A Philippine tribe that defeated a dam prepares to fight its reincarnation

BY LEILANI CHAVEZ

  • The Dumagat-Remontado indigenous group has ancestral domain claims in an area where the Philippine government plans to build a dam to supply water to Metro Manila and nearby urban areas.
  • The Kaliwa Dam is part of the New Centennial Water Source (NCWS), a project for which President Rodrigo Duterte has secured with a $235.9 million loan deal from China.
  • The indigenous community defeated a previous iteration of this project, when a much larger dam was proposed in 2009, but the project has since been revised to call for nine smaller dams — an approach that observers say will undermine the resistance to the project.
  • Five out of six community clusters voted to reject the Kaliwa Dam project, but the environment department still issued an environmental compliance certificate to the contractors; Duterte has also warned of the use of “extraordinary powers” to push the project through, raising the prospect of another show of mass resistance.

GENERAL NAKAR, Philippines — On Nov. 5, 2009, Kapitan, a leader of the Dumagat-Remontado indigenous group, came down from his mountain village. “Dumagats don’t leave the mountains,” he told Mongabay. “When taga-patag [lowland] people come up, we go further up where we won’t be bothered. But we left the mountains to fight.”

The fight that Kapitan joined that day 10 years ago was against a hydropower dam that threatened to inundate more than 28,000 hectares (70,000 acres) of forestland in the indigenous group’s ancestral domain and to displace 11,000 families. On that same day, around 200 community members offered up a native chicken sacrifice to Bobo Makedepit, their supreme deity, before marching 150 kilometers (92 miles) on foot, in their loincloths, on a journey that would last nine days.

“I left my wife here because my children are still young,” Kapitan said, recalling how the sun scorched their bare backs and the asphalt burned their feet as rubber slippers disintegrated in the heat. “I broke two slippers but we didn’t care — we marched to Manila, rain or shine.”

The Pimuhan community in the village of Lumutan, like all other Dumagat communities, is nestled in the verdant forest landscape of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

They relied on the goodwill of people in towns they passed, and sheltered in parks and churches. When they reached the capital, they trooped to the presidential palace in Malacañang before camping out at the Quezon City Memorial Circle, right across from the environment department. “We even appeared in Congress,” Kapitan remembered wistfully. “We wore our traditional clothes of course — and boy, it was cold. Our teeth chattered nonstop.” But when they spoke out at the plenary, their voice was strong and unwavering.

The tribe’s opposition to the Laiban Dam project was part of growing public unease over controversies involving the government’s deal with the San Miguel Corporation, the biggest company by revenue in the Philippines, which had submitted an unsolicited proposal to build the dam. For one, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) was criticized for not publicizing the bidding, which led the government to pursue San Miguel’s sole proposal. Concessionaires and government officials also criticized the contract discussions for its alleged “take or pay” scheme, which would have obliged the water authority to pay for a specified supply volume from Laiban even if the water was unused — a scheme they warned could jack up water prices. San Miguel denied this, but the issue raged on, fed also by the tribe’s vocal resistance to the project.

The tribe’s persistence paid off. San Miguel backed out after talks between the government and San Miguel broke off for undisclosed reasons. The tribe regarded it as a victory borne of the march, a story they passed down to their children.

But the victory was short-lived; they had successfully blocked the massive Laiban Dam project, but the threat made a hydra-like return. In early 2019, repackaged as a “smaller” 113-hectare (279-acre) initiative under the New Centennial Water Source (NCWS) program, President Rodrigo Duterte secured a $283.2 million loan deal from China for the Kaliwa Dam and earmarked it as a flagship project of his administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program.

The Kaliwa Dam project is set to submerge the villages of Daraitan in Rizal province and Queborosa in Quezon province. Source: Pakisama advocacy maps

Underplaying the scope of the project appears to have worked: some of the communities opposed to the bigger dam a decade ago now say they feel this new project will not have a direct impact on them. “Times have changed,” Kapitan whispered, his sullen expression partly lit up by the pale moonlight and partly veiled in a sea of cigarette smoke. “Because of China’s involvement … This time, I feel that this project will push through.”

Fighting a ‘done deal’

Kaliwa means “left” in Tagalog, and the river gets its name from its geography. Running along the eastern border of Quezon province, it meets the Kanan (right) River before uniting with the mighty Agos River that carves a labyrinthine path through farmlands and fishing grounds in the downstream municipality of Infanta before eventually emptying out into the Pacific. The riverine system is renowned for its untouched beauty, massive volume of water, and tremendous potential — factors that have made it a prime target for national development projects.

