As hydro dams and logging change Borneo, Dateline asks if locals are being treated fairly and questions the connection with Tasmania.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 21:30


Thousands of people in the wilderness of Malaysian Borneo are set to lose their homes, as a controversial plan to build a string of huge hydro dams gets under way.

In the state of Sarawak, the Bakun Dam has already flooded an area the size of Singapore, displacing indigenous communities, some of whom say they've never received the full compensation they were promised.

David O'Shea has a special investigation, looking at the relationship between the energy company behind the project and Hydro Tasmania's contract to work on it.

David also examines links between the logging industry in Sarawak and Tasmania.

In Sarawak, some communities say they've been intimidated and threatened in an attempt to force them off their land.

And could Australia's wilderness also be under threat? Forestry Tasmania has a 20 year contract to supply the same logging company David is investigating in Malaysia.

David meets the campaigners in Borneo and Tasmania, and hears the companies involved deny any wrongdoing.

David's investigation is in two parts:

Watch Part One: The Damned

Watch Part Two: Logged Out?


On 4th September 2012, Dateline issued the following clarification regarding this story:

Two weeks ago, Dateline broadcast a story on the construction of hydro-electric dams in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Dateline accepts the report overplayed the role of Hydro Tasmania in the dam building projects.

The same program contained a story on the company Ta Ann Tasmania.

The story quoted the company's executive director, Evan Rolley, as saying that 'Forestry Tasmania doesn't have enough plantation and regrowth timber to fulfil the Ta Ann contract'.

In fact, in his interview, Mr Rolley only referred to plantation timber.

Dateline also used the term 'logging' to describe Ta Ann Tasmania's activities. The company is not a logger, but a timber manufacturer.

Dateline apologises to Hydro Tasmania and to Ta Ann Tasmania for these inaccuracies.

Read the formal complaints from Hydro Tasmania and Ta Ann Tasmania, along with the responses from the SBS Ombudsman, by following the links below...

Hydro Tasmania complaint
SBS Ombudsman response

Ta Ann Tasmania complaint
SBS Ombudsman response

Related Links



REPORTER: David O'Shea

The controversial Bakun Dam is one of the largest concrete-faced, rock-filled dams in the world. When the water poured in late last year, it flooded almost 700 square kilometres - an area the size of Singapore. Much of it is hundreds of metres deep.

I join a group heading back to the place they were born at the far end of the dam, on what used to be the Ranjang River. It's a four-hour journey to Long Jawe and along the way we pass many picturesque villages, it's just that they're hundreds of metres below us.

LIAN NGAU (Translation): The land looks low now because the river is so high. They look like hills now, but they used to be mountains.

Bakun Dam is only the beginning. The state government, working in consultancy with Hydro Tasmania, is embarking on one of the most ambitious plans in the history of hydropower. It wants to build 12 dams like this one - flooding vast tracts of river valley land - and displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people. Those who have already lost their land and their homes have nothing but contempt for the project. Lian Ngau tells me he was given less than half the land he was promised by the government.

LIAN NGAU (Translation): The government said "œIf you go there we'll give each household seven acres of land." In the end they only gave us three acres. So where are the other four acres? That's not the way to manage development. To this day they still haven't given us the title deeds for our three acres.

Former Senator Idris Buang is a spokesman for the Sarawak Energy Board, which buys power from the dams.

REPORTER: Some of the people I've spoken to that were relocated from Bakun Dam and are now living in Sungai Asap, complained that they didn't receive the amount of compensation that they were promised.

IDRIS BUANG, SARAWAK ENERGY BOARD: They ought to receive unless something had happened along the way.

REPORTER: What might have happened?

IDRIS BUANG: But.. I wouldn't know - some administrative sort of; hitch probably. But nevertheless, they ought to be compensated. It would be illegal, actually, if they're not.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN, JOURNALIST: Billions have been generated out of the Bakun Dam - billions - and it's a small population. They have been given a very meagre slice of the profits.

