high conservation value, is required and should be taken into account when deciding to build a dam.

If there is no other option but to build one, then all efforts must be fully made to ensure that negative fallout is minimised, if not eliminated.