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Mega-Dam Projects Will Force Tens of Thousands of People From Their Land

Energy
Mega-Dam Projects Will Force Tens of Thousands of People From Their Land

On a 20-minute walk through the rainforest of Borneo, you will encounter more tree species than exist on the entire North American continent. The distinctive biodiversity of the area attracts tourists and researchers from all over the world, in spite of the intense destruction of the rainforest from logging and palm oil plantations in the past few decades. Now, there’s a new threat to the people and the wildlife of Borneo: mega-dams.

The Baram Dam blockade on the road to the dam site. Photo credit: Jettie Word

In the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the north of the island, mega-hydro projects are driven by the state government through the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy, or SCORE. If built, these dams will force tens of thousands of people from their land, drive untold species to extinction, pollute the rivers—the lifelines of the jungle—and produce more greenhouse gas emissions per megawatt of energy than a coal-fired power plant.

The government of Sarawak has already built two dams in the proposed SCORE portfolio, but local resistance has stalled progress on the next dams scheduled to flood the forest. Since October 2013, indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo have prevented construction of the Baram mega-dam, which would forcefully displace thousands of families. As part of the campaign to stop the Sarawak dams, The Borneo Project, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, has released Commerce or Corruption?, the second film in a series of short documentaries exposing the realities of proposed mega-dam construction in Sarawak. The film release coincides with the 555th day of the Baram Dam blockades.

The Bakun Reservoir. Photo credit: Joe Lamb

The damage inflicted by these dams would be massive, and the benefits are still unclear. Given that there is no sound reason to build these dams, the question becomes, why are these dams being built, and why now?

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Commerce or Corruption? exposes the government’s true motivation behind the dams: personal financial gain. Private companies involved in construction and transmission stand to make gigantic profits from building the dams. Many of these companies are controlled by relatives and friends of the governor of the state, Taib Mahmud. Mahmud has been in power since the 1970s. Doling out the contracts would add even more gold to the already over-flowing coffers of politicians and their well-connected family members.

The lack of transparency behind the financing and the plans for how to use the energy is also cause for concern. The Sarawak mega-dams assume an outrageous energy demand growth rate, but the state currently produces significantly more energy than it can use, and proponents have no concrete plans for how to use or sell the energy.

Trees near the Bakun Dam burn from the methane and other gases produced by the reservoir. Photo credit: Joe Lamb

The indigenous communities protesting the dams are fighting for their livelihoods. Completed in 2011, the Bakun dam created a reservoir the size of Singapore, and cost the government $5 billion, over five times the original $8 million estimate. To make way for the reservoir, around 10,000 indigenous people were resettled in the town of Asap. After more than a decade in their new location, the communities are still struggling to eke out a living. They no longer have access to the hunting and fishing grounds of their former villages. The government promised 10 acres of farmland per family, but reduced it to three. Three acres is not enough to sustain a living, and much of the land is rocky, sloped, sandy and located several hours away from the town. To make matters worse, many families are in debt because the government made them pay for their own housing.

The good news is that community resistance is proving to have a significant effect on developments. If completed, the Baram Dam will inundate 26 villages and displace between 6,000 and 20,000 people. The ongoing Baram Dam blockades—community-led nonviolent direct actions—involve men, women and children and have successfully prevented loggers and the dam developer, Sarawak Energy Bhd, from accessing the construction area for 555 days. The blockade is maintained by indigenous Kenyah, Kayan and Penan people and demonstrates the tremendous local resistance to dam development and logging.

Broken Promises, the next film in The Borneo Project film series, will be released in July. It will highlight the devastating impacts of forced relocation on indigenous communities. All of the films will be available on The Borneo Project website.

Watch the 10-minute short film, Commerce or Corruption?, here:

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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