One year ago, a remarkable win for indigenous rights took place in a little-reported corner of Asia. On the island of Borneo, rainforest communities won a long fight against a hydroelectric dam that was to be built on their land.
After more than two years of muddy resistance, the dam plans were shelved, and land rights were restored to the indigenous population.
This was a landmark win. Malaysia is not celebrated for its human rights record, and rarely puts land rights ahead of deep-pocketed commercial plans. Mapping which lands are protected against industrial expansion is difficult, and sometimes impossible.
The first two dams in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy project charged ahead with neither prior informed consent of the native populations, nor completed social and environmental impact assessments.
Communities already displaced by the Murum and Bakun dams were promised better schools and housing, ten acres of land each, financial compensation, electricity and employment.
What they got instead, was a new life in an impoverished displacement camp. Their villages were submerged, their longhouses and graveyards lost under water. The river turned foul and undrinkable, and the fish disappeared. An ancient connection to their life source was extinguished.
Local advocacy group SAVE Rivers was formed through the grassroots resistance to the dam. They went from village to village on a marathon of community consultations, letting the people living upstream on the Baram river know the realities of what faced them if they were to be displaced.
Two strategically placed blockades halted construction for two years, maintained round the clock by local communities. When the blockades were forcibly removed, new ones would pop up. It was good old fashioned picket resistance, and it worked.
"In a global narrative that pits nature against man, the indigenous people of Sarawak are leading protection of the environment and demanding sustainable development that respects and protects nature."
More than 1200 days since is started, the blockade still stands. In the lower area of where the dam would have been built, a micro-hydro project has been set up to generate sustainable energy. The blockade groups now undertake surveying for illegal logging.
The movement that began in opposition to the dam is building on its experience to create the Baram Peace Park, an ambitious initiative to establish small scale energy systems and support local livelihoods. The dam might be shelved, but there is still much work to be done. Resistance has turned into action, as communities are buoyed by the knowledge that grassroots activism works.
Borneo not only sustains the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples: it is of critical significance in the global fight against climate change. Forest areas such as those surrounding the Baram river are the lungs of the planet, and are significant pockets of carbon sequestration. Much like the Amazon and the Mekong, deforestation via flooding compounds the effects of climate change, not only through generating emissions, but also by destroying the remaining forest lands that absorb excess carbon.
As we mark the anniversary of the Baram dam victory on 21 March, we must take note of all that remains to be done. More dams are scheduled to be built, and these struggles often go unnoticed. In a global narrative that pits nature against man, the indigenous people of Sarawak are leading protection of the environment and demanding sustainable development that respects and protects nature.
Supporting forest communities to protect their lands and the fight against climate change go hand in hand. Around the world, we see grassroots groups striving not only to protect their own history, but to safeguard all of our futures. They need and deserve our support.
Fiona McAlpine is the Communications and Media Manager for The Borneo Project.
Image courtesy The Borneo Project