Ulu Papar community opposes proposed Kaiduan dam project in Sabah

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The Ulu Papar community has rallied against the proposed Kaiduan dam - Photograph: Save Ulu Papar Facebook page

While there is a need to secure future water supply, there are more cost-effective and sustainable alternatives that the government should consider, writes Bellinda Debra Raymond.

Everyone dreams of a peaceful and happy life; the same goes for the community of Ulu Papar. Ulu Papar, located on the boundary of the Crocker Range National Park, is home to more than a thousand people.

Crocker Range Park, one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world, is not only home to indigenous people but also a habitat for a rich biodiversity of rare endemic species such as the orang utan, clouded leopards and sun bears, the world’s smallest bear species.

The community of Ulu Papar are forest dependent: 90 per cent of their livelihood is derived from the forest and rivers, which provide a continual supply of food and water. These resources cannot be compared with other kinds of resources; they cannot be bought with money. They sustain life; precious, priceless life.

In 2009, the Sabah state government announced plans to nominate the Crocker Range Park under the Unesco Man and the Biosphere programme, which would incorporate the Ulu Papar valley – and its people – as a buffer and transition area within Sabah’s first Unesco biosphere reserve. In 2014, Unesco declared the Crocker Range Park as a world biosphere reserve.

But in 2009, the same year when Crocker Range Park was nominated as a biosphere reserve, the Ulu Papar community was shocked when the Sabah state government announced the proposed RM2bn Kaiduan dam project. The mega dam would affect nine villages in the Ulu Papar area, which would be submerged, displacing the residents.

The Sabah state government is pushing for this mega dam project as a supposedly early measure to overcome the water crisis that is expected to hit Sabah in the next few decades.

Building mega dams will result in a large swathe of pristine forest being submerged. It would be a huge loss as as it would reduce biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Mega dams are actually one of the contributors to climate change and rising global temperatures. The increased carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere is warming the globe. Preserving our forests is the most effective way of combating climate change as forests act as a carbon sink.

So destroying our remaining forests is undermining efforts at mitigating the impact of climate change. Building mega dams will also block the water flow along rivers, resulting in sedimentation.

Impact on the local community

How are the communities of Ulu Papar affected by this? If the dam is built, the indigenous communities of Ulu Papar would have to be relocated to a new place for them to start all over again. They would have to start everything from zero, just like a newborn baby learning from the beginning and adapting to new surroundings.

Displacing these communities from their ancestral land would also mean killing their identity slowly. The connection between indigenous people and ancestral land cannot be severed. Their customs and traditional knowledge are connected to their ancestral land. If they lose their land, they will not be able to continue their traditional practices, which would slowly disappear over time.

Indigenous people are often blamed for destroying forests. But indigenous people actually have their own traditional knowledge that can help in protecting forests. One of the most common traditional knowledge techniques of the Ulu Papar indigenous communities is ‘gompi-guno’ (use-and-preserve) – a sustainable resource management system.

The indigenous communities have adopted this time-honoured practice for generations to provide food for their families, for instance, in paddy planting. Although planting hill paddy involves clearing the land, the Ulu Papar indigenous people apply ‘gompi-guno’ so that after the paddy is harvested, the land used will be left alone to allow forest regeneration. The regeneration process takes at least 10 years, before the hill land can be cleared again.

Although the government is keen on pushing the project forward, the communities continue to hope that the proposed mega dam project would be cancelled, If the project proceeds, there will be a host of negative impacts.

True, there is a need to secure future water supply. But there are also more cost-effective and sustainable alternatives that the government should consider. One way would be to reduce non-revenue water, which currently stands at 55.1 per cent in Sabah. Another alternative would be to involve local communities in efforts to protect the watershed and secure future water supply.

Bellinda Debra Raymond, a graduate in conservation biology, is passionate about nature and actively involved in community work. She was involved in engaging with indigenous youths in the COP21 Paris Climate Conference and is now working for the conservation of sun bears. She is part of the Ulu Papar community, which will be affected by the proposed Kaiduan dam.

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