It is 6.30am on an exceptionally cold and misty morning in the Sungai Asap Resettlement Scheme, about 30 kilometers from the site of biggest hydroelectric dam in Southeast Asia, the Bakun Dam.
Retired barter trader Bungan Abok, 83, and his family are among the 101 families staying at Uma Belor, one of the 15 modern longhouses constructed at Sungai Asap scheme. The other schemes are at Penyuan and Koyan.
About 12 years ago, on mornings like this, Bungan would feel nervous realizing the fact there would be many children on the treacherous journey to school by boat along the Balui River from his former Longhouse in Long Sah A.
Bungan and the rest then had every reason to worry as the boats carrying their children had to travel through the torrent while avoiding timber debris, semi submerged and submerged boulders and one or two rapid along the way.
Today, the settlers who were once skeptical over their relocation from their ancestral land to make way for the RM8 billion dam have undergone a remarkable transformation.
Presently 10,000 people comprising of 1,693 families representing five main ethnic groups – the Kenyah, Kayan, Lahanan, Ukit and Penan – are residing in the three schemes.
Generations of settlers depended on the Balui River as their route to the outside world and most settlers owned longboats.
Today, on the contrary, most do not own longboats that were once the most prized possession for the riverine communities.
With the compensation money from their displacement, they bought four-wheel drives or the very least, a Kancil automobile or a motorcycle that now serves as their favourite mode of transport.
The children today ride on four-wheel drives to schools and a rough estimate puts the number of four-wheel drives at 150 in the schemes.
They now enjoy treated water and 24-hour power supply. Refrigerators, washing machines or the Astro satellite television, once the privilege of town folks is now ubiquitous here. Schools, churches, community halls, a health centre and modern retail shops are all accessible within minutes.
SOME STILL MISS THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Asap community leader Penghulu Saging Bit, 50, related that the older folks do get nostalgic on their good old days and their regular “Kuman Bahek” (picnics by the river).
The Balui provides them with fish like the “Empurau”, (a fresh water carp) while in the vast jungle they used to hunt the “Payau” (Sambar deer) and the “Baboi” (wild boar).
However, the new life at the schemes has its own joys that some won’t even dream of going back.
“Accessibility is our greatest pleasure here. We can travel just about anytime, anywhere and at a lower cost. In the old days, it was not only expensive but dangerous especially with the notorious Murum and the Pelagus rapids.
“Previously, it used to be a daunting task each time we had to send some sick relatives or pregnant women suffering from pre-natal complications to the nearest clinic in Belaga, about 40 kilometers downstream, especially at night,” he said.
EDUCATION AND MORE GRADUATES
Penghulu Saging stays at the Uma Belor longhouse. Of the 720 registered dwellers, only about 200 are still staying there. The rest are making a living either in Miri, Kuching, Sibu, Kapit and even in Kuala Lumpur.
This shows employment opportunities are limited but Penghulu Saging is confident all that will change when the Bakun Dam is ready.
“Let us be realistic. I do not think they will want to earn only meagre wages as plantation workers or as farmers here,” he said.
Then again, farming land is fast becoming scarce with huge tracts in the vicinity being allocated to big companies for oil palm and timber plantations.
He believes the youths in the settlement will have the best education. As a matter of fact, his longhouse’s vision is to produce at least a graduate from every family by 2020.
This is not a far-fetched dream as Uma Belor has produced 80 graduates, the biggest number in the whole of Belaga District.
They are professionals in the oil and gas industry, commercial banks, lecturers and civil servants, and successful businessmen all over the nation or overseas.
“Our hopes are that our children will be holding important positions in the Bakun management,” he added.
GOOD POTENTIAL OF EARNING TOURISTS DOLLAR
Living near the Bakun Dam, Penghulu Saging expects the settlers to earn the tourists dollar when the dam is ready.
People will be curious to visit it, given its reputations for its sheer size, height and the controversies. It will flood an area of 69,500 hectares, the size of Singapore.
The Bakun Dam when completed would be the second highest CFRD (concrete face rock fill dam) in the world at 205 metres and is expected to be operational by 2010 to generate 2,400 mega watts of green power.
“We are thinking of doing homestays, rearing fish in cages in the dam and sell our handicrafts.
“Despite staying in modern longhouses, we still hold strongly to our traditions and culture,” he says.
He says each of the five communities have their own unique dances, costumes, music, food, handicraft, which they are ready to share with the world.
Even their cemeteries that feature elaborate and colourful burial huts for the “Maren” (aristocrats) are a sight to behold.
Meanwhile, the government, in its bid to sustain the settlers, has allocated a sum of RM10 million under the Ninth Malaysia Plan to spur pepper cultivation through collective efforts.
Even the reclusive Penan minority are trying their hands in pepper cultivation, a clear indication that the Bakun Dam is also slowly changing their nomadic lifestyle.