In an unusual bid to stop a series of dams that will flood their rainforest home, a group of tribesmen in Borneo are urging King Harald V of Norway to call one of his subjects home.
The subject is Torstein Dale Sjøtveit, a Norwegian citizen who is the CEO of Sarawak Energy, the Malaysian firm that is building several dams in the state of Sarawak. The hydroelectric projects are controversial because they require the forced displacement of indigenous communities and will flood large tracts of rainforest. Furthermore there is currently little demand for the electricity that will be generated, raising suspicions that the primary purpose of the projects is to generate lucrative contracts for politically well-connected firms.
The Sarawak state government says the dams will attract heavy industry to the region, generating jobs. But many indigenous Penan are opposed to the projects, which they say will destroy their traditional way of life as well as their forest home. Accordingly, the Penan are putting up significant resistance in the form of protests, road blocks, and court cases. Now, in a letter signed by the heads of eight villages and over 600 tribesmen from Sarawak’s Baram region, they have appealed to Norway’s King Harald V.
“If Mr. Sjøtveit wishes to build hydro-dams, let him do it in Norway, or wherever he is welcome. But he has no right to come from Norway to Sarawak and destroy our lives and our rainforests”, states the letter, which goes on to link Sjøtveit to the “corrupt” state government controlled by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.
“Sarawak Energy is owned by the state of Sarawak but without Mr. Sjøtveit’s knowledge, our corrupt state government would not be able to build the dams that are set to destroy our forests, our livelihoods and our communities.”
According to the Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO that advocates on behalf of Sarawak’s forest people, “Taib Mahmud’s family businesses have received several contracts linked to the state’s dam plans.” Independent investigations suggest that Taib and his close family members have acquired billions of dollars in assets during his more than thirty years as head of Sarawak. The wealth has been primarily derived from interests in Sarawak forestry sector.
The decision to target King Harald V is significant because while his role in the government is largely ceremonial, Norway is one of the largest patrons of tropical forest conservation.