The Malaysian dam case

April 12, 2012

On Chinadialogue, Kirk Herbertson of International Rivers describes the 12 ongoing dam projects by Chinese companies in the Malaysian state of Sarawak as a “time bomb of local opposition and a public relations disaster waiting to happen.”

Since the shutdown of the Myitsone dam project in Burma, Chinese media have been abuzz with talk about better political risk assessment for megaprojects abroad. Herbertson cleverly ties in with this by blaming not the Chinese companies for ignoring local livelihoods etcetera, but the Sarawak state government for misinforming them on the risks — both business risks, as power generation in Sarawak may not be as lucrative as expected, and what political risks — he does not call them that, but the Chinese press would — of indigenous litigation. “According to Mark Bujang, head of the Borneo Resources Institute of Malaysia, there are 327 ongoing court cases related to native customary land issues.”

Malaysia is a complex sem-authoritarian semi-democracy, with competing political establishments and with an increasing recognition of  “native title.” So in case “indigenous groups” indeed sue a Chinese company, it will be somewhere in between places like Burma or Cambodia, where local groups can only pursue their interests via global coalitions with foreign partners, and Canada or Australia, where “First Nations”  and land councils are demanding to negotiate with  “the Chinese”  directly. In Ecuador (see News, 16 March) or Peru, where Indian groups are demanding that Chinese gold miners negotiate access rights with the “community,” the situation is similar to Canada or Australia but enforcement is less strict.