Clare Rewcastle Brown is an investigative journalist who writes a blog called the 'Sarawak Report'. She says Hydro Tasmania is not working to its own standards because their contract partner does not comply with its ideals.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: The local people still don't know where they are going to be moved to when they are flooded out of their homes. No-one's been consulted. No-one's been told anything. How can this equate to the highest benchmark of corporate and social responsibility?

IDRIS BUANG: I think you can rest assured that the state government is very, very serious in considering the fate of the people affected. The government is very concerned in terms of giving them restitution, compensatory in nature, although they cannot get the very thing that they lost, but at least they'll be put into a better position than before. Economically, socially.

The government says the dams will eventually generate enormous power and will lead to job opportunities for all.

IDRIS BUANG: In 2020, we are poised to create more than a million jobs. In 2030, it is more than two million jobs.

Hydro Tasmania is providing consultancy services.

ROY ADAIR, CEO, HYDRO TASMANIA: We are delighted to be working with an organisation that values the sustainable development of hydropower. We are delighted to be working with what is one of the major opportunities in the world for the careful development of 20 gigawatts of capacity, which is a significant volume of capacity, which will fundamentally change the economic base of Sarawak.

IDRIS BUANG: A win-win situation.

The Sarawak Energy Board, or SEB, are also delighted.

IDRIS BUANG: We get expertise, we get guidance, we get 100 years of experience from Tasmania, for example.

REPORTER: Does it also give you an image boost, does it improve your public relations to have Hydro Tasmania involved?

IDRIS BUANG: Well, if there's any image boost, it just comes naturally, but that is not our intention.

The Chairman of the SEB is Hamed Sepawi. He's also the Chairman of the giant timber group, Ta Ann. Each company has entered into a separate Tasmanian deal.

BOB BROWN, ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNER: There's a very worrying relationship between the exploiters of Tasmania and the exploiters of Sarawak. Whether it's forests or whether it's damming wild and magnificent rivers.

REPORTER: You're not concerned by the persistent allegations that swirl around SEB?

ROY ADAIR: I can only speak on what we have found. I have found them to be a first-class professional outfit. They deal with the best standards of doing business. They have the highest standards of safety and sustainability very much at the heart of what they are doing.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: It's like a sort of James Bond megalomaniac vision.

Rewcastle Brown happens to be the sister-in-law of the former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. She's a very vocal critic of the whole system of governance and accountability in Sarawak.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: You can have the development argument, that's fair enough, but this hasn't been about development and progress for the people of Sarawak - it's been about money siphoned out into foreign bank accounts.

As the valley flooded, the villagers cut sections off the longhouse and wedged trees underneath. When the waters rose, so did the structures.

INGKONG LIAN (Translation): This is the kitchen, the longhouse went under, we raised the kitchen.

REPORTER (Translation): The longhouse;

LIAN NGAU (Translation): We couldn't raise it.

REPORTER (Translation): It was too big?

LIAN NGAU (Translation): Yes, it was. The pillars were big.

Today they're moving what's left of their house, a couple of hundred metres across the lake.

REPORTER (Translation): Why are you moving?

INGKONG LIAN (Translation): We are looking for somewhere where the water's deeper. If the water level drops it will tilt. If the level drops, it will tilt.

LIAN NGAU (Translation): It's a miserable life. There's no longhouse so we're not together any more. We're scattered all around here. If we want to have a meeting, we have to use a boat to get from one house to the next.

It's the fate of the church which really upsets him.

LIAN NGAU (Translation): Seeing the condition of the church, I feel very sad, now it's like this. Even though we were able to raise it, I still feel sad when I look at it.

Even though the government built them their new longhouse, they say the construction is substandard and the location doesn't provide a livelihood. And as the years pass by, memories of their old village on the river are fading.

LIAN NGAU (Translation): Is this the house on top of the hill? Which one's the church? Is this the church?

