The situation of the Penan and Kenyah Indigenous Peoples vs the construction of the Murum Dam in Northern Sarawak, Malaysia

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This conservation resource was created by Hanah Dhanani; Nicole Haye; Nicole Lau; Jaime Yeo. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.


The Murum Dam is located in Sarawak, Malaysia. The dam is 141 meters tall and 473 meters long, covering a large expanse of Malaysian wilderness [1]. The dam was built to satisfy the countries rapid industrialization and is expected to generate 1200 megawatts of power [1]. The government sourced the manual work out to a Chinese company called Three Gorges Operation, but the project developer was the local Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB) [2].

A typical Penan home in 2009. By andrew garton via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Murum Dam is part of a project to build 12 new dams on the Murum river[1], which is expected to displace 10,000 indigenous people and flood thousands of hectares of pristine forest [3]. The SEB knew that indigenous people were living there but did not consider their livelihoods while planning the Murum Dam as the Malaysian government does not recognize the Penan's claim to the land. So far, approximately 1500 indigenous people, mostly from the Penan tribe, have been displaced [2]. The village of Long Wat, in the immediate area of flooding were promised the sum of $3240 USD and ten acres of land per family for their relocation. However, these promises weren’t recognized, as no money was given, and families only received three acres of sandy and rocky land, unsuitable for farming [4]. The usable land was bought by third party farmers, harvesting palm oil and wood products [2]. As well, villages that were not in the immediate vicinity were not given such compensation or adequate notice that their homes were being destroyed and that they must relocate. [5]

A Penan Woman. By Cayce via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

There are many human right's issues regarding the housing that was supplied to the Penan. The houses have been described as unlivable and the plots of land that were given to the Penan are not suitable for farming. Efforts to grow rice and other crops have been mostly failures, as the ground is not suitable for agriculture and is simply too small to sustain 1500 people [6] . The Penan also struggle to make any source of income, as their houses are very isolated and few to none have access to education [7] . This makes it especially difficult to pay hydro and electricity bills that must be paid to live in these government buildings or to leave the government housing because it is unlikely they would find work on the outside. Additionally the Penan are traditionally nomadic people, who depend on migration to ensure a suitable amount of food [4]. Since the area they used to travel around was flooded, their tradition and access to food was also. The relocated Penan groups struggle with food security on the daily.

Some indigenous groups were not given housing placements. When 700sq km of land was flooded, only small pockets of isolated land rose above the water, which is now home to 500 Penan people. Some people who lived in the government houses moved to these islands due to the poor quality of the houses. People are dispersed across the new islands, some building floating houses on the water, while others construct new homes on the rocky islands [7].

Currently, there are no official government efforts to supply the Penan with adequate housing, financial support, education or any other remedial actions. If there is no action done, the Penan will have to let go of their ancestral land and integrate into Malaysian society or they will simply die off, as there is very little chance for success in their new communities.

The Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB)

The SEB is the province of Sarawak’s key energy supplier, steel production and the manufacturer of industrial supplies. They have been operating for over 100 years and continue to hold a monopoly over energy suppliers in Sarawak [8] . The SEB provides power to approximately 500,000 people, many investors and shareholders and a board of officials [9] . Most of these people benefit from the Murum Dam financially. A dam is easier to produce and a more renewable source of energy than burning coal or fossil fuels. As well, the SEB has begun to sell electricity to Indonesia, due to the success of the Murum Dam and others like it in Sarawak[10] .

China Three Gorges Corporation

The Three Gorges Corporation is one of the largest hydropower-complex manufacturers in the world. [11] They have done extensive work on the Yangtze river. The Corporation tries to mitigate flood risks and provide clean energy to their customers [12]. They are supervising construction of the Murum Dam, and are funded by the SEB [13].

The Penan People

The Penan have lived in Sarawak’s rainforest for time immemorial. The Penan are traditionally nomadic people, migrating in the hunt for wild boar and vegetation cycles. Their staple food is sago, which grows on the inside of the Sago Palm. Sago is largely inaccessible to them now, as they are mostly found on private farms. [4] . The Penan are an egalitarian society, which strongly emphasize on sharing and caring for those in the community. They have a strong bond with the environment as it is critical to their culture and identity. Over thousands of years, their knowledge about the rain forests of Sarawak rival those of current researchers. Due to the construction of the Murum Dam and other pollutants of the rainforest, the Penan are the losers in the race for cheap wood and sustainable resources. Their land has been flooded and their forests have been destroyed, causing much of the animals and plants they relied on for thousands of years to be endangered or extinct. [6]

The intense degradation of both the environment in Sarawak and the livelihoods of local communities are undeniable. Rapid changes, such as in the health of waters and the forests, prove how significant impacts caused by the dam’s construction truly are.

