Norwegian CEO's job on the line after Sarawak Energy loses crucial Australian support

Norwegian CEO's job on the line after Sarawak Energy loses crucial Australian support

In the wake of Hydro Tasmania's decision to withdraw all its staff from a number of controversial dam projects in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, an intense public debate has begun in Malaysia on the feasibility of the dam projects against a massive and well-organized opposition from Sarawak's indigenous communities.

Last week, Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, the driving force behind the dams, accused the successful NGO campaign against Hydro Tasmania of "economic sabotage" and said it was "nothing more than dirty politics of a non-governmental organisation". The New Straits Times, a newspaper close to the Malaysian government quoted an angry Taib as saying: "If Hydro Tasmania wants to pull out, then so be it. We can get other firms to help us with the project." (Source: www.nst.com.my/nation/general/taib-we-ll-get-others-to-build-dam-1.182595).

The Star, a newspaper owned by the Malaysian Chinese Asssociation MCA (a party represented in the current Malaysian government), ran a story under the title: "Planned pull out by Aussie firm because of NGO’s politics, says Taib". It quoted Taib as commenting Hydro Tasmania's pull-out: “This has nothing to do with technology but it is part of NGO politics. They pull out, never mind. We can find someone else."(...) “It doesn’t mean that when the rooster did not crow, daylight will not come,” he told reporters here yesterday.

In an attempt to downplay the withdrawal of Hydro Tasmania, its strategic partner in the Sarawak dams program, Sarawak Energy reacted immediately by claiming that the Australians' withdrawal was part of a long-planned pull-out - and not the result of the "Hydro Tasmania - get out of Sarawak" tour by a delegation of indigenous leaders. The November 2012 Australia tour had found strong support from a number of high-ranking politicians from the Australian Greens and the Labor party. Within two weeks, more than 6000 people sent e-mails to Hydro Tasmania CEO Roy Adair, asking his company to withdraw from Sarawak.

The Bruno Manser Fund has learned that Sarawak Energy CEO Torstein Dale Sjøtveit is currently very busy, desperately trying to fill the gaps left by the withdrawn Hydro Tasmania staff with Norwegian engineers. It is particularly painful for Sjøtveit that Andrew Pattle, Hydro Tasmania's Senior Project Manager for the Murum dam left Sarawak before the completion of the dam. Pattle should also have taken the lead in implementing the controversial Baram and Baleh dams but was taken out of the fireline by his employer, supposedly for reputational reasons.

The real question at this stage, however, is for how much longer Mr. Sjøtveit will remain CEO of Sarawak Energy after his failure to sell Taib's dams program to the international community as a respectable endeavour:

- In March 2012, Rio Tinto Alcan scrapped its planned US$ 2 billion investment in an aluminium smelter in Sarawak after seveal years of negotiations between Sarawak Energy and Rio Tinto Alcan. Without the smelter, the dams make no economic sense in a state with massive excess electricity.

- The Bruno Manser Fund has learned that German consultancy group Fichtner quietly withdrew from the Sarawak dams program in 2012 after having completed a feasibility study on the Baram dam. A company representative told the Bruno Manser Fund (under condition of anonimity) that the company wouldn't have become involved in the project in the first place had it been aware of the high number of people to be displaced for the dam.

- Mr. Sjøtveit's personal integrity has been challenged by Sarawak's SAVE Rivers network with a complaint with the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission after the NGO network identified irregularities with the granting of a number of Sarawak Energy contracts to companies linked to the son of Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. Norway's anti-corruption watchdog Økokrim has also been informed on the issue.

- In June 2012, Mr. Sjøtveit ridiculed local communities' opposition to Sarawak Energy's dam plans. In a press conference, he said that indigenous leaders who were opposing the Baram dam and other dams were "just making noise" and were taking advantage of "the Baram people's ignorance". During a so-called “dialogue session” with affected locals, Sarawak Energy had prohibited a high-ranking indigenous leader to voice his concerns over the Baram dam project.

- In September 2012, a blockade by Penan communities affected by the Murum dam brought the construction works to a halt. While two thirds of the dam construction works have been completed, Sarawak Energy has failed to produce and release a Social and Environmental Impact Assessment report - which should have been public before the company started constructing the dam.

- In December 2012, Hydro Tasmania's CEO, Roy Adair, announced that his company would withdraw all its staff seconded to Sarawak Energy within the next twelve months, giving in to pressure from the Australian Greens and an international NGO campaign. In its last annual report, Sarawak Energy had described the Australians as a key partner for the realization of its ambitious dam plans.

The Bruno Manser Fund wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Sjøtveit, Sarawak's best paid employee of a public company, was fired by the Taib government before the end of this year for having led Taib's dam program into a dead end.


The communities displaced by the Murum Dam are still waiting to receive farmland – NGOs are now asking Britain’s Princess Anne for help as she visited dam builder Sarawak Energy in late 2016




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