SPORTING a cowboy hat, checked shirt, heavy duty boots and donning a pair of faded jeans, Kenyah Tony Kulleh, 50, is all brawn and determined to tap the countless opportunities when South-East Asia’s largest hydro dam, the Bakun dam, starts full operations next year.
The ex-teacher and entrepreneur hails from Uma Bakah and is one of the 9,400 indigenous people who were resettled 12 years ago to make way for the construction of the dam.
Under the Bakun Resettlement Scheme, their new homes are located in Sungai Asap, Belaga district, with an undulating valley of some 6,000ha entirely bounded by steep hills, state land and privately-owned oil palm plantations and is accessible by timber roads.
For Tony, he understands only too well that those who can alter their mindset to quickly adapt to the modern life are the ones who will survive and thrive.
Most of the Orang Ulu communities, including the Melanau, practice the stratified social structure, which is still very entrenched also among the Kenyah, Kayan and Kajang tribes.
The not so good
Those who have relocated and in the process “sacrificed” their ancestral land for the sake of the dam did so in the name of progress. They involve many groups - Kayan, Kenyah, Lahanan, Ukit or Bhuket and Penan Talun.
For the well-educated Kayan, Kenyah, Lahanan tribes and their agrarian families, their future at Asap post Bakun may not be as bleak that of the Penan Talun and the Ukit.
In the past 12 years, many of the Kayan, Kenyah and Lahanan have been experimenting with planting cash crops in their three-acre plot; each family was given a plot for farming. Sadly, it had not too long ago dawned on them that the land designated for them is far from suitable for any other cash crop apart from oil palm.
The tireless efforts of having planted pepper, cocoa, dragon fruits, ginger and so on had come to naught, laments a Kayan chief, Saging Bit.
“If oil palm is the crop, then we will plant oil palm. But I prefer to plant pepper,” he says as he complains about the land’s tidy size, infertility and its vulnerability to flash floods. He points out that rubber will be a good alternative crop and he is also looking forward to the proposed fish rearing in the Bakun catchment area.
Saging also points out that most of them have yet to receive their compensation and are not amenable to the contra deal offered by the Government.
In addition, for those involved in the Sungai Asap resettlement long houses, they need to fork out between RM50,000 and RM60,000 for an apartment unit.
“We want our old house cost to be paid and our new house to be given free. This is an issue that will be brought up at every election until it is resolved,” he says.
“The people of Asap need to be motivated to move on. (But) let’s settle this old story first. No use looking back. We must look forward.”
Post-Bakun, many are concerned over the survival of the people of Ukit and the Penan. An assessment report jointly carried out by Sarawak’s Land Development Ministry and Sarawak Aluminium Co in 2008, revealed that the issue needing most urgent attention is the survival of the Penan.
Some 300 Penan and Ukit who were resettled earlier have abandoned their Asap homes to move further up river.
They could not cope with the stress of living in Asap.
The report also concluded that mortality rate was higher in these two groups suggesting enormous stress of living at Asap. The attributing factors were social trauma of resettlement and the inability to meet the cost of living and, in some cases, dispirited by their new life style.
Based on estimates, the cost of living in Asap stands at RM1,375 per month. Unfortunately, most of them, especially the unskilled labourers like Penan and Ukit, earn up to RM700 a month. Some of them don’t even have an income. This is way below the national poverty line.
The report also revealed a massive migration of young adults (aged 20-29) out of Asap, particularly among Lahanan and Ukit, with the exception of Penan.
The persistent migration has led to concerns on the existence of these communities. Already, there are only two Lahanan and one Ukit long houses left in Sarawak.
There are well-meaning suggestions that basic amenities such as water, electricity, water and the house be given free.
And to solve the scarcity of land and its infertility, it has been suggested that the Government give back the 30% ownership of the 27,500ha alienated to private companies in the vicinity of their settlement that is currently planted with oil palm to the people of Asap as was promised before they agreed to move 12 years ago.
It is hoped that the 5000ha owned by Ekran Bhd, which was left abandoned, should also be returned to the Asap people.
The realisation has set in. State environment advisor Datuk Dr James Dawos Mamit concurs that the Government needs to reassess the Sungai Asap resettlement project.
Even so, there are many others, like Tony and Saging, with their “hereditary warriors mindset,” who are taking the bulls by their horns and planting oil palm with a vengeance on any free land they can get their hands on.
Interestingly, the extreme uncertain circumstances of life after Bakun appears to have brought the communities together. The more educated among the Asap people have gathered to set up the Asap Koyan Development Community Committee (AKDC).
State Assemblyman for Belaga Liwan Lagang, a Kayan from Uma Baluy Liko in Asap, is the chairman for this newly-formed body. AKDC hopes to develop a modern and progressive Orang Ulu Regional centre to promote socio-economic growth post-Bakun.