Social Issues

The displacement of over 30,000 indigenous people from more than 235 settlements due to the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) suggests a strong stance from the Sarawak government. [14]. The Indigenous Peoples being pushed out off their traditional lands, cut off from their traditional lifestyles and forced to resettled into facilities that are completely foreign to them, serves as the basis for many social arguments against the Murum Dam. The lack of prior consultation demonstrates the major relevance of this issue. The Malaysian government violated the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ principle, by not obtaining consent from the Indigenous communities before commencing development that would effect their well-being on their territory [14]. According to the Regional Corridor Development Authority, which is fully backed by the Sarawak state government, the improved overall economy due to SCORE will increase quality of life for all [15]. However, the violation of international standards and the displaced Indigenous communities question their reliability. [16]

Environmental issues

The United Nations identifies the dam as a major environmental hazard. For example, it will result in loss of biodiversity, deterioration of water quality, disruption of river flow patterns, and chemical changes in the water [17]. Moreover, the dramatic chemical changes in water samples and physical environmental degradation show a different side of the story. CLASlite satellite technology has depicted large-scale land use change overtime due to construction of the Murum Dam. It is estimated that approximately 80% of the land in Sabah and Sarawak has been either deforested or degraded by clear-cutting and logging activities. But since the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is withheld to the public, accurate environmental impacts that the dam will create are unknown. However, it is interesting to note that Murum Dam is being modeled as an example of sustainable hydropower, with the developing company, Sarawak Energy Berhad, being awarded a “Sustainability Partner” status 5. This is yet another example of strong bias by the government.


Corruption in the Government

The Malaysian government has invested greatly since 2008 for industrial diversification through (SCORE). Their primary focus is said to “stimulate investment-led growth in traditionally rural areas” [15]. But to do so, they have partnered with large-scale commercial logging and energy corporations to take advantage of the land’s natural resources. The intimate ties between these parties and their profit driven interests raises another transparency issue. Moreover, the ESIA for the Murum Dam was not released to the public. This means that the Penan and Kenyah people were never given all the information regarding what would become of their land [16]. This lack of disclosure of such vital information allows the government to release biased information regarding the Murum Dam to its citizens without confident retaliation. For reference, Malaysia is sitting at the 62nd lead corrupt in the Transparency International index, as of 2017, but has been dropping into lower ranks consistently over the years [17]. The Malaysian political economy is known for being corrupt, serving corporate and political interests first, and its people second.

Reliability of Sources

Due to the polarizing arguments both sides have regarding the construction of the Murum Dam, the reliability of the sources must be evaluated. For example, local and international NGOs and media outlets fighting to bring awareness to the social and environmental issues that the dam’s construction is causing tend to intensify the argument against. Conversely, Malaysian government backed bodies, such as RECODA, paint Murum Dam as solely a nation wide improvement, but fail to also consider the negative impacts that are inevitably present. Both sides have a narrow focus causing biased arguments to some degree, but the lack of available concrete evidence of the problem available further questions the sources and their reliability.

Legal Rights

There are a multitude of human and indigenous rights documents, as well as environmental ones, that could potentially prove as useful tools in seeking proper land and culture justice. Some of these include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [18], involving multiple of articles such as 8, 10, 18, 26, 28, and 32. More specifically articles 10 and 28 discuss proper relocation methods with consent of the originally residing individuals and proper compensation for said relocation. Article 26 may also provide rights information about prior and current ownership of native lands of indigenous peoples and their protection.

Kenyah Leaders 1901. By gus via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises [19], which apply to the hydropower development of this project, provides notable environmental requirements in part I.V. In 2015 there was already an official complaint concerning these guidelines to prevent Norwegian companies from participating in the construction of these dams. FIVAS, the Norwegian Association for International Water Studies [20] in association with organization Save Sarawak Rivers [21], were the ones to send in this complaint. The Legal Perspectives on Native Customary Land Rights in Sarawak [22] provides an abundant amount of information concerning not only the customary native rights, but international human and indigenous rights, as well as constitutional protection in parts VI, IX and X. There is also the Durban Action Plan which was reviewed and developed at the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress [23], including information about indigenous rights and the benefits of proper conservation land management and protection. As well, convention C169 of the International Labour Organization explains indigenous rights to a people’s original resources and territory [24].

These documents promote the rights of indigenous peoples efforts and are extremely applicable for the legality and rights issues behind the dam construction on the Penan and Kenyah peoples land. Much of the base requirements include simple and fair communication between the opposing sides, i.e. the construction of the dam and the Penan and Kenyah indigenous peoples, with recognition of basic human and indigenous rights. Even though the SEB, the Sarawak Energy Berhad [1] is providing education to the peoples [25], and the Sarawak government provided some housing to the relocated populations (in which the relocation itself may be debated via article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), both are in poor conditions and not up to healthy or livable standards. Without proper compensation, rights are being violated via article 28.2 of the previously mentioned document [18]. The intention behind the modern education of these peoples by SEB is also questionable, as the goal is to get them "up to date" [25] so as to be apart of the modern workforce, yet there's no effort to support their local religions, cultures, or histories.

Currently it appears the best way to take action is to approach the legalities and rights that have been violated during the planning, consultation, and construction of not only the Murum Dam, but as well as the 11 other dams within the hydro power construction plan throughout Sarawak. Gaining support of other companies like FIVAS [20] and from people around the world is also beneficial, and multiple sites have been created to help provide some of said support and spread information about what's happening to the Penan and Kenyah peoples. A few of these organizations are Survival International [6], Cultural Survival [26], and IWGIA [27].

