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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Is this what development is about?


State leaders cannot just rely on the same old argument that billions need to be spent on mega projects because these would be beneficial to the rakyat.

I AM shocked that toll charges for the bridge built across the Murum dam’s flooded area is RM150 per crossing.

The timber concessionaire which operates in the area had started to charge road users RM300 for a return trip for using its bridge starting end of July.

This must be the highest in the nation and likely in the world. RM300 is 37.55% of the minimum wage of RM800 per month!

“It’s just ridiculous to pay such an exorbitant amount to use the Murum bridge,” according to Belaga assemblyman Liwan Lagang.

Even though the company has been reaping the timber resources from the area, which also belonged to the people of Belaga, it still imposed the charges.

People who have given up their hinterland in Murum to allow the government to build both the Bakun and Murum hydro dams are now beholden to the timber companies who are extracting the timber.

This, more than anything else, highlights the concern of the rakyat that mega developments do not really benefit local folk.

The state government’s ambitious plan to harness the hydroelectric potential of our rivers will inevitably set it on a collision course with a loose alliance of natives whose land and livelihood will be affected, environmentalists and NGOs worried about the destruction of our natural resources, heritage and flora and fauna.

Naturally those who are unashamedly pro-development will point to the benefits the dams will bring to the people and the economy.

No doubt development is the aspiration of any well-meaning government as it will bring economic progress. Unfortunately the track record of our hydro dams begs the eternal question of who actually benefits?

What irks me is the usual response from our ministers when faced with criticism from NGOs. For instance, they tend to condemn environmentalists and NGOS for opposing the Baram dam project, calling them puppets of foreign powers bent on making sure that we remain underdeveloped.

They accuse NGOs of trying to interfere in development affairs and justify the dam projects as the only means to bring development to rural Baram.

I am not convinced that building mega dams costing billions of ringgit will bring development to the people affected.

Those who pushed for the Bakun dam claimed that it would bring tremendous development to the people of Belaga and supply the whole country with enough electricity.

Well, power from Bakun ended up being for just a few companies in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy.

We all know now Belaga folk are still as backward as before and longhouses located from the Bakun dam to Belaga are still without electricity. Our electricity rates remain the highest in the country.

The Batang Ai dam, built in the 80s, does not provide long-term jobs to the natives, especially those forced to resettle. The Lachau bazaar, about 150km on the Kuching–Sri Aman Road, did not have electricity for three decades after Batang Ai. And you can see the power lines above the town!

Still our ministers are singing the same old song that in order to bring development to Baram, taxpayers must build a hydro dam that will cost RM4bil and drown an area half the size of Singapore.

What development has five decades of logging brought to Baram and Kapit? Who benefits from the industry in Baram?

We open up huge tracts of land for oil palm cultivation, creating so many disputes relating to native customary rights (NCR) land in the process.

The usual excuse is that these oil palm plantations would bring development to the natives and create jobs. Unfortunately foreign workers comprise up to 75% of workers in the oil palm and logging industries.

No doubt during the construction stages of the dam, hundreds of workers would be needed and the locals in Baram would have jobs. Even then, my experience in handling a major dispute where thousands of foreign workers displaced the locals engaged in the construction of a major hi-tech plant in Samalaju, shows that most of the workers are not locals.

In the Bakun region, there are few job opportunities available after the dam has been built.

State leaders cannot just rely on the same old argument that billions need to be spent on mega projects because these would bring development to the rakyat.

Mega projects are good to generate impressive headline economic figures and attract foreign investment, but the impact to the environment and ecosystem is irreversible.

Tags / Keywords: Sarawak , Union Yes , toll , bridge , Murum


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