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Dams and logging in Sarawak: Can REDD stop the destruction?

In 2011, the 2,400 MW Bakun dam started operations in Sarawak, Malaysia. Transparency International described the US$2.2 billion project as a “monument to corruption”. The reservoir behind the dam flooded 70,000 hectares of forest. About 10,000 Indigenous People were forced into new houses that they had to pay for themselves.

The Sarawak government plans to build 12 more dams by 2020. The impact on the people, forests and rivers of Sarawak will inevitably be severe. However, others are firmly in favour of more dams, among them Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud. Taib has been in power for more than three decades and during that period he has become a multi-billionaire.

Last year, Sarawak Report spoke to one of Taib’s key business partners, who described Taib’s Ten Income Streams. The logging and palm oil industries provided many of the income streams. He demands money for issuing timber licences:

Cronies who deal with the Chief Minister are instructed to pay their bribes and kickbacks into foreign bank accounts outside of Sarawak, often in Hong Kong or Singapore in the early days.

Another source of income is through Federal Government and State contracts. Nearly all government projects in Sarawak are constructed by Taib family companies. The Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission is currently investigating Taib and his fortune.

Hamed Sepawi is the Chairman of Sarawak Energy Berhad, Sarawak’s dam-crazed electricity utility, is Taib’s cousin and business crony. In addition to the Bakun Dam, Sarawak Energy is looking forward to profiting from the hydropower boom in Sarawak. Hamed Sepawi also just happens to be chairman and owner of Ta Ann, one of the largest logging companies in Sarawak. The company has logging concessions covering a total area of 362,439 hectares and plantation licences covering 313,078 hectares.

Both Sarawak Energy and Ta Ann have Australian connections. Hydro Tasmania, owned by the Government of Tasmania, is involved in the Bakun dam and other dams in Sarawak, through its consulting arm, Entura. In 2008, Ta Ann signed a deal with Tasmania to log large areas of Tasmania’s forests, including areas that were supposed to be protected. Ta Ann’s logging operations are notorious in both Sarawak and Tasmania.

This week, Dateline, an Australian current affairs TV programme, broadcast an investigation into the impacts of the Bakun Dam and Ta Ann’s logging:

Later in the week, Roy Adair, the CEO of Hydro Tasmania provoked ridicule on ABC radio by admitting that Hydro Tasmania undertook practically no due diligence before working with Sarawak Energy Berhad, the company leading Sarawak’s dam building charge. In fact, the only check that Hydro Tasmania appears to have undertaken was to check “that SEB is a member of the International Hydropower Association and following the International Hydropower Association protocol on sustainable development.”

Only two problems there. First, membership of the International Hydropower Association is available to anyone who hands over £1,000. Second, Entura started working with Sarawak Energy in 2008, but Sarawak Energy only joined the IHA in 2010.

Most proponents of REDD would probably agree that forest destruction, abuse of indigenous peoples’ rights and corruption are serious problems. All are currently rampant in Sarawak. REDD-Monitor has a question for REDD proponents: What part of the REDD mechanism can possibly address the problems underlying the destruction of Sarawak’s forests?

This is not to suggest that business as usual is an acceptable option. Or that the NGOs and journalists who have been documenting and exposing what’s happening in Sarawak can miraculously stop the destruction. Or that the indigenous peoples who have blockaded roads against loggers and who continue to protest against dam construction will suddenly gain the right to say no to the “development” that profits others but demolishes their livelihoods and culture.

A search for the word “development” on the Chief Minister of Sarawak’s website, which includes Taib’s speeches and press releases, returns 100 hundred results. The word “deforestation” is not mentioned once. Neither is “REDD”.

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  1. Twenty four years ago many others and myself were concerned for the indigenes of Borneo, just after the time of the 82/83 El Nino, and at the same time in central north Borneo in Malaysian Sarawak; the state at that time where rampant deforestation was occurring only because “free” forest existed…..Natural or Body Corpus which is the most sensitive forests in the world and the most expensive if carbon was truly valued at E500 c/tonne!

    Because of the hunter gatherer gun totting Taib and his cronies “own” the free forest he is able to do any form of land exploitation from the results of massive deforestation because it is not valued as a proper resource as given above. How do you think that Palm Oil and such dams are being financed, both directly and indirectly???? From free forest and its deforestation. Everything and everyone…the local communities of the Social Capital of the forest is the second link in this debacle, is being extirpated in the same direct manner!

    This is fundamental to this situation. Please wake up and broadcast this information globally by any means from Facebook and Word of Mouth – but for the Love of God broadcast this….

    Yours…as given…

  2. Hi Chris,

    One way that this could be addressed, using Verified Carbon Standards (VCS) certication, on the voluntary carbon market, is through applying the Avoided Planned Deforestation (APD) methodology (

    This way, the amount of forest that would be destroyed in the baseline (with-dam) case would become credited forest conservation. There is a precedent for this, which is a validated APD REDD project developed by Cikel in Brazil. To me, the additionality (conservation that wouldn’t otherwise have happened) of this type of project seems very robust.

    The way the land tenure issues would actually be sorted out is another question, however if 10,000 indigenous people were evicted and they possess land rights, a project with their participation/ consent would be in everybody’s interest, except Sarawak Energy Berhad and Hydro Tasmania.

  3. @David S (#2) – Let’s assume for a moment that you’re right. Now all we have to do is persuade Abdul Taib Mahmud that he can syphon off just as much cash from an Avoided Planned Deforestation project as he can from building 12 dams. Should be a cinch.