New call for royal rainforest help

King Harald’s recent visit to a village in the Amazon rainforest seems to have inspired more rainforest residents on the other side of the globe to seek royal support. They hope the Norwegian monarch will summon home one of his own subjects, a Norwegian businessman who plans a dam on Borneo that will destroy both the local rainforest and their villages.

King Harald with local hunters during his recent visit to an Amazon rainforest. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

King Harald with local hunters during his recent visit to an Amazon rainforest. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

Newspaper Dagbladet reported Tuesday that the Penan people of the Sarawak region of Borneo have sent a letter to the Royal Palace in Oslo in which they invited King Harald to visit their villages and help them protect the local rainforest from dam developer Torstein Dale Sjøtveit. They wrote that they are turning to the Norwegian monarch “in desperation” because “one of your subjects from Norway is creating great problems for us.”

Sjøtveit, a former executive at Norsk Hydro and a shipyard group that once was part of Aker Yards, is now chief executive of Sarawak Energy Berhad Group in Sarawak, the Malaysian portion of Borneo. Sarawak Energy is building several dams that already have dislocated 12,000 people and Sjøtveit himself told Dagbladet that between 8,000 and 10,000 more people must leave their homes to make room for the hydroelectric projects.

The people King Harald visited in the Amazon have much the same lifestyle and concerns as those now seeking the king's help on Borneo. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

The Yanomami people whom King Harald visited in the Amazon have similar concerns as those now seeking the king’s help on Borneo. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

Among them are the Penan people who face, they claim, an end to life as they know it because of Sjøtveit’s company’s dam projects. They have always lived in the rainforests of Borneo, first as nomadic hunters and later in villages, much like the Yanomami people of Brazil whom King Harald visited, admired and expressed support for last month. Penan leaders wrote that their lives have depended on “a healthy environment and a rainforest that gave us all we needed.” They want to preserve their “identity and existence” on the land inherited from their forefathers, according to the letter to the palace that was obtained by Dagbladet.

Now their lives and livelihoods are “threatened,” they wrote, because Sarawak Energy, led by Sjøtveit, plans to place their rainforest and their villages under water when they build the large Baram Dam. “As King of Norway we ask you to call home your subject Torstein Dale Sjøtveit,” they wrote, adding that if he wants to build hydroelectric dams, he can do it in Norway or wherever else he may be welcome, but they claimed he has “no right to come from Norway to Sarawak and destroy our rainforests.”

King Harald with another new friend during his rainforest visit in late April. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

King Harald with another new friend during his rainforest visit in late April. His T-shirt sports the name of his long line of sailboats, “Fram.” PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway / ISA Brazil

The letter, signed by the several Penan leaders and including the fingerprints and identity numbers of 604 persons, also mentioned that since King Harald is an avid sailor, they invited him to sail to Borneo and take part “in our regattas in Baram,” and see the beauty of our forests and traditional culture.

King Harald was coincidentally being welcomed back on board the royal yacht Norge in Oslo, during an annual embarkation ceremony, as news of the letter broke on Tuesday. A palace official told Dagbladet that she hadn’t seen the letter, but said that “we answer all the letters we receive.”

The dam project that Sjøtveit is leading has also sparked protests from environmental organizations and a call for Norway’s financial crimes unit Økokrim to investigate it. Among those trying to block the dams and support the rainforests and their inhabitants are Survival International, Save The Rivers Network and the Swiss foundation Bruno Manser,  which wants a probe into how contracts for the work were dealt out.

Sjøtveit told Dagbladet that Sarawak Energy had an “open, competitive bidding process” that generates the “best results” for the company. He also said that Sarawak Energy would conduct a “Social and Environmental Impact Assessment” of the planned damns, but contended the company’s own surveys already show that residents of the areas where the dams will be built “are open and positive” towards development.

One local official agreed, but stressed that the Baram Dam “isn’t what we want.” One local woman told a representative of the Bruno Manser foundation: “They say the dam will create development, but how can it be development if they drown us?”

While King Harald, who formerly worked with the World Wildlife Fund, has shown his personal support for the rainforests, the Norwegian government has funded rainforest preservation in countries including Brazil and Indonesia for years, as part of its efforts to halt climate change.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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