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Malaysia: defending native customary rights

Long before its hydropower potential was considered, the area along the Balui river was inhabited by indigenous communities made up of various ethnicities. In the 1980s, however, plans materialised for the construction of the second tallest concrete-faced rock-filled dam in the world, the Bakun Hydro-Electric Dam. When completed the dam will be one and a half times the size of Singapore and 205m high.
Malaysia: defending native customary rightsPlaintiffs in the Baken case.Amidst this controversial development project were 15 longhouses made up of indigenous peoples from various ethnic groups of Kayan, Penan, Lahanan, Ukit, Kenyah, Kajang and others. These riverine communities practised shifting agriculture, hunting and gathering, and lived a peaceful life until the State Government of Sarawak formally extinguished their native customary rights in 1997, specifically to enable this mammoth project.


In 1998, about 10,000 indigenous people were evicted from their original homeland to a resettlement site in the Asap River (Sungai Asap). The resettlement process has been fraught with problems that have yet to be resolved. However, five longhouse communities representing some 100 families refused to move, and seven of their leaders, filed a representative action against the State Government of Sarawak in 2000 through Friends of the Earth Malaysia/SAM’s lawyers.

"What’s the use of going to Asap? The land is 3 acres, the house is a mad deal, so small at RM52,000. Electricity and water have to be paid for. What’s the use? Here, it is blissful."


Longhouse chief for Uma Balui Lebue, Tuai Rumah Bato Bagi

The preparation for this case took many years and involved producing land use and boundary maps, by documenting oral histories; scouring through archives for old documents showing settlement; gathering evidence about ancient gravesites, old trees, artifacts, legal documents, and clothes; recording old customs; and talking to experts.


Friends of the Malaysia have been at the forefront of this struggle, helping to organise and mobilise the communities, and supporting their legal case. This was first heard in the High Court in Kuching 2008, where the Plaintiffs lost purely on technical grounds. They appealed to the Court of Appeal and lost once again in 2010. But in March 2011 they were granted right to appeal to the Federal Court. The communities were jubilant, and the struggle continues.

“We do not work in isolation. We need to showcase our struggles, achievements and failures to the outside world. We need solidarity, to be connected with others with similar problems. We have been given this opportunity through FoEI. Without the support of the FoEI family, much of this struggle would be lost in translation.”


Jok Jau Evong, SAM Sarawak Coordinator


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