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Malaysia hydropower meeting to open amid controversy
by Staff Writers
Kuching, Malaysia (AFP) May 20, 2013

Malaysia tribal groups protest world hydro meeting
Kuching, Malaysia (AFP) May 22, 2013 - About 300 Borneo tribespeople staged a protest at a world hydroelectric industry meeting in Malaysia on Wednesday to denounce dams they say are destroying forests and native ways.

Officials in the Malaysian state of Sarawak have for years been accused of ramming through controversial dams, and opponents have harshly criticised the International Hydropower Association's (IHA) decision to meet in the state.

Shouting "No more mega-dams," and with signs saying "No forced resettlement," protesters in feather-strewn traditional woven hats and decorative tribal beadwork demonstrated outside the meeting venue in the Sarawak capital Kuching.

Organisers said most of the protesters had travelled for days from the jungly state's rugged interior.

"Holding the meeting here is a slap at us. We demand that the Sarawak government stop these mega-dams and start respecting our rights," said Raymond Abin, 48, who said he was forced to move a decade ago to make way for the Bakun Dam, Malaysia's largest.

The demonstration ended after its leaders presented a protest letter to IHA director Richard Taylor.

The IHA's four-day meeting this week is held every two years and includes some of biggest hydropower-industry companies in the world.

Critics have called it an attempt by Sarawak's controversial state chief minister for 32 years, Taib Mahmud, to "greenwash" his development policies in the Borneo island state.

NGOs accuse Taib of running Sarawak like a family business, enriching himself, his family and cronies through a corrupt stranglehold on the state's economy and profiting from the dams and rapid harvesting of Sarawak's forests.

His policies have led to a growing movement among Sarawak's many tribal groups to protect their rights. Protests in the interior are regularly reported.

Dozens of Malaysian NGOs including the local offices of Amnesty International and Transparency International denounced Sarawak's hosting of the meeting, accusing its government of "humanitarian and environmental crimes".

Taib has previously denied wrongdoing, insisting the state must be developed.

Despite mounting allegations of graft, Malaysian anti-corruption authorities have so far failed to act against Taib, whose support is vital to keeping the country's 56-year-old ruling coalition in power.

The world hydroelectric industry's decision to meet in a Malaysian state where dams have uprooted rainforests and native peoples is drawing bitter fire from environmental and tribal groups.

The International Hydropower Association's (IHA) four-day biennial meeting to push "sustainable hydropower" opens Tuesday in Kuching, the languid capital of Sarawak state on Borneo island, and a highly contentious choice.

Sarawak's powerful boss is widely accused of felling huge swathes of rainforest in a much-criticised dam-building drive.

Opponents of Taib Mahmud -- Sarawak's chief minister for 42 years -- plan to hold their own "parallel congress" in Kuching and other protests, bringing to the capital a resistance campaign previously confined to the interior.

"The Taib government is using the IHA name to 'greenwash' all the damage it has done," said Peter Kallang, head of Save Sarawak Rivers, a coalition of local NGOs and tribal groups.

"The IHA also will promote dams and get more business. It's scandalous."

Malaysia's largest state, yet one of its poorest, Sarawak was a vast jungle wilderness of mighty rivers and hunter-gatherer tribes.

But activists say 95 percent of primary forest has been destroyed, accusing Taib of profiting through his grip on land and timber concessions.

Swiss-based forest-protection group Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) estimates his worth at $15 billion, based on financial and corporate records, which would make him Malaysia's richest man.

Taib, 76, is regularly cited by anti-graft groups as the prime example of endemic corruption, which watchdogs say bleeds Malaysia of billions of dollars annually.

Yet Malaysian authorities have failed to act against Taib, whose political party is vital to keeping the 56-year ruling coalition in power.

"He is basically untouchable," said BMF head Lukas Straumann.

Taib's office did not respond to requests for comment. He has previously denied wrongdoing and defended his policies as necessary to develop Sarawak.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's office declined comment.

"IHA is pleased to be convening its congress where hydropower is under focus, and where we can share knowledge and experience," IHA President Richard Taylor said in emailed comments to AFP, adding the congress will hear "alternative" voices.

But Kallang said those voices will be chosen by Taib, and that poor native stakeholders are excluded by high delegate fees.

The IHA board includes the head of Sarawak's Taib-linked energy firm, which Kallang said raises questions about how Kuching was chosen.

Activists say Taib and his family, through control of some of Sarawak's biggest companies, pocket huge kickbacks for ill-advised big projects.

Malaysia's biggest dam, Sarawak's Bakun hydroelectric facility, has been called a "monument to corruption" by Transparency International (TI), displacing more than 10,000 people, many now living in squalid resettlements.

Officials admit Bakun will produce twice as much energy as Sarawak needs, yet plans for up to a dozen more dams have been mooted. Construction has begun at one, sparking native protests last year.

Resource-rich Sarawak remains poor and leaders are keen to diversify from mining, agriculture and forestry into heavier industries, saying ample power is needed to lure foreign investment.

Josie Fernandez, secretary-general of TI's Malaysia office, said there are grave concerns about graft and further ecological damage from the industrial drive, adding Sarawak's people have not benefited from Taib's development.

"Sarawak is so rich in resources. It could have been developed for the good of its people, but hasn't," she said.

Renewable hydropower has received a boost amid climate-change concerns, especially in Asia with its growing energy needs. But projects in the region are often plagued by allegations of corruption and environmental and social harm.

Straumann said the Sarawak congress weakens the IHA's credibility in addressing such problems.


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