KOTA KINABALU, July 31 — Somewhere in the middle of Sabah’s west coast forests, near the border between the Putatan and Penampang parliamentary constituencies and the bank of the Ulu Papar river, and under a makeshift tarpaulin tent, an impromptu Catholic mass was going on.
In the background, a newly-erected cross about eight feet tall sits on a mound and looks over the ceremony while a local priest conducts the ceremony in Dusun.
More than 100 people have their heads bowed as they go through the hour-long proceeding, seeking shade from the trees and among the four-wheel-drive vehicles which undertook the bone-rattling journey on unpaved, winding service roads to get to the location, called Mondoringin.
Like most ceremonies of its kind, the mood is solemn, but it’s not just because of the ceremony.
The people who have come to gather here are representatives of villagers from nine villages in the surrounding area — Kampung Bisuang, Timpayasa, Terian, Buayan among others, who all share the same river source.
The usually do not meet on a random Wednesday but today they braved the journey to attend the ceremony to bless the cross, looking towards their faith in their struggle to prevent the government from building a dam along their river.
“We are hoping for God’s intervention in our fight to stop the damn and protect his creation — the river, the land, the indigenous people. We also need to strengthen our resolve, our physical, mental and spiritual strength in this struggle,” said Diana Sipail, a spokesperson for the Task Force against Kaiduan Dam (Takad).
The group has been fighting for about a decade — they gathered on the same spot some 10 years ago for the same reason — to stop a dam from being built along their river that they believe would cause irrevocable harm to their livelihood and way of life.
Their struggle was previously against the Barisan Nasional government, who wanted the dam that would solve a projected water shortage for the developing west coast districts of Sabah, but would potentially displace about 2,000 villagers.
The group and their partners — non-governmental organisations like Save Papar River movement, Save Ulu Papar, PACOS Trust and others — have in the last 10 years organised protests after protests, awareness talks, put up campaigns, made merchandise, appeared at rallies, took their plight to social media and successfully put off the dam several times and in the process even voted in an opposition Member of Parliament to represent them.
The Kaiduan dam cause was among the most highly discussed causes, earning much criticism and discussion into more sustainable alternatives and many then-opposition politicians and individuals backed their plight and some promised to scrap it if they were voted in.
When the current Warisan-led government took over after the last general election, they thought their fight was finally over, until it was announced that a dam would go ahead as early as next year, but at a new site, downstream from the previous Kaiduan dam, and costing more due to its hydroelectricity capacity.
It was said that the dam that would not affect the villagers in the area due to its remoteness.
But for someone like Jinius Gisain, that is too big of a promise that is unlikely to be kept.
The 48-year-old from Kampung Timpayasa relies on the natural resources of the forests and the rivers on a daily basis. The subsistence farmer catches his own dinner every day and literally reaps the fruits of the jungle.
He totes around his barait, a traditional woven backpack on his daily walks and knows the land like the back of his hand.
“We go to the river every day. It’s how we live. We fish, bathe, wash here. We have done this for generations so we want to make sure the land is always protected,” he said.
For Jinius, any resettlement or compensation would not be worth giving up his land.
For others, it was the “betrayal” by way of broken promises from leaders they trusted and have worked alongside.
“When they took over the government, we were overcome with relief actually. Our leaders were in, we thought it was over and we could rest. Imagine how we felt when they suddenly announced the dam was back on,” said Johan Sipail who hails from Kampung Terian.
“We felt cheated. Like they didn’t even consult us, tell us before it came out in the papers, all that. We voted them in for change, but now it’s like the same old fight,” he said.
Jackly Likinsim, a 36-year-old quantity surveyor, rejected reassurances that the “new” site for the Papar dam would not affect villagers.
“There’s no way we would not affect us if the dam is built in Mondoringin. If it’s downstream, it means the catchment will be upstream, and that’s still in the Penampang district and it will be close to villages like Timpayasa.
“Also, in my job, I know how these contractors work. There will be thousands of foreign workers here, who knows what they will do, how unsanitary the conditions are. Our rivers, clear and clean now will be polluted, toxic and murky from then on. They will clear large amounts of land just to build this dam, that alone is an environmental hazard,” he said.
Likinsim is from Kampung Bisuang, which is on the Papar side of the border and some three kilometres away from Mondoringin. Like many young adults, he lives and works in Kota Kinabalu, some 45 minutes away by road, but returns home to his village every weekend so his three children can enjoy the cool rivers, learn how to fish and get to know their Dusun heritage.
“We want to continue being able to do that. We are not earmarked for resettlement but there is always the chance,” he said.
“There are already alternatives proposed, why not take on alternatives if your intention is to solve the water woes,” he said, referring to a proposal by University Malaysia Sabah geologist Felix Tongkul who was reported saying that the proposed dam is not the best solution for the state’s water woes.
Tongkul had instead proposed direct water intake from the Papar river which has a healthy and protected catchment area. The water could be placed on high ground reservoirs, which is a method currently practiced or low ground reservoirs.