As Malaysia sprints towards clean energy, scrutiny intensifies over the adequacy of plans for indigenous communities.

The Southeast Asian nation aims to reduce carbon intensity against gross domestic product by 35% by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. To expedite this ambitious goal, Malaysia introduced the National Energy Transition Roadmap (NETR) in July, designed to accelerate the country’s energy transition. The roadmap prioritizes the transformation of the economy and the creation of business opportunities within the energy sector.

While offering economic opportunities, doubts persist about plans to include marginalized indigenous communities in Malaysia, home to 85 indigenous tribes, each with its own distinct cultural, linguistic heritage, and lifestyle.

The Bakun Dam Project in Sarawak for example, displaced hundreds of families from their ancestral land and homes when the project was built in 1994. 

Kiven Gin, 33 from Sarawak said he recollects moving with his family from the area when the dam project began construction in the 1990s. 

Kiven, whose parents are from Long Jawe, had to relocate due to the project, losing his childhood home to floods. 

“Our old house was under water and while were relocated to the Bakun Resettlement scheme in Sungai Asap, many villagers couldn’t adapt to the small land area for agriculture so they had to build a second house near the riverbank so they could get more supply of fish to eat and sell,” Kiven said. 

The project was first approved by the government in 1986 but shelved in 1990 but found the light of day ahead in 1994. 

The project was completed in 2010 after multiple delays with the hydroelectric power station providing a power capacity of 2,400 MW and was fully operational in 2014. 

Kiven said multiple longhouses of the Kayan, Kenday and Lahanan tribes were now underwater and remained submerged but while there was compensation for resettlement, there were broken promises. 

“Villagers were promised free electricity but now they are paying a higher bill,” he said. 

Orang Asli contemporary artist and activist, Shaq Koyok emphasized that land rights and livelihood are paramount concerns for indigenous communities in Malaysia. Despite the absence of official land titles for forest reserves, the community has resided in the area for generations.

“It is not just the resettlement but also the culture because their livelihood, culture and identity would face negative impacts because the community has strong ties to the land so when they lose their land, they lose their home and this creates damage to families that live the traditional lifestyle,” he said.

Shaq, who is currently at COP28 as an indigenous representative from the Temuan tribe, said the Bakun Dam project caused displacement to the local communities and this has impacted the indigenous lifestyle. 

“I know the energy transition project is the way forward but there is also a need to be on the ground consultation to ensure communities’ way of life are conserved,” he said at the sideline of the climate summit.

This was echoed by Adrian Lasimbang, a former senator and a prominent voice in Sabah. 

He notes that the transition roadmap overlooked rural electrification because energy discussions primarily revolved around industries and large-scale projects.

“This is marginalization of indigenous communities because when you do not have a concrete plan to provide universal access to electricity in rural areas it widens the gap within urban and rural areas,” Lasimbang said. 

In the last two decades, Lasimbang’s social enterprise, TONIBUNG, has delivered diverse solutions for energy and water scarcity in communities with minimal access across Sabah and Sarawak.

TONIBUNG actively contributes to NETR for rural communities, and Lasimbang is also part of the advisory team for the state-driven Sabah Renewable Energy Rural Electrification Roadmap (SabahR2E), targeting 50% of Malaysia’s rural electricity needs with renewables by 2030. This collaborative effort involves government, civil society, and local communities, identifying 400 locations for electrification. 

Adrian said the space for indigenous groups in Malaysia to be on the table for dialogues is very limited, which leaves him no choice but to take matters to the international level. 

“In the roadmap itself, it is flawed because there is no space to address the needs of the minority and marginalized.”

Adrian, who represented TONIBUNG and the state of Sabah at COP28 said his attendance this year said the aim is to lobby for direct financing for indigenous communities to enable them to implement their community-led solutions. 

For the first time, an Indigenous Peoples Pavilion was introduced at COP28 which provides a platform for Indigenous people to be amplified. 

Adrian said that reaching the goal requires empowerment and effective participation of the indigenous communities. 

“We are here so our voice can be heard and some resolution can be taken by the UNFCCC to ensure that indigenous people are not left behind in energy transition and climate change mitigation.”

During the opening of the Malaysian Pavilion at the climate summit, Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Secretary-general Dr. Ching Thoo Kim, gave his assurance that no one would be left behind and the needs for indigenous rights would be addressed. 

“We want to make sure they will benefit from the just transition, everyone is looked after and no one is left behind,”