Any attempts to proceed with the construction of the Nenggiri Dam in Gua Musang, Kelantan, will be tantamount to erasing the identities of Orang Asli communities and their ties to the environment, according to a group opposing the hydroelectric project.
Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Kelantan (JKOAK) chairperson Mustafa Along said the proposed project will see the loss of forest, limestone caves and villages in an area spanning 5,384 hectares or 13,304 acres.
Aside from losing access to the forest areas, Mustafa said there were at least three Orang Asli heroes buried in the affected area, as well as graves located in their ancestral land.
"This is a form of eradicating evidence on the existence of Orang Asli here (in Gua Musang)," said Mustafa during a forum organised by environmental group Klima Action Malaysia (Kamy) last night.
He said any negotiations initiated by Tenaga Nasional Bhd as the project developer has failed to take into account voices opposing the project, so far numbering over 3,000 Orang Asli from surrounding areas.
Mustafa also said the Orang Asli in four settlements marked for relocation were only informed of compensations offered by the project developer, but it failed to recognise their potential losses.
"The Orang Asli have very strong ties with the forest. They were told of what they will be offered if they accept the project, but issues like loss of access to the forest, rights to native customary land - these issues were never discussed," he said.
Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) activist B Suresh Kumar, who was also on the panel, said he had encountered similar issues surrounding a lack of consultation when fighting against the Telom hydroelectric dam project in Cameron Highlands, until its eventual cancellation.
"It has always been a top-down decision-making process. A decision on the construction of the Telom hydroelectric dam was made and forced upon the Orang Asli in Pos Lanai.
"Now we are seeing a repeat of the same situation in this Nenggiri dam project," said Suresh, who was the PSM candidate in Cameron Highlands during the 14th general election.
Responding to viewers' questions, Mustafa denied the perception that Orang Asli who opposed the destruction of forests for development projects were against modernisation.
Describing it as baseless, Mustafa insisted their primary concern was the loss of Orang Asli identity that is closely tied to the forest.
"Who does not want development? At the same time, we do not want any development that erases our identity.
"Even if we were to drive a Mercedez Benz, we are still Orang Asli. (You) give us a new home, but if our forest is destroyed, there is no use.
"We want development, modernisation, progress, but the loss of our identity is too high a price to pay," said Mustafa, who has been leading the opposition to the construction of Nenggiri Dam, first proposed in the 11th Malaysian Plan in 2015.
The third panellist, academician and co-founder of Resource Stewardship Consultants, Lim Teck Wyn, meanwhile said the arguments used to support the construction of the Nenggiri dam were unconvincing.
He said this includes that it could prevent another major flood, as there was no way to predict where a large amount of rain would fall.
"I have not seen the need for this mega-dam. I don't see the justification. If we see the main cause of flooding, it is (because of) the siltation of rivers due to logging," said Lim, whose area of expertise includes the ecology of tropical forests.
Last month, Mustafa and the JKOAK had rejected an offer from the Kelantan state government to pay compensation to villagers affected by the project.
They described the offer as insufficient as the Kelantan state government is only going to pay for the villagers’ crops and does not cover the losses they will suffer from the decimation of their ancestral land.
This follows Kelantan Public Works, Infrastructure, Transportation and Utilities Committee chairperson Azami Mohd Nor reported statement that the entire compensation package has been submitted to the state government for approval.
The latest round of construction work is expected to commence in March next year.