Indigenous peoples take a stand against dams

Indigenous peoples of the Sarawak rainforest protesting with banners against Baram Dam Rainforest dwellers protesting the dam projects Source: SAVE Rivers (© Save Rivers)
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End of campaign: May 22, 2014

In the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo, rainforest dwellers are speaking out against the government’s plans to build twelve mega-dams that would destroy their homes and livelihoods. The indigenous Penan people have occupied several of the building sites. Please voice your opposition to the dams to Swiss multinational ABB.

Call to action

To: Ulrich Spiesshofer, CEO, ABB

ABB must end its business relationship with Sarawak Energy; the human rights of the indigenous peoples must be respected and the rainforest protected.

Read letter

ABB, a Swiss-Swedish engineering group, has been involved in the construction of several dams in the rainforests of Borneo since 2009. Twelve massive hydroelectric plants are planned in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Together, they would submerge more than 1,600 km² of rainforest.

Tens of thousands of residents – above all the Penan, Kenyah and Kayan peoples – are at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods to the mega-dams. In response, they have occupied the building sites and access roads to Murum Dam and the planned Baram Dam. ABB’s Malaysian business partner Sarawak Energy has had to officially halt work on the latter project.

Sarawak Energy is systematically violating the rights of the local people. The situation is especially grave at the Murum dam site – for which ABB is supplying the turbine control systems and other technical components – according to the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), a Swiss NGO dedicated to protecting threatened rainforests and the rights of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak.

The Penan people threatened by Murum Dam are tired of empty promises and disregard for their rights and are taking matters in their own hands. Since September, they have been blocking further work on the nearly completed dam, which would flood 250 km² of rainforest and displace 1,500 indigenous inhabitants. The Penan intend to continue their occupation of the building site until the government and Sarawak Energy respond to their demands for fair compensation.

In late October, Baram residents also set up two blockades of the planned Baram Dam site. Over 200 indigenous people are demanding that Sarawak Energy put an immediate stop to the project and remove its construction equipment.


Please support the people of Borneo and sign the following petition to ABB:


Sarawak Energy and the government have not been open to negotiations to date. Instead, a special police unit was sent to break up the peaceful protests at Murum Dam. The police tried to intimidate the protesters by firing shots into the air while arresting protest leader Ngang Buling.  The Penan have, in turn, filed a complaint against Sarawak Energy.

One year ago, the Penan blocked construction work on the Murum Dam for weeks. Subsequent negotiations with the government and Sarawak Energy failed. On September 21, Sarawak Energy ordered the reservoir to be filled without notifying the Penan.

That was just the latest in a series of outrages: Consultations and the environmental impact assessment were only initiated after the start of construction. The Penang only found out about the conditions of their resettlement a year ago from a leaked copy of the resettlement plan – officially, the document was only released last May, less than a month before the planned start of the resettlement.

Sarawak Energy is listed as a “Major Customer” on the ABB Malaysia website.  ABB Malaysia President and Manager Stephen Pearce can be seen posing with Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s Chief Minister since 1981, on the company’s Facebook page.

In the 1990s, ABB led an international consortium to build the controversial Bakun Dam in Sarawak, but later withdrew from the project. Transparency International named the Bakun Dam, one of the largest dams in Asia, a “monument of corruption”.

Its current cooperation with Sarawak Energy could come back to haunt ABB. Other international companies such as Rio Tinto, Norsk Hydro and Hydro Tasmania have withdrawn from Sarawak after a thorough review of the human rights situation, economic feasibility and the reputational risks involved.

In August, the Swiss Bruno Manser Fund asked ABB in a letter to clarify its involvement and its position regarding the human rights situation in Sarawak. ABB chose to remain silent and did not respond to the concerns raised.

The Bruno Manser Fund, which is committed to maintaining threatened rainforests and campaigning for the rights of the peoples who inhabit them, is calling on ABB to withdraw from all dam-related activities in Sarawak. The organization is active in Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo, where its founder, the Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser, lived for several years with the nomadic Penan people until his disappearance in 2000.

For more information, please visit the Bruno Manser Fund website:
ABB urged to withdraw from controversial Malaysian dam projects


To: Ulrich Spiesshofer, CEO, ABB

Dear Mr. Spiesshofer,

I am extremely concerned about ABB’s business relationship with Sarawak Energy.

The Malaysian company is systematically violating the human rights of the indigenous population and contributing to the destruction of Sarawak’s unique rainforests with its project to build twelve new dams. By cooperating with Sarawak Energy, ABB is making itself an accessory to these acts.

I urge you as the CEO of ABB to withdraw immediately from your business activities with Sarawak Energy and to work actively to preserve the rainforest and improve the human rights situation of those affected by the Murum Dam in Sarawak.