Sungai Korbu mini hydroelectric dam, Perak (Ashley Yeong)

Perak Dams Threaten Stone Spirits and Ancestral Graves

A series of small dams that is part of Perak’s green transition is making Orang Asli communities go up in arms.

IT IS A bumpy truck ride along the winding path up Gunung Korbu in Perak. Forty minutes in, a concrete structure stands 5 m, or nearly 2 floors, tall. This structure is a mini hydroelectric dam, tasked to generate 7 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy for the electricity grid.    

This is one of the mini hydroelectric dams to be built throughout the state. While helping to meet the state’s renewable energy commitments, they appear to be in increasing conflict with Orang Asli communities.

(Feature photo: Renewable energy is generated by the Sungai Korbu mini hydro dam, but for whom and at what cost? | Image: Ashley Yeong)

This particular dam in Perak’s highest mountain is taking in water from Sungai Korbu, which springs from the lush forested headwaters. Here at the dammed site at Jalong Tinggi, the riverbed comprises boulders and rocks of all shapes and sizes.

Villager Mat Seri bin Pandak stands on the banks 100 m away from the dam wall and points to a boulder in the middle of the river that is peeking out of the water.

Kalau kita suruh nama dia, dia boleh memberi rezeki ataupun menahan bahaya-bahaya macam bencana alam (If we call their name, they can provide blessings or ward off dangers like natural disasters),” says Mat Seri, a Temiar Orang Asli who lives downriver of the dam.

The sacred rocks hold spiritual and historical meaning for the Jalong Tinggi Orang Asli. (Ashley Yeong)
The sacred rocks hold spiritual and historical meaning for the Jalong Tinggi Orang Asli. (Ashley Yeong)

Long before Sungai Korbu’s flowing waters spinned turbines to power machines, the river and its rocks have held a deep, spiritual significance for the Orang Asli.

A massive flood hit the area generations ago, locals say. Mat Seri’s ancestors then made a sacrificial offering, hoping to halt the destructive force. The flood stopped.

The sanctity of these rocks continues to be revered, says Mat Seri. Every time the villagers want to ask for something, they would go there to have their wishes granted.

He says that there is more than one sacred rock in Sungai Korbu. “Batu ini dia punya cucu, ini dia punya atok, yang sana isteri dia, dan sini semua anak buah-anak buah dia (This rock here is his grandchild, here he has his uncle, over there his wife, and here are his children).”

Signposting sanctity

On the riverbank, the villagers have installed a signboard recognising these rocks as integral to the spirituality of Jalong Tinggi. The sign also warns against trespassing in this sacred site.

The sign was erected in 2022, after the dam was built right next to the rocks. At least the dam did not destroy the sacred site, Mat Seri acknowledges. But the sign serves as a warning against the project extending further along the river.

Work on the dam is still being done, with trucks going in and out. The villagers are keeping a close eye on the work.

Mat Seri shows the sign indicating the importance of the rocks and warning off trespassers. (Ashley Yeong)
Mat Seri shows the sign indicating the importance of the rocks and warning off trespassers. (Ashley Yeong)

At first, care was taken in constructing the dam. Mat Seri says contractors initially traveled through a back road, cutting through the forests. But they slowly shifted to using the main roads used by the villagers, leading to road accidents involving contractors and villagers.

The villagers were also fooled by the name of the project. For a mini hydroelectric dam, it is bigger than expected. 

The dam is already in place, and it would not be practical to dismantle it. But Mat Seri has taken this as a lesson to warn other Orang Asli communities of such projects’ impacts on traditional lands and sites.

Perak’s dam plans

Perak’s abundance of rivers have led to the expansion of mini hydro projects which in turn will contribute to national goals for renewable energy. Malaysia’s target is for 31% of its energy generated by renewables by 2025.

Perak Hydro Renewable Energy Corporation (PHREC) – a private company – was given the exclusive right to be the master developer with the Perak state government for 31 mini hydro sites.

The dams aim to cumulatively generate about 240 MW of energy. That is enough to power roughly 200,000 households. Out of these sites, 10 are currently active.

Despite the electricity generated, the local villages, already equipped with power sources, do not directly benefit from these dams.

In fact, because the dams are often located in  Orang Asli traditional lands, these communities are adversely impacted, says Piarapakaran Subramaniam, president of the Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (AWER).

