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Borneo's Indigenous Tribes Fight Plans For Dams06:41

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Hundreds of people from the Penan tribe have been blockading the road leading to the Murum Dam site since the end of September. (The Borneo Project)
Hundreds of people from the Penan tribe have been blockading the road leading to the Murum Dam site since the end of September. (The Borneo Project)

You don't hear a lot in the news about Borneo, even though it is the third-largest island in the world. Its land is divided among three countries: Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

It's the Malaysian part of Borneo that has an Oakland, Calif.-based group called The Borneo Project concerned.

The government is planning to build a dozen hydroelectric dams there, which puts some of the world's oldest rainforest at risk, and would displace thousands of indigenous people.

The government says the dams are necessary to power new industry that will bolster the nation's economy and get rid of poverty.

But some indigenous people charge they've already been relocated to land that is not farmable and that the government has reneged on compensation promises.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks to Brihannala Morgan, director of The Borneo Project.

Interview Highlights: Brihannala Morgan

On the government's plans to build 12 dams

"They're saying they want to build these dams because it will lead to more money, it will lead to more development for the island. But what we're seeing there is that that's not actually the case. There's already three dams that have been built, and even with those dams, they're not actually being able to sell the power. And the communities that are living right next to those dams aren't actually getting any of it and are still relying on fuel wood and other forms of traditional power."

On how it would affect Borneo's indigenous communities

"There are over 200 unique indigenous communities that are found in Borneo. They speak mutually unintelligible languages and have incredibly diverse traditions and customs. And most of them live in the middle of the island where these dams are being put in. So right now, we have had over 10,000 that have been displaced from the preexisting dams and the next dam they want to put in is going to displace over 20,000 more indigenous people."

On the government compensation

"They're given a very small amount of money. So what happens is that communities are taken away from their villages where they have access to their traditional livelihoods — so places where they have land that they can farm, they have rivers where they can fish, they have forest where they can hunt — which is pretty much the way that they have been sustining themselves for generations upon generations. What happens is that they're given on average so far it's been about U.S. $3,000 — and they're given a couple of hectares of land, which they are told ostensibly they're going to be able to farm. But what we've found is some of the land communities are given is so rocky that they're just unable to farm it, or it already has palm oil plantations on it, and they're asked to sharecrop the palm oil plantations for larger palm oil companies — none of which leads to long term sustainable livelihoods, let alone an improvement on the quality of life for these communities."

On why we should care 

"I encourage folks to think about the incredible interconnectedness of our planet. The fact that the rainforests of Borneo are a fundamental part of our fight against climate change. I also encourage folks to think about the fundamental human rights issues at stake. Do we want to live in a world where communities are booted off their land, they are forced into poverty, in order to make a source of power that is going to be unsustainable and is going to lead to increased climate change, and also to think about the incredible biodiversity that's going to be lost. There are over 200 different endemic species that are found — just of mammals — in Borneo, including animals that people are really connected to, like the orangutan."


This segment aired on October 21, 2013.