Friday, January 08, 2010

Dams for the future, damn the past

MNS has lost her fangs!!!! Is this what becoming of our MNS now? I hope the president speaks for himself, and not me (as MNS member).

"It must have been galling for SAM when another NGO, Malaysian Nature Society's president, waded in to condemn the credibility of certain green groups, similar to SAM".


Monday, 04 January 2010
Mariam Mokhtar

WHEN I first flew over Sarawak, about two decades ago, the tree-tops, from above, looked like a carpet of tempting green broccoli.

Today, the landscape resembles a scarred battleground. Deep troughs, gouged out of the land, expose red-orange soil. Logging activities scatter trees like ten-pins. Green land masses stretching to the horizon, display spiral patterns from the regimented planting of only one type of tree. Oil palm has displaced the native species.

Back then, the bus journey from Miri to Batu Niah, was an exciting bumpy ride with occasional hair-raising bends, steep gradients or deep ravines on either side of the road. Our travelling companions were the people and their livestock, living along the route.

Today, the pan-Borneo highway is a major artery and channels development into the countryside. Nevertheless, there are reports that this major road is a dirt track in places. Bad lighting, terrible communication systems and highway robberies are common. So much for development!

My first visit to a longhouse then, was a two-hour trek along a belian walkway. We gathered ferns and fresh-water snails, en-route for dinner. Food, from nature’s bounty, was plentiful.

Our arrival was greeted with much gaiety. When my host presented me with a chicken to slaughter, I didn’t know which was more petrified – the squawking chicken or me, with the knife that was placed in my hands. I was touched by the Ibans’ kind gestures and concern over my religious dietary obligations.

Today, the reality is depressing

The following morning, we washed in the clear, fast flowing river. The water was teeming with life, and later, we feasted on fish and fruits, harvested from the river-bank. We hurried quietly but respectfully past sacred burial grounds before checking the ripening golden crop in the nearby padi fields.

Today, the reality is depressing.

Various indigenous people report that some river waters are murky - the colour of milo. Children break out in a rash after playing in the water. It is also alleged that logging companies tear down their prized fruit trees. Others have claimed that padi-growing areas are ear-marked for buildings, large-scale agriculture or industry. Hunting has become increasingly difficult. With their habitat fragmented and little to feed on, deer, wild boar, bear and squirrels migrate to other distant territories or perish altogether.

But the latest revelation by James Masing, the Rural Development Minister, is as welcome as the tolling of a death-knell.

Bakun hasn’t even got off the ground, yet a further twelve mega-dams have been proposed.

And, as if acting in concert, the director of the Registrar of Societies (ROS) has threatened Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) with deregistration.

This must be pure fantasy. No formal complaint has been made against SAM. Nor has it failed to submit its annual report, which we are told is a common cause for deregistration.

It must have been galling for SAM when another NGO, Malaysian Nature Society's president, waded in to condemn the credibility of certain green groups, similar to SAM.

He is correct to state that NGOs like Greenpeace and Oxfam have been criticised in the west. Nevertheless, he must appreciate that NGOs play a vital role here, by creating awareness, engaging public support and collecting voluntary contributions. They also sometimes assist the government in delivering goods and services to needy areas.

The methods used by different NGOs vary. Some act as lobbyists or conduct programs and activities. Others provide skills and equipment. Or they investigate and document human rights violations and provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses. A few offer specialised technical products and services to support existing projects.

Respect those who help others

It is well documented that sections of our community lack the means and methods to request and obtain aid. Some have difficulty highlighting issues about religion, health, environmental or humanitarian needs.

Thus SAM, like the other NGOs in Malaysia, is only acting on behalf of beleaguered communities. They provide the mouthpiece and they are the link between the aggrieved party, the government, the companies involved and the wider world.

Consequently, involvement in activities against commercial logging, plantation development and dam construction, is unavoidable.

Maybe it is this unwelcome assistance to people who would otherwise be helpless, that irks the Sarawak government and its ‘pseudo-agent’, ROS.

Ironically, the arm-twisting actions of ROS may backfire.

Subtle threats against SAM will only give greater coverage, wider worldwide publicity and increasing respect for the people who are exercising their rights.

ROS may have shown an unwelcome stroke of spiteful cunning, with a director who has demeaned his office with his remarks. This intimidation might even galvanise the indigenous people and unite the various NGOs.

So, how else can the indigenous people of Sarawak highlight their issues? Via politicians who magically reappear only before election time? Or politicians who will jeopardise their own self-interests when they address the problem? Or politicians who pussyfoot around the issues?

The people experience enough difficulty raising funds to reach the nearest hospital for medical aid, never mind the extra expense organising petitions to parliament or Putrajaya.

So, SAM has alerted us to the forced relocation, the pitiful compensation if any, and the ghastly goings-on that were once shielded from us, the blissfully ignorant Malaysian public.

SAM deals with people at the ground level. In doing so, it may have inadvertently exposed, the true extent of exploitation.

It is this revelation and the potential of further embarrassments that annoy the state and federal governments, ROS and the companies that are implicit in this terrible injustice.

Malaysians may be shocked by the sheer greed and dishonesty of the individuals and companies involved. But what is unpalatable is when ROS acts as a bully for the state.

Need to reconnect with ‘real’ people

Thus, it is disturbing when James Masing claims that these dams are the ‘masterplan’ to change the people for the better.
Politicians like him need to reconnect with ‘real’ people, who have ‘real’ concerns about their future. He cannot treat the indigenous people like the metal counters and title deeds of the Monopoly board game - to be moved around at the toss of a dice.

The people are demoralised and are sick of promises for change. Modernity has robbed them of their culture, traditions, history and heritage.

They want stability. They feel threatened by progress which leaves their elderly, vulnerable; their youth, disillusioned. They see benefits going to the fat-cats in government and industry. They watch in horror when their homes, ancestral lands, burial sites and livelihood are wrecked.

We shouldn’t expect James Masing and the other senior politicians to admit their damning role in the plight of the displaced people. Nor should we expect the companies to forego their commercial gains either.

How will we stop people living in fear (of their future), and restore their faith in governance?

Ironically, James Masing tried to placate the people with “we are not there to destroy them”. Sadly, his comments reeked of hypocrisy.

MARIAM MOKHTAR has a passion for people, places and plain speaking. Don't suffer fools gladly.

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