WOMAN (Translation): All that red roofing is our old longhouse. Our home is here.

MAN (Translation): It used to be a good life, it was good upriver.

BOB BROWN: It's the end of their universe, it's the end of their history, it's the end of their culture. It's the end of their way of life and productivity and raising their kids and telling them about their grandparents and what happened before. All that.

Recently retired Greens Leader Bob Brown is disturbed that Hydro Tasmania has played a role in this by providing consulting services.

BOB BROWN: Which engineer in Hydro Tasmania is going to understand what it means to an indigenous person in Sarawak to have their whole life and history obliterated by a huge concrete dam?

On his first visit this far up Bakun Dam, Philip Jau is horrified by what he sees. He's from the Baram River, next on Sarawak's list to dam.

PHILIP JAU: They just want to take our land, to destroy us, destroy our future, the future of our children, drown our land, drown our forests, drown our rivers.

CROWD: Stop the dam! Stop the dam!

He's been leading protests against the Baram Dam, but is understandably worried that no-one is listening.

PHILIP JAU: I've travelled and I've visited and I've talked to the people in all the houses to be affected. They all don't want this bloody dam. So the government must listen to the people and stop, and cancel, scrap this bloody stupid Baram Dam.

CROWD: Stop the dam!

He directs his anger at the foreigners with the Sarawak Energy Board - the Tasmanians and the Norwegian CEO, who is on a salary package of more than $4 million per year.

PHILIP JAU: You have no right. You are a foreigner. You have no right to speak for the people. You only come to Long Na'ah for three days and you say the majority of the people want the dam. This is stupid. You are lying. You get out of this state of Sarawak. Don't ever come to Baram. You are saying nonsense. You are saying a blatant lie. You are not telling the truth. I am from Baram. I know what the people feel. You get out of Baram.

REPORTER: They claim that there was no consultation with the local people on Baram...

IDRIS BUANG: As I said, it's underway. The process is being conducted now. There's nothing complete yet.

REPORTER: When will construction of Baram begin?


For exact detail, he needs to consult a Tasmanian, who appears to know much more than the people about to be flooded from their homes.


Clare Rewcastle Brown says it's unacceptable for a Tasmanian public company to be getting involved in this.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: Where's the accountability? Where's the consultation? Where are the environmental impact assessments? These things should be bread and butter for a company that abides by the highest standards.

IDRIS BUANG: Right now, feasibility studies are being done and social, environmental impact are underway.

REPORTER: There is nothing that is going to stop that, is that right?

IDRIS BUANG: As it is, it has to go on. As I said the need to have all these dams that we planned for, overrides any other thing, you know, in the interest of the greater good of Sarawakians.

BOB BROWN: There is a secrecy at the top levels of state in Tasmania and in Sarawak about what is going on. The people don't know. They don't know who's getting the money. They don't know who's wielding the influence and they don't know in either place what the plans are for the future. They should know, because they'd be worried if they did know.

KIM BOOTH MP, GREENS MEMBER FOR BASS: Mr Speaker, my question is to the Minister of Energy.

In Tasmania, Brown's former colleagues are searching for answers too.

KIM BOOTH MP: Minister; As Shareholder Minister for Hydro Tasmania, you would be aware that I have made a right to information application seeking information about the work...

Kim Booth has asked several questions in parliament about the Hydro Tasmania deal with the Sarawak Energy Board.

KIM BOOTH MP: You would also be aware that Hydro Tasmania refused to release any information.

The Sarawak Energy Board objected to the release of the information and Hydro Tasmania deemed the details "œof a commercial and financial nature" which would, if disclosed, "œbe likely to expose Hydro Tasmania to a competitive disadvantage."

Booth was told, however, that the work was "œin accordance with the highest standards of sustainability and entirely consistent with the values of Hydro Tasmania."

