Malaysian state scales back Borneo dam plans

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A Malaysian state minister Friday said the government would not push ahead with building a dozen new dams on Borneo island, acknowledging they have caused outrage from local tribes and environmentalists.

The proposals sparked fears that the dams would destroy pristine rainforests, endanger wildlife, and displace natives in Sarawak, a Malaysian state crossed by powerful rivers with rich jungle habitats.

"It is not a firm plan to build 12 dams. I don't think we will need that. We will only need four," James Masing, Sarawak's state minister of land development, told AFP in an interview.

Masing said the government was backing off in response to widespread criticism. Protests over the years have seen activists and locals staging blockades of roads into dam areas.

"I'm pleased that this type of thing (protests) takes place. Not all that we do is correct, and this shows we need to refine our plans and think again," he said.

The now-complete Bakun mega-dam, which is not part of the new dam proposal, has already been dogged for years by claims of corruption in construction contracts, the flooding of a huge swathe of rainforest and the displacement of thousands of tribespeople.

Despite that, the government mooted constructing more dams as part of an industrial development drive to boost the resource-rich state's backward economy.

Another dam at Murum, also deep in the interior, is nearing completion and two others are in the planning stages as part of the new proposal.

Together the four dams -- at Bakun, Murum, Baleh and Baram -- are already expected to put out nearly 6,000 megawatts of power, six times what Sarawak currently uses, Masing said.

"The protests are becoming more vocal on the ground so (the dam rethink) is a very good development for me," said Peter Kallang, member of a Sarawak tribe and chairman of SAVE Rivers, an NGO that has campaigned against the dams.

However, he said plans for the Baram and Baleh dams should be scrapped as well, noting that the Baram dam would displace about 20,000 people, compared to about 10,000 at Bakun, and destroy irreplaceable forest.

He said SAVE Rivers last month organised a floating protest along the Baram river that cruised down river for three days and was met with support along the way by local tribespeople.

Kallang and other activists have also travelled abroad to lobby against the dams, including meeting officials of Hydro Tasmania, an Australian corporation that advises the Sarawak government on the dams.

The Tasmania government corporation pledged in December after meeting the activists that it would pull its personnel out of Sarawak by the end of 2013, Kallang said.

Sarawak's tribes -- ethnically distinct from Malaysia's majority Malays -- fear that they will lose their ancestral lands and hunting and burial grounds, as the government encourages them to make way for projects and move into new settlements.

Those are equipped with medical clinics, electricity, and Internet access. But village elders and activists say alcoholism, drug use, and crime are on the increase and anger is rising over continuing encroachment on native lands.

In one of the blockades in 2011, Penan tribespeople blocked roads into their lands for a week to protest logging and alleged river pollution by Malaysian firm Interhill until the blockade was dismantled by authorities.

The Swiss-based jungle-protection group Bruno Manser Fund says about 90 percent of Sarawak's rainforests have been damaged as the state government has opened up virgin forest to loggers and palm-oil plantations.

Critics also allege chief minister Taib Mahmud, who has ruled Sarawak since 1981, has enriched himself and his family through corrupt timber and other dealings, and have called the dams white elephants.

Taib has dismissed the corruption allegations.

Critics of Taib accuse the federal government of failing to act against him because his tight control of Sarawak has kept it a vital ruling coalition stronghold.

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