Tuesday, 18 November, 2003
Malaysia's solar power costs dear
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Kampung Denai,
For the inhabitants of this remote village on Malaysia's east coast, the price of joining the twenty-first century is dauntingly high.
They have finally acquired a reliable electricity supply, provided by a state-of-the-art solar power unit.
|The solar power unit gives the village a new future|
But to pay for the current it produces, the villagers are having to lose part of the rainforest on which they traditionally depend.
Their leader says it is a sacrifice worth making for the sake of modern conveniences such as satellite television.
Kampung Denai, 40 minutes by road in a four-wheel drive from Rompin, the nearest town, or 15 minutes by river, the only practicable route in the rainy season, is the home of some of Malaysia's "orang asli", or indigenous people.
Its inhabitants have never had mains electricity, and it was only within the last two years that the village acquired a diesel generator which provided a noisy and sporadic replacement for the kerosene and candles on which it had previously relied.
|Children of Kampung Denai: Many of their elders have left for a urban alternative|
But TNB, Malaysia's National Energy agency, has now installed a modern solar power station in Kampung Denai.
Connecting it to the grid 12 kilometres (8 miles) away would have cost 2m ringgit (£330,000), while the power unit is costing a quarter of that.
It will supply 15 of the village's 28 households in the first stage of the project, with the others brought on stream when they have been upgraded to meet safety standards.
So confident of the village's prospects are the authorities in Rompin that they have built a spanking new school, designed to cater not only for Kampung Denai's children but for those from four neighbouring villages as well.
TNB will charge the villagers exactly the same as it charges customers on the national grid whose supply comes from power stations burning fossil fuels - about 24 Malaysian cents (four pence) per kilowatt hour.
But as they have traditionally been subsistence forest people, selling a little fish but hardly anything else, they need very soon to find ready cash.
TNB's answer is to give each household six acres of land to grow oil palms, one of the staples of the Malaysian economy, and a crop dependent on heavy applications of chemicals.
The 170 acres needed are being carved from the rainforest which surrounds Kampung Denai.
The destruction is obvious to travellers arriving in the village by road - a wasteland of felled trees, churned earth and a devastated ecosystem.
That is the price of including the villagers in the cash economy and enabling them to pay for their solar electricity.
Apil bin Maulud is the sprightly 62-year-old headman of the village, whose people are members of the Jakun tribe.
He told BBC News Online: "The electricity is very good. Now our children have enough light to read their books, and to study.
|The new power supply brings all the mod cons|
"We're not sentimental about our traditions - we're happy to move on. It doesn't worry me that it's lowland rainforest that's going to give us the chance of progress.
"We used to catch animals in the forest, and fish in the rivers, but most of them have gone anyway."
It is a reminder of the rhetorical question once asked by Malaysia's just-retired Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, when challenged over deforestation in Malaysia: "Are they asking us to give up development, so that the rest of the world can breathe?"
Malaysia points to its good record in conserving rainforest in the nearby Endau-Rompin national park and elsewhere in the country.
In any case, there seems no going back for the villagers of Kampung Denai, whose houses, candle-lit just two years ago, now boast satellite dishes, DVD players and big-screen TVs - paid for by the village youth, who have already voted with their feet and moved out to find lucrative factory jobs in the modern world.
TNB hopes Kampung Denai will be a model for rural Malaysia.
Images copyright and courtesy of The Star, Malaysia