KIM BOOTH MP: Whilst this is reassuring, Minister, it is relatively meaningless given that he did not also provide detail on how these values are assessed and weighed up against the risk of undertaking work in politically unstable places like Sarawak, on projects that have displaced thousands of indigenous people.

In fact they're blocking normal requests under access for right to information. It's being blocked by Hydro Tasmania for no apparent good reason.

Rewcastle Brown is critical of what she says is a disturbing lack of accountability.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: They would never get away with that in a project in Australia. Why is it okay to do it here in Borneo? They are ruining one of the most precious environments left on our planet. That's why we care.


REPORTER: David O'Shea

The battle over the Tasmanian wilderness has stirred passions on both sides for decades.

JENNY WEBER, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: It's actually an old-growth forest. I wanted to know about what was going on.

WORKER: She's holding me up at the moment. I'm already two hours late.

Last week in Hobart, inside this building, the so-called Forest Peace Talks between environmentalists and the logging industry stalled, and with that, hopes for a solution over what to exploit and what to protect.

The Greens have been leading a campaign against the Ta Ann Group of Companies from Sarawak, whose Australian subsidiary has a contract with Forestry Tasmania to access timber. It's even brought environmental warrior, former Senator Bob Brown, out of his recent retirement.

BOB BROWN: Forestry Tasmania is said at the current time to be running at a loss of some millions of dollars, cutting down forests and giving them to corporations like Ta Ann to take the wood products elsewhere and make money. Is that a good deal for Tasmania?

While Brown is scathing about Ta Ann, others like Senator Abetz passionately defend the company, like in the Federal Senate last week.

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL, TASMANIA: If the Greens prevail, Ta Ann Tasmania will fail and jobs lost and trees used for veneering will simply return to the wood chipper and people in Sarawak will lose their jobs, all thanks to the Greens.

BOB BROWN: This is a nasty company which has had the ability to destroy the universe of their fellow Sarawakians, the indigenous people of Sarawak. Please don't ask me to sympathise with a company that can do that, then comes to Tasmania, has not spoken to the people of Tasmania, has not been involved in the environment debate in Tasmania, but locks in behind doors with a few senior politicians and loggers and signs a contract to rip out the wild and scenic ancient forests of Tasmania.

I find that in Sarawak, many share Brown's concerns.

PEE MILLO (Translation): These are our letters.

In the east of the state, I find this community.

PEE MILLO (Translation): The red line shows the boundary of our land.

For six years, they've been fighting a company in which Ta Ann's Chair has invested.

PEE MILLO (Translation): The company is Butrasemari Inc.

The company says it was given legal access to this land and they are currently appealing a High Court ruling against them in favour of the villagers.

WOMAN (Translation): They asked to come in, they wanted to pay us, we refused. They wanted to take our land and give us very little in return, but we didn't want that.

In 2006, when a bulldozer arrived, 27 families blockaded the access road.

PEE MILLO (Translation): We put a van across the middle of the road so that the company's bulldozers couldn't pass.

After that, thugs came to intimidate them.

PEE MILLO (Translation): There were three cars. We were afraid, seeing so many thugs turning up. They wanted to fight us and kill us. We resisted in order to stop them coming in.

They say the company's security guards even turned up with weapons.

PEE MILLO (Translation): Dead or alive, we'll stand our ground. We won't give in to the company. We'll stand our ground.

Not far away is another longhouse community also in dispute with a company linked to Ta Ann. They've been given a date to leave, which has just passed. Their case is still in the High Court, but they say they are constantly on guard.

JUPITTER (Translation): We're afraid they'll come in without us knowing.

There are a number of companies working in this area which have offices at the same address as Ta Ann Holdings.

JUPITTER (Translation): They were from the company.

REPORTER (Translation): Which company?

JUPITTER (Translation): Butrasemari. No; Butrasemari and also Palmhead. As; the main company is Ta Ann then Butrasemari and then finally the current one, Palmhead.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: So how are we for the show today, do you think we've got a full show yet?