This is the contradictory nature of hydropower, says Piarapakaran. While hydropower is renewable and can provide a stable electricity supply, it “involves deforestation before impounding a dam.

“Deforestation takes away the livelihood of Orang Asli and in some cases, [they are] being resettled […] in housing far away from their basic economic activities.”

Higher chance of floods

He adds that communities residing close to rivers midstream and downstream face increased risk of flooding.

“There must be a risk analysis for those living downstream of the dam, with [an] emergency response plan developed.”

Mat Seri echoes these concerns. He claims that contractors used explosives at the dammed site, causing tremors. He worries that in the event of a flood or landslide, debris from the site could be carried downstream where residents live.

Macaranga contacted PHREC’s parent company Gunung Capital, and the Perak state government, but we have not received answers to our questions.

Mini hydros like the Sungai Korbu dam are built in remote forested areas, often on land claimed as traditional Orang Asli territories. (Ashley Yeong)
Mini hydros like the Sungai Korbu dam are built in remote forested areas, often on land claimed as traditional Orang Asli territories. (Ashley Yeong)
Going up against giants

In his village, Mat Seri is considered the most outspoken critic of the mini hydro dam and its developer. He claims that the project lacks transparency and has caused his villagers anxiety.

He went as far as holding a press conference, delivering a letter to the Perak state office, and meeting the state’s Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Saarani Mohamad during a town hall in Ipoh last October.

Knowing that the dam cannot be undone, he only wants the state government to look into the safety issue before something happens.

Raising awareness

He is also on a quest to spread the word about the dangers these mini hydros posed to neighbouring villagers. One such village is Kampung Mangyes in Pos Legap, situated approximately 18 km north across the mountains.

Travelling along the winding roads to reach Kampung Mangyes, the scenery alternated between enchanting mist-covered mountains and barren land cleared for plantations.

When Mat Seri arrived at Kampung Mangyes, he joined the other men of the village and convened at the home of the village head, Alang Bin Pandak. They began discussing their plan of action for the other hydro projects sprouting in neighboring indigenous areas within the state.

After over an hour of Mat Seri explaining the situation at Jalong Tinggi, Alang – who had kept silent most of the time said: “We’re not sure if we want to fight. We’re not sure if we can fight [the developers].”

This uncertainty is a common sentiment among many indigenous communities, says Mat Seri. But more and more indigenous leaders are voicing out.

In fact, in the south, the Ulu Geruntum community is suing proponents of a mini hydro project for encroaching on their traditional lands.

The lawsuit names two of the same proponents of the Sungai Korbu dam: the Perak government and PHREC, as well as the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) director-general, the Perak lands and mines department, the federal government and another private company – Conso Hydro RE Sdn Bhd. Ulu Geruntum is in Gopeng, 50 km south of Jalong Tinggi.

In 2018, PHREC and Conso Hydro RE started building a mini hydro dam near the community’s river, Sungai Geruntum. Villagers in Ulu Geruntum claim that the project had bulldozed fruit plantations and over 50 ancestral burial sites without their permission.

Taking action

Semai villager Wah Sona says the villagers needed to do something, so they set up barricades and tried to stop the machinery.

That did not work, so they filed a lawsuit in 2018, aiming to be declared as the rightful owners of their ancestral land in Ulu Geruntum. They want the court to confirm that the defendants are not allowed to harm or erase their land rights.

“It was frightening to even hear the noise of the chainsaws they used,” recalls Wah Sona, reflecting on the moments when they confronted the contractors. “But we must stand firm and protect our dignity.”

Leadership matters

“[The indigenous people] have to be strong. Outsiders wanting to help and fight for us don’t matter if we are not fighting for ourselves,” she emphasises.

She adds that because of Covid-19, the construction of the dam was delayed. In September, the federal court granted a temporary halt to the construction. But they have not made a final decision, and the impact of the dam on the Ulu Geruntum community remains uncertain.

Local communities are empowered if they can manage their own energy systems: TONIBUNG conducts such training for micro hydro systems (pic courtesy TONIBUNG)
Local communities are empowered if they can manage their own energy systems: TONIBUNG conducts such training for micro hydro systems (pic courtesy TONIBUNG)

Adrian Banie Lasimbang, who was involved in Ulu Geruntum’s court case, says renewable energy projects that are situated on or near lands inhabited by indigenous people frequently lack sufficient inclusion and consultation with these communities.