Alternative Solutions?

Here we invite contributions from students and scholars to expand on ideas for possible remedial actions involving the Penan and Kenyah peoples with the situation of the Murum Dam.

Energy companies

Information from local and professional sources suggests that there was little consideration by the energy companies in preserving the livelihoods of the people and environment of Sarawak[28]. A strong recommendation would be to halt operations until the needs of the aboriginal peoples are addressed can be carried out safely and ethically.

Three Gorges Corporation

Similarly to Sinohydro, Three Gorges is a Chinese company that is known for erecting large-scale dams. Had they worked more closely with local foremen and work hands to encourage cultural sensitivity and less harm to Sarawak forests, many problems they face today may have been avoided. Maintaining an open line of communication for the remainder of the project and considering more opinions would help Three Gorges going forward. Sinohydro, a Chinese company, works remotely therefore not understanding the ramifications, to their full extent of development in this area. If given a clarified understanding, the needs of actual residents would be given proper consideration[1] and an appropriate education provided to the peoples [25]. It is important to note that Iban is the dominant linguistic group of Sarawak, a dialect which is unfamiliar to Sinohydro and its representatives[1] is providing education to the peoples [25].

Sarawak Energy Berhad (SEB)

SEB, the local facilitator of the Murum Dam, are responsible for much of the on-site mitigation of impact. Unfortunately, many of the events during construction have not taken enough voices into account, particularly the forcibly removed and relocated peoples from their respective land[14]. A way of reducing this effect would be to find a less invasive manner of operation through further research and technology use.

Aboriginal people

Many aboriginal communities face challenges in their struggle to be acknowledged. A vast majority of issues stem from miscommunication and lack of public outlets. The distinct lack of exposure these communities receive directly contributes to societal injustices like the one examined[28]. The action of reaching out to media companies and garnering more exposure through programs and outreach may increase levels of public support for these displaced peoples[1] is providing education to the peoples [25].

The state of the peoples of the Penan province is at risk. As voices continue to remain unheard, there is much insecurity surrounding the fate of this natural area. In many ways, the accountability falls upon energy companies both locally and overseas. The Murum Dam is a development of poor consideration to those it affects the most. The displacement of these people has resulted in deplorable living conditions and loss of economic stability. Although this operation may be beneficial to the Malaysian economy, the immense loss of resources and livelihoods of Sarawak first nations makes this action inadvisable[28]. With further technological advances minimizing intrusive aspects of the operation and further consult ad approval from first peoples, the Murum Dam may be a less invasive project[28]. Given the current limitations due to lack of resources and infrastructure, the construction of the Murum Dam is unable to be executed in an ethical manner.

  1. "About Hydropower". Sarawak Energy. Retrieved April 4th 2018. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "seb" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "seb" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "seb" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "seb" defined multiple times with different content
  2. "Murum Dam." International Rivers. Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  3. "Indigenous blockade expands against massive dam in Sarawak". Mongabay. Retrieved April 1st 2018
  4. "The Penan Hunter-Gatherers of Sarawak". National Geographic. Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  5. "Indigenous Penan continue protesting as Murum dam begins to fill". Intercontinental Cry. Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  6. "The Penan". Survival International. Retrieved April 4th 2018. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "survive" defined multiple times with different content
  7. 7.07.1 "In Another Blow, Bakun To Be Gazetted As National Park" The Borneo Project Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  8. "Sarawak Energy" Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  9. "Company Overview of Sarawak Energy Berhad" Bloomberg Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  10. "Malaysia begins exporting electricity to Indonesia" Free Malaysia Today Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  11. "Three Gorges Project" China Three Gorges Operation Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  12. "Benefits" China Three Gorges Operation Retrieved by April 4th 2018.
  13. "Project Control and Planning for Murum Hydro Electric Power for Three Gorges" PCSS Retrieved April 4th 2018.
  14. "Economic Development via Dam Building: The Role of the State Government in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy and the Impact on Environment and Local Communities". Southeast Asian Studies. Retrieved April 8th 2018.
  15. 15.015.1 "What is SCORE?". RECODA. Retrieved April 8th 2018.
  16. 16.016.1 "Malaysia's Murum Dam Sets Poor Precedents for Best Practice". International Rivers. Retrieved April 8th 2018.
  17. 17.017.1 "Malaysia Corruption Rank". Trading Economics. Retrieved April 8th 2018.
  18. 18.018.1 [1] Retrieved April 7th 2018.
  19. [2] Retrieved April 7th 2018.
  20. 20.020.1 [3] Retrieved April 7th 2018.
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  26. [9] Retrieved April 7th 2018.
  27. [10] Retrieved April 7th 2018.
  28. "Malaysia: NGOs write to Princess Anne, claim Sarawak power firm withheld Murum Dam facts". Asian Correspondent. Retrieved April 4th 2018.

Post image:  By UNIMAS Sarawak via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY 2.5