RADIO JOURNALIST: We need to know whether we know about the Ta Ann story.

As well as the Sarawak Report blog she writes, Clare Rewcastle Brown runs Radio Free Sarawak, a two-hour daily news program in Iban language beamed in on short wave from London and produced in this secret location.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: What about the key story that we're going to do today?


CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: Yes, how many interviews did you get up with the village?

PETER JOHN: Quite a lot, actually. The villagers, the longhouse folks, are very angry.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: How can we help them?

One of her reporters, the only one prepared to show his face, has just returned from a remote longhouse community. He says they were stunned to learn that Ta Ann Holdings had a licence for their land when he showed them a map.

PETER JOHN: And they were shocked.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: So they had no idea that Ta Ann had permission to log their land?

PETER JOHN: No idea at all, and they were so surprised and some of the women cried and some of the old men were so angry.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: I think we should make a really big package on this.

BARU BIAN, LAWYER: In most cases the native would only realise that the land had been taken away or been issued out or leased out to foreigners when they see them walking on the ground.

REPORTER: Once the bulldozers arrive?

BARU BIAN: Exactly.

Lawyer Baru Bian is famous for a legal test case inspired by Mabo, which set a precedent for claims on native customary land. His office is looking into more than 100 land dispute cases, including several against Ta Ann, who, he says, hides behind interlinked companies to shield itself from the dirty work.

BARU BIAN: I believe this is being done, the modus operandi, purely to evade that direct implication that they are involved directly.

Baru Bian is now an opposition politician and a bitter enemy of the man ultimately responsible for the way land is used, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Taib Mahmud. Taib has ruled for 30 years and while he's not involved in the company, many people here blame him directly for the loss of land.

WOMAN (Translation): We don't trust him. Taib Mahmud cheats people. We supported and voted for him, then he took away our land and gave our land to the company. Where are we going to live? Why would we trust him? He's a cheat.

Clare Rewcastle Brown has been raising concerns for years.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: The truth is they haven't dared criticise me in a court of law or indeed particularly openly in any public forum, because they know I'm right. I've got them bang to rights. There's so much corruption, it's blatant in Sarawak - nobody denies it.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission told Dateline there is an ongoing investigation into Chief Minister Taib. He's consistently denied all allegations and he refused Dateline's repeated requests for an interview. Secret cables published by WikiLeaks show that US diplomats have their own views.

WIKILEAKS: "œ;his government doles out timber cutting permits while patrolling the under-developed state using 14 helicopters, and his family's companies control much of the economy."

One company with family connections is Ta Ann, producing plywood from Tasmanian eucalypt here in this factory. Ta Ann's Chairman is the Chief Minister's cousin, Hamed Sepawi. He's one of the richest men in Malaysia, the result he says of hard work, not family ties.

HAMED SEPAWI, TA ANN CHAIRMAN: Just for your information, I guess we have to learn, I keep saying that the Chief Minister has thousands of cousins.

Sitting with Ta Ann's founder and General Manager, KH Wong, they want to emphasise that they don't take any land from anyone, saying the company's ethos is to work with local landholders, not to exploit them.

KH WONG, GENERAL MANAGER: We negotiate with them. We settle with them.

Chairman Sepawi is also the Chairman of the Sarawak Energy Board, which, as we learned earlier, is working on hydropower plans with Hydro Tasmania.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: There are a lot of questions about the links between Hamed Sepawi in his role as Chairman of the Sarawak Electricity Board commissioning Hydro Tasmania to build these dam projects and his role as the Chairman and Chief Shareholder of Ta Ann.

In Tasmania they're already squarely in the sights of the Green groups hoping to influence Tasmania's forest peace talks. Amongst their fiercest critics is Jenny Weber, who managed to strike a savage blow to Ta Ann all the way from Tasmania's Huon Valley.

Ta Ann had been working hard to establish a market in Japan for their Tasmanian-origin, eco-flooring veneer.