Many of the indigenous communities support clean energy projects, but are not given enough stakes in the development, he says.

“Most of the developers don’t respect Orang Asli rights. They just take the land, build the systems and the Orang Asli don’t get anything from the whole venture,” says Lasimbang, who runs TONIBUNG, an indigenous-lead non-profit group in Sabah focused on renewable energy solutions.

TONIBUNG uses on-site workshops and classrooms to empower communities in renewable energy.

An equitable energy transition

“This is the Orang Asli’s territory. They should also be a stakeholder or have some equity in this development.”

However, Mat Seri says PHREC’s approach lacks that engagement with the community.

When the idea of the mini hydro project was introduced to the villagers in Jalong Tinggi, villagers were excited because it promised job opportunities to construct the dam. Some villagers secured jobs, but disappointment soon followed as they were removed from the project.

The Sungai Korbu mini hydro project hired Orang Asli to work on the construction inititally but then fired them, say workers. (Ashley Yeong)
The Sungai Korbu mini hydro project hired Orang Asli to work on the construction inititally but then fired them, say workers. (Ashley Yeong)

“When the project started, a few villagers were actually working there. But later we got kicked off the project without explanation,” a villager who introduced himself only as Encik Mohamad shared of his experience. “I worked not even for a month. They did not even give us the money we earned.”

Lasimbang says that it was the modus operandi for many of these companies to hire a few locals at the beginning of the project, then fire them “due to language barriers”.

“It’s a very worrying trend because they are just using this as a gimmick to create jobs for locals but that’s actually not the case,” he says. He is also helping the Ulu Geruntum villagers in their court case.

Real benefits

He says that while it is great that the government is moving from dirty coal and fossil fuels to cleaner sources, they need to adopt a process that is transparent and beneficial to the indigenous communities.

“A lot of the times, communities only know about the existence of companies prospecting in the area after they see machineries coming in,” he says. “[Even in pursuing] the green economy, it seems like the companies involved are still doing their business the same way – a lot of corruption, lack of transparency, no consultation and little regards to people or rights.

“What sort of transition is this? We’re supposed to be transitioning to a more sustainable practice, but what we see is like opening a new bottle but getting old wine.”

Addressing this challenge involves comprehensive changes in both policy and practice.

According to Piarapakaran, the government should prioritise practical solutions like decreasing energy consumption and enhancing energy efficiency rather than building mini hydros.

“When the government wants to invest into more environmentally friendly technologies which costs more in capital expenditure, it will not make economic sense as the consumption is still not efficient,” he says.

He says reducing consumption would mean less need to generate more electricity.

A brighter future

Back at the mini hydro dam site in Jalong Tinggi, a light drizzle began, enveloping the surroundings in a quiet murmur. Mat Seri geared up to call it a day.

For the Orang Asli, rain is more than a natural weather event. It is viewed as a blessing and an invitation to celebrate, he says. He sees this drizzle as a sign that things will start to look up for his community.

“We have been here for thousands of years. I want to see a future where the Orang Asli will no longer be sidelined.”

 

[Edited by SL Wong]

This story is part of Macaranga’s newsroom mentorship programme on just energy transition and is supported by Macaranga and Klima Action Malaysia.

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One thought on “Perak Dams Threaten Stone Spirits and Ancestral Graves”

  1. Here is the story of the sacred rocks as told by Temiar villager Mat Seri bin Pandak to Shazni Bhai of NGO KUASA:

    “Batu-batuan di situ, yang dipanggil sebagai Batu Bog Kuak, suatu ketika dahulu adalah leluhur Encik Mat Seri serta orang Temiar setempat. Moyang mereka pernah berdoa agar cucu cicit generasi mendatang akan selamat daripada sebarang malapetaka.

    “Hatta diminta dalam pesanannya supaya sentiasa mengingatinya dan menyeru namanya. Akhirnya beliau menjadi batuan dan isteri, cucu, anak anaknya ikut bersemayam di Sungai Kuak.

    “Pernah sekali dilanda bah besar yang amat dahsyat sekali namun perkampungan di situ terselamat dek keberadaan batu batuan itu yang merintangi kekuasaan banjir. Hingga kini, batu batuan itu dipercayai ada ruai atau semangat/roh padanya.”

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