The video opens in an Orang Asli community: a teenage girl carries a baby up a ladder into a house; a woman tends a cooking fire; two babies reach out and touch one another. A man plays a flute in the background to introduce a peaceful, bucolic village.
Last Wednesday, the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) uploaded to Google Video a 32 minute film about the proposed Kelau Dam project and its effects on nearby Orang Asli villages. It is more detailed and effective than their much shorter video from January 2007 on the same issue.
The narrator, a soft-spoken woman, tells us that a small Chewong village has existed for generations in the upper reaches of the Kelau River, in the Krau Wildlife Reserve, Pahang State, Malaysia. Because of the proposed construction of a dam on the Kelau River, the people in two Orang Asli communities, a Temuan village fairly near the high-water line and the Chewong village higher up on a ridge, will both be required to move.
The idea for the project, hatched by Malaysian and Japanese consultants in the 1990s, was to transfer some of the abundant water from Pahang southwest to Selangor State, where the national capital, Kuala Lumpur, is located. The project would require a dam on the Kelau to regulate water flow in the river, not to directly divert it. Eleven km downstream from the dam, a 44 km transfer pipe would take the water down to the populous valley.
The people in the villages are opposed to the resettlement because other Orang Asli communities that have been forced to relocate have lost their emotional and cultural integrity—more so than people who have fought and won the right to remain on their traditional lands.
The video becomes quietly assertive in tone, as it slowly builds its case. Authorities are only looking at water supply, not at the possibility of reducing the demand. Water in Selangor State is wasted: 39 percent of it is lost to leaking pipes. Fixing the problem of wasted water would be far more sensible than building more dams and infrastructure. Also, there are other possible sources of water which would be more accessible, such as nearby rivers or the State of Perak to the north.
Each section of the video begins with stunning scenery, frisking wildlife, or charming folks doing the things people do in tranquil villages. The scenery shots often continue while the quiet female narrator develops the COAC arguments. The Kelau Dam project will drown 4090 ha. of forested and agricultural land. Damage to the ecosystem, especially the pristine Lakum Forest, will be irreversible.
COAC argues that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), required under Malaysian law, was seriously flawed and is therefore illegal. Twenty seven Orang Asli individuals have filed a civil suit against the government to stop the project. In his best lawyerly tones, Kamarul Hisham, legal counsel for the Orang Asli, tells the camera, “In approving a project that does not comply with the law, the government has not undertaken its duty to protect the Orang Asli because the direct consequence of approving this project is the removal of the Orang Asli from their ancestral land.” Wonderful footage of Orang Asli children interrupts, but the video switches back to more suits talking about the legal validity and serious errors of the EIA.
The video shows the Chewong, interviewed by the film crew, unanimously refusing to be resettled. At a formal hearing, however, government people manipulate the facts. An official from the Department of Orang Asli Affairs testifies, “Mr. Chairman, it is true that we have included the Chewong because we view the resettlement package as the best package for them.”
When he is challenged—that the Chewong would never agree to move—the government representative replies, “and we discussed with them and they are willing to join.” Further challenged about the veracity of his information, the chairman of the meeting forcefully concludes, “we cannot amend the decisions of the government in this meeting because the decision has been agreed and recorded by the Department of Orang Asli Affairs.”
In fact, according to the video, no government officials at any level have ever visited the Chewong village to solicit their views. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), the primary funding source for the project, is aware of the situation but has decided to support the government positions against the Chewong people.
The basic fact is that the Chewong village, like the Temuan, does not need to be moved—the people do not need to be resettled. The project will not flood their lands. The height of the dam has now been reduced, so even the Temuan community is 16 meters above what is called the “danger level” of the proposed reservoir. The Chewong village is high above that. Since their communities will not be flooded, why are the Orang Asli threatened?
The answer is that the Orang Asli lands will become lakefront property after the dam is constructed—too valuable to allow it to remain in the possession of the Temuan and the Chewong. The Sultan of Selangor built an expensive lakefront lodge above another reservoir. The argument made by the government that the Temuan and Chewong villages need to be resettled for their own safety is simply not valid.
The film closes with continuing Orang Asli music, scenery and people footage, and the narrator providing a good summary of the arguments. “It is disturbing to note that in the pursuit of such a mega-project the rights and interests of the Orang Asli are being ignored and treated in a shoddy manner,” she concludes.
“This area is for us Orang Asli,” a voice says over a view of fields, forested hills, and peaceful people interacting quietly in their village.
Center for Orang Asli Concerns. 2008. “ Drowned Forests and Damned Lives: The Orang Asli and the Kelau Dam Project in Malaysia” (32 minute video). Released to the Web on April 9, 2008.