SEAREPA: Decentralise Me!

Renewable Energy campaigners share their triumphs and torments at the South East Asian Renewable Energy People’s Assembly.

Welcome to Day 2 of the People’s Assembly here in Sabah. Today, the participants are well into the workshop sessions, sitting on the floor, in corners and anywhere they can find to share their stories and solutions with each other.

But the discussions have already unfolded, and so many stories have already been told.

Yesterday, the People’s Assembly began with a Renewable Energy timeline, tracking the history of renewable energy across South East Asia.

A representative from Vietnam argued "In Vietnam, we have plenty of electricity but we still continue to build the dam. We have thousands of dams" but it seems they have no plans for the affected peoples.

At first, everyone seemed a bit nervous. But after a while, you couldn’t stop the hands from rising to the sky, everyone seeking a chance to give their two cents.

It began with Iskander from Indonesia, who described his fight for renewable energy from 1994, to his success in 1999, connecting a small micro-hydro project to the national grid.

We then heard from participants in Myanmar, who not only described the challenges of promoting and campaigning for renewable energy against Myanmar’s military junta, but also talked about contemporary success working with Myanmar’s transitional government. After decades of unregulated environmental exploitation, the transitional government recently formulated the nation’s first national environmental policy, and 3 weeks ago, the government invited environmental NGOs to discuss their recommendations with policy makers.

Can you imagine what that must have felt like? After decades of military oppression and aggression against any even alternative voices, now the government is slowly learning how to bring democratic processes to their environmental management.

Representatives from the Philippines talked about the success they have achieved in the southern island of Mindanao, installing 21 community based micro-hydro projects since 1993. But they also reflected on the challenges they face, especially competing with the contemporary bias of the government to promote big, mega, super and what could only be called gigantic development projects. Unfortunately, it also appears that this mega-mentality has even infected the renewable energy sector in the Philippines. As they described –

“there was a big geo-thermal project in Mindanao in 1996 that destroyed a significant amount of forest in a protected area – although they call it renewable energy –  it actually destroyed a lot of forest land.”

And even recently, they reflected  both praise and concern for the Renewable Energy Act, created in 2008. Apparently, while the act promotes renewable energy, the act favours big business as the central government still fails to see the benefit of community-based projects or policy.

Interestingly, this became a bit of a theme of the People’s Assembly.

An Indian representative described that across the Himalayan region of India, “we are fighting against 40-50 hydro-projects”. Indonesian representatives recalled stories of fighting against repetitive government plans to build a nuclear power plant in central Java. Bangladeshi reps described how their government has tried to corrupt local people to agree to new plans to develop coal-fired power plants and their plans for a new struggle against a proposed $5 billion, 2000 MW nuclear power plant planned over the next 6 years, thanks to Russian investors.

And June Rubis from SAVE Rivers said:

“In Sarawak, we are fighting to stop 12 mega-dams planned across our state. Currently we have two mega-dams and one more almost completed which have displaced thousands of Indigenous people. These mega dams are being built in the name of “green development”, but the  question now is development for whom. These affected communities are poorer than ever, and still awaiting the unfilled promises from the government. We fear the same fate for many other communities currently threatened by these plans. We need to stop all this greed before it’s too late.”

Almost every country representative reiterated this fear of and frustration of bureaucratic blindness, as governments across the region seem set on centralising not only political, but electrical power – be it ‘renewable’ or not. In either case, it seems that any ‘mega’ development results in a bad equation for affected communities.

As I was listening to these heartfelt stories of stress and success, I began to reflect on development across the region.

Many of these countries have undergone crazy political, economic and social transformations over the last 20 years. Many countries also seem to have transferred from food production to now seeking to become energy exporting countries competing within Asia and with the world.

This has also followed urban and technological transformations in many of these countries. But across Asia, the majority of people “still live in rural areas” and “still live in the dark”. Meanwhile, the governments of these nations are pushing ahead with visions of modernity that leave millions of people behind.

These visions of development are coloured with hyperbole and images of strength, focusing on not only centralising power, but developing this power further than the big development imaginations of the 20th Century, and into the ‘mega’ imaginations of the 21st.

But in reality, it is a vision made in direct competition not between governments, but between government departments plagued with an administrative and economic version of ‘penis envy’.

In this context, activists from across the region have sought to enable communities to create ‘micro-bridges’ connecting with the contemporary energy transformation covering South East Asia. These activists have operated on the small, micro and even pico-level, working with communities while their governments have been hell bent on chasing the title of Asia’s energy behemoth — like a dog pack chasing an robotic rabbit, not realising that their race is merely a betting match for corporate interests willing to make big bets on the best rates available.

Furthermore, these activists have carved out their work in highly contentious, often brutal political contexts such as Sarawak, Myanmar and Indonesia whereby governmental oversight does not just extend to centralised power generation, but to authoritarian power oppression.

In these contexts, these governments may certainly be characterised by their “abuse of power”, not only planning and implementing mega power generating projects that displace and relocate thousands of people, but never even intend to assist these people to achieve energy development.

Even more so, in these projects, governments have “opened the back door for transnational corporations. They are the corporate colonisers who come into our countries through the back door demanding cheap energy” for their aluminium smelters and stock profiles.

Yet, these pico-campaigners have indeed carved their mark in their nation’s energy trajectories, and in this regional context have fought hard not only on the ‘local’ scale to assist community development, but seeking to centralise the ideology of community development within their nation’s energy contexts.

It is a battle that at times may indeed progress like a “yo-yo”, or at other times may seem heart-breakingly impossible, but it is a struggle nonetheless that continues to carve its mark.

And this mark, like the mark of Zorro, may not indeed pierce through the heart of their nation’s development, but surely lives in infamy in the hearts of the communities they have fought for.

Communities who are now able to take advantage of small-scale, decentralised renewable energy.


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Posted on 31 October 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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