World Rainforest Movement

The Impact of Dams and Resettlement on Women’s Lives

This article highlights the vulnerability of dam-affected peoples -especially women- being displaced from their homes and lands, and relocated elsewhere. Due to the need to clear forests and divert the river, dams can effectively deprive those in the way of dams of rights to their traditional resources. It highlights some dam-related issues which are apparently shared the world over. But first some examples of on-going and completed dam projects in Malaysia, to show the price tag for ‘development’:

– The controversial Bakun hydro-electric power project across the Balui River in Sarawak, Borneo, cleared 70,000 hectares of tropical rainforest and forcibly resettled nearly 10,000 indigenous people to make way for the reservoir.

– The Sabah State government compulsorily acquired 169.860 hectares (419.732 acres) of land to construct the 70 metres high Babagon Dam and relocated about 200 Kadazandusun people to the Tampasak Resettlement Site in Penampang, Sabah, Borneo.

– The construction of numerous dams in Peninsular Malaysia affected many Orang Asli (First Peoples). For example, the 127 metres high Temenggor dam –which boasts of being the largest human-made lake in the Temenggor-Belum forests of Upper Perak in the north- covered an area of 15,200 hectares, and when constructed in 1979 for power generating facilities it affected about 1,500 Orang Asli. Other dams that displaced Orang Asli include the Linggiu Dam in Johor, the Kenyir Dam in Trengganu, and the Nenggiri Dam in Kelantan. The damming of the Selangor River in 1999 uprooted two Temuan (a subgroup of Proto-Malay Orang Asli) settlements with approximately 339 persons and inundated 600 hectares of land.

Yet dams keep growing, the latest being the proposed Kelau Dam water supply project to transfer water from the east coast (Pahang) to the west (Selangor) probably with Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) financing reported as RM3.8 billion (US$1 billion).

The construction of dams in Malaysia endanger indigenous and rural communities living on ancestral lands and near river ecosystems or forests, as happened around the world, who invariably have to pay a higher price for development. This plot is a story familiar to uprooted peoples who possibly might have some gains, but largely, dams have severely affected the lives, livelihoods, culture, identity and spiritual existence of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, in particular those who have been confronted by forced displacement. In many cases a majority of indigenous peoples do not have land or legal titles, so this makes it even easier for them to lose the right to their traditional resources.

Specifically, dams and resettlement have implications for women in several aspects.

Resettlement undermines the position of indigenous women and their power to exercise control over their lands and resources without official titles or deeds. Although recognised under customary law; these lands have been often excluded from compensation payment. For example, my study in 1998 on the Kadazandusun community in Sabah displaced by the Babagon Dam revealed that 61% females and 65% males had land without official titles or deeds. Of these, women whose lands were acquired for the dam without any due compensation. accounted for 88% while 78% of men were in that situation. While women and men had little recourse to the government’s claims on their untitled lands, the men normally have greater mobility to seek waged work in towns or alternative jobs as compared to women.

Without land, subsistence and forest-dependent families lose an essential resource on which to grow food, which in turn leads to the destruction of their traditional subsistence base and a scarcity of natural resources. When this happens, the burden of finding alternative sources for the scarce resources, such as water, fuel wood, fodder or wild vegetables often falls on the shoulders of women. A young mother displaced by the Selangor Dam from her ancestral village in Gerachi told me in April 2003, “Before we were moved to this resettlement site (Kampung Gerachi Jaya) in 2001, we lived on what we gathered from the forest and rivers. Now, we have to walk further to catch fish or collect edible shoots and petai [Pakia speciosa]. Life is so much harder now.”

Ironically though, hunting trips where women and children often accompany the men are now curtailed due to the distance from the forest so the men now carry out these excursions alone. The impact of ‘modern’ gender roles have impacted on women, so they now stay at home to mind the children or engage themselves in home-based work such as making joss-sticks from bamboo sticks.

Nutritional problems such as poor diet, low growth achievement, underweight, anaemia and diarrhea reflect the poor health of displaced women and children more than men. This is because women are faced with greater obligations and responsibility towards the children and the elderly which are more demanding on their time and energy.

Women and the older generation generally suffer greater stresses in trying to cope with the changes brought about by resettlement, particularly the stress that arises from being uprooted from homes, property and other losses of cultural or religious significance. In mid 2003 I visited Upper Perak where some 1,500 persons mainly from the Jahai sub-ethnic group (Negrito) and a small number from the sub-ethnic Temiar, Semai (Senoi) and Lanoh (Negrito) were resettled in the Pulau Tujuh Resettlement Scheme in the mid-1970s “as a military strategy to isolate the 1,508 Orang Asli villagers from the communist insurgents” (during the Emergency period, 1948-1960, these regions were hotbeds of the communist insurgency). They were resettled again in 1979 to the present site known administratively as the Banun Regroupment Scheme, when the Temenggor Dam being constructed then inundated the site. I found the elderly folks in the scheme constantly reminiscing about the ‘old days with our forests and rivers’.

In sum, dams are tied to poverty at best and destruction of not only the economic base but also the identity, spirituality and cultural traditions of indigenous peoples at worst. Dams and resettlement have harsh consequences for women, hence the call for greater attention to be given to women’s needs to enable them to cope with the changes brought about by resettlement.

By: Carol Yong, e-mail:

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