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A local environmental organisation today slammed Sarawak Social Development and Urbanisation Minister James Masing for dismissing complaints from the villagers who are affected by the development of the controversial Bakun dam project.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) said that Masing's response to the complaints highlighted by the Bakun Region People's Committee (BRPC) to Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) last week, displayed "the dismal level of empathy he has for the involuntarily relocated rakyat whose welfare he is supposed to protect".

"In a more accountable environment, an official in the same circumstance would have at least been open enough to promise an investigation into the complaints," SAM president S M Mohamed Idris said in a statement to malaysiakini .

He added that Masing appeared to be oblivious to the reasons as to why the affected residents chose to move upstream Sungai Balui and Sungai Belaga when he claimed that the villagers would not receive any compensation as they were "squatting" on state land.

"SAM believes the root of the problem lies in the failure of the resettlement process to recognise the rights of the affected communities," he said.

Population pressure

He also said that the people's refusal to relocate to Sungai Asap was validated as population pressure and lack of fertile and accessible arable land, river and forest resources, job opportunities and cheap modes of land transport in Sungai Asap have resulted in a deterioration of the quality of life of the resettled families.

Masing, who is also chairman of the Bakun Resettlement Committee (BRC), told reporters on June 6 that the state government would not pay the remaining amount of the due compensation to the displaced villagers so that other groups would not follow in their footsteps.

He also said that joblessness in Sungai Asap was a self-inflicted problem as the natives there "were just being lazy" because job opportunities were abundant in plantations there.

"We would like to remind Masing that the people used to own huge plots of land in their original homes that provided them with both food and a steady income.

"Today, with only three acres of land for each family, they are suddenly expected to be cheap labourers in private plantations and work under unrewarding and under hazardous conditions," said Mohamed Idris.

Inferior materials

He also criticised Masing's statement that the RM52,000 price tag for the houses offered in the resettlement area was not high and that the government had been very kind to the residents by offering them a four percent interest-rate housing loan with a five-year payment deferment period.

Mohamed Idris claimed that the new houses were constructed using inferior building materials with poor workmanship and were smaller in size compared to the residents' old houses.

"However, the real issue voiced by the people is the logic of being forced into a debt of thousands of ringgit as a result of an involuntary scheme.

"We sincerely hope that Masing as chairman of BRC will stop dismissing every complaint from the people in Sungai Asap and start to seek real ways to settle their grievances," he added.

On July 3, the BRPC committee, led by its chairman Bato Bagi, handed over a petition of appeal to the deputy prime minister on the problems faced by the residents in Sungai Asap in the Kapit division.

Among the issues mentioned were compensation for the natives' farms devastated by the dam's construction, problems faced in government-run resettlement areas such as overpriced houses, and the denial of compensation to those who refused to move to the resettlement areas.

They were also unhappy with the size of land given to them and the inconsistent income as well as lack of job opportunities in the new area.

Mammoth project

First proposed by the government in the mid-80s, the Bakun dam was designed to be a power station which will necessitate a catchment area of 1.5 million hectares of primary forest and flooding an area the size of Singapore.

The government has claimed that the dam will spin off job opportunities and tourism in the state but environmentalists have condemned the project for its effects on the environment and the displacement of some 10,000 indigenous people from their homes.

The mammoth project was stalled in 1997 following the regional financial crisis but was revived early this year.