KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysian activists criticised the New York Times on Tuesday for organising a sustainable-energy conference that includes a company spearheading a dam-building drive which native tribes say is uprooting them from ancestral lands.
The company, Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB), is listed as one of two “gold sponsors” of the “Energy for Tomorrow” conference set for Wednesday-Thursday in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and organised by the New York Times’ international edition.
Thomas Jalong, president of Malaysian indigenous peoples’ network Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS), said it was “disappointing that a reputable organisation like the International New York Times would not have considered the implications of featuring SEB” as a top sponsor and its CEO as a panelist.
SEB is at the forefront of plans by authorities in the rugged state of Sarawak on Borneo Island to build up to a dozen hydroelectric dams, in the hopes that cheap electricity will lure foreign industrial investment to the underdeveloped state. But environmentalists warn that the project threatens one of the world’s last great rain forests at the heart of Borneo, an island shared by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, and say native rights are being trampled.
“SEB’s total disregard for Sarawak’s vast biological diversity, ecologically and culturally significant places, and indigenous peoples’ rights… should not be overlooked by conference participants and organisers,” Jalong said in a statement by activist groups.
The International New York Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For the past three decades, Sarawak’s chief minister was Taib Mahmud, one of Malaysia’s most powerful politicians and the mastermind of the dam campaign. Taib, 78, who moved up to state governor this year, and his family are accused by critics of running indigenous people off ancestral lands and plundering Sarawak’s rich timber resources, charges that he denies.
Swiss environmental group Bruno Manser Fund has estimated Taib’s wealth at $15 billion, citing financial records, which would make him Malaysia’s richest person.
Sarawak dam projects have been plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and many relocated villagers complain of broken resettlement promises by state authorities and SEB. The company has previously denied such allegations. The dam plans have sparked protests and road blockades by natives.
“SEB is prepared to destroy our collective heritage: our rivers, the land and our livelihoods,” Peter Kallang of the Save Sarawak Rivers Network said in the joint statement.