HAMED SEPAWI: 70% of this is eucalyptus.

In September last year, Weber's Huon Valley Environment Centre released this devastating report. The report argues there is nothing eco about Ta Ann's flooring because some of the timber they use comes from high conservation value old-growth forests.

JENNY WEBER: Tasmania's forest industry own mapping shows that old-growth eco-systems have been logged for Ta Ann.

Weber joined other activists who travelled to Japan to tell Ta Ann's clients that they believed the flooring product wasn't so eco after all.

JENNY WEBER: Ta Ann have proven themselves to be a company that is willing to misrepresent the source of their timber at an international level, and so that puts into question what type of company and what their ethics are.

As a result of her activism, two of their clients cancelled the contract and Ta Ann retrenched 50 Tasmanian workers.

REPORTER: There's not a lot of jobs in Tasmania, surely Ta Ann are bringing much-needed employment to this island?

JENNY WEBER: It's not a good enough excuse to have people working in old-growth eco-systems, destroying those old-growth eco-systems and then misleading their customers at an international level to sell these eco-systems as eco-wood. Jobs are not a good enough excuse.

Evan Rolley is Executive Director of Ta Ann Tasmania.

EVAN ROLLEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, TA ANN TASMANIA: Yes, we have lost up to fifty per cent of our markets in Japan as a direct result of the actions of Jenny Weber and Markets for Change, who have spread misinformation and lies about the company and who have threatened the market that if they continue to purchase from Tasmania, they would unleash a significant campaign against the companies using our products. So this effectively amounts to blackmailing international companies against the use of a product here in Tasmania.

Rolley was head of Forestry Tasmania at the time the deal was done with Ta Ann. He says that even though Forestry Tasmania doesn't have enough plantation timber to fulfil the Ta Ann contract, and won't for decades, he believes they're still entitled to use the word 'eco' in their marketing.

EVAN ROLLEY: Well, absolutely. Every tree that is being harvested is being replanted and replaced. We're using a product that is both biodegradable, it's recyclable and it's produced sustainably. It's the one product that stores carbon and storing it as we do in a veneer that then goes into a flooring product is an eco-product - I can't think of a better one.

Back in Sarawak, Ta Ann Chairman Hamed Sepawi says the criticism is unfair because they're adding value to trees destined for wood chips and only five per cent of those logs come from high conservation value areas.

HAMED SEPAWI: Not a huge number for us, but because of that we got hit. It's out of my area to describe how forests are managed, but I think Forestry Tasmania, we believe under their very stringent Australian Forestry Standards, they are basically managing the forests, the best managed forests probably in the whole of Australia.

CLARE REWCASTLE BROWN: I think Ta Ann have decided that they're looking forward and trying to create a sustainability label. They've been trying to off load particularly obnoxious aspects of their business and they're trying to create expensively a new image, one of an eco-friendly sustainable caring company. Sadly, or unfortunately, it just doesn't bear the slightest bit of scrutiny. Ta Ann is still owned and run by the guys who have been logging Sarawak, destroying it for the last four decades.

JENNY WEBER: Our organisation is concerned that Ta Ann is using Tasmania to greenwash their practices in Sarawak. They are using Tasmania's green brand. They are using the practices here in Tasmania to say they are actually stepping forward as a responsible company in the global market.

Sepawi says the Greens have misinterpreted and misrepresented the situation.

HAMED SEPAWI: As I said, we are not against the Greens in any way at all, but for them to make it sound like we are the culprit - I think that's not fair.

BOB BROWN: We're a free and open democracy and they're coming under scrutiny, and there's going to be a lot more of it, a lot more, because Ta Ann has a lot to answer for in its destruction of Tasmania's high conservation value and wild and scenic forests. Of course they say somebody else is doing that for us. Australians are smart enough to say 'Well that's your fault, that's your responsibility'.





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21st August 2012