The Laiban Dam was at the heart of the Manila Water Project III, conceived in 1979. But grave human rights abuses during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, coupled with civil unrest, halted its construction. It languished until 2007, when the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won Chinese funding for it. But it was quickly shelved again, part of the fallout from a corruption scandal linked to Chinese funding for a separate infrastructure project. From 2013 to 2015, Macapagal-Arroyo’s successor, Benigno Aquino III, commissioned a feasibility study, and the Laiban project was reborn as the New Centennial Water Source, with the original plan for a single massive dam revised down to nine smaller ones, including Kaliwa.

This Dumagat-Remontado tribe in the village of Lumutan is one of those fighting against the dam for forty years. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

Compared to Laiban, everything about Kaliwa is smaller in scale: its reservoir will flood 113 hectares of forestland as opposed to 28,000, and it will only directly affect eight villages and 1,465 families, rather than the 11,000 families that would have been impacted by Laiban. Duterte’s blueprint also ditches the hydropower initiative attached to Laiban and focuses on Kaliwa’s water potential, with the option of expanding its capacity by diverting water from future dam projects on the Kanan and Agos rivers that have yet to be awarded. But critics say these figures undercount the number of affected communities, as the stretch of the nine-dam project will affect a total of 11 villages and 39 indigenous communities.

Do you know why they’re pushing for Kaliwa Dam?” Joan Jaime of the Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (Katribu), a coalition of indigenous groups, told Mongabay. “Because in that 2015 feasibility study, the communities in Kaliwa have the weakest opposition.” Kaliwa is the gateway, she said; the sharp end of the wedge with which to cut through resistance built up over the decades. “The government wants this project to appear small because … it becomes easier for the community to accept this. Kaliwa is crucial … if we allow Kaliwa, what’s stopping the government from building the rest?”

Laiban itself isn’t exactly dead and buried. While the national government says the country’s National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) board has “abandoned” the Laiban project for its massive relocation costs and only approved Kaliwa, Manila’s water authority has yet to confirm which among the proposed Laiban or Kanan dams would feed Kaliwa should its capacity be expanded under the deal with China Energy, Beijing’s state-owned energy conglomerate. (In both the 1979 and 2015 feasibility studies, only Laiban has an attached hydropower potential.) As it stands, Kaliwa will have the capacity to handle 2,400 million liters (634 million gallons) of water per day, “and is designed to accommodate additional raw water of 1,800 MLD [476 million gallons per day] coming from either Laiban Dam or Kanan Dam which is already included in the contract cost with China Energy,” the MWSS stated.

Dumagat-Remontados are prolific upland farmers. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

But there’s a key obstacle that stands in the path of all this: the site of the proposed Kaliwa Dam falls within an ancestral domain whose title is held by the Dumagat-Remontados. By law, the contractors are required to secure a certificate of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the title holders before beginning construction. Local resistance, supported by a general mistrust of China’s burgeoning involvement in large-scale infrastructure projects, has delayed Kaliwa’s groundbreaking. But the government remains adamant. In March, MWSS administrator Reynaldo Velasco told Congress that the project had been awarded and that “it will push through.” He added: “We cannot delay this. The government already committed to this project. This is a done deal.” Velasco was fired from the water agency on the same month, the peak of Manila’s water crisis heralded by the coming summer season, and replaced by Ricardo Morales, another retired general, only to be reappointed back into the MWSS board by July and assume chairmanship by August.

When Velasco was out of the water agency, the project had stalled for want of two important government-issued certificates: one acknowledging the contractors have obtained the FPIC of the affected indigenous communities, and an environmental compliance certificate. That was a relief for the Dumagat-Remontados, who had voted overwhelmingly against the project in September. But this changed in late October, when the environment department issued the environmental compliance certificate, setting up an even fiercer battle for the last remaining requirement: the consent of the indigenous peoples.

The Lumutan River, a tributary of Kaliwa River. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

‘The dam is cunning’

The community members who gathered in the town of Lumutan to vote on whether to consent to the project this past September had already encountered it under its various guises over the years. This time, though, they knew “so little about this new one,” said Jaime from the Katribu coalition. “The community is confused.”

“We don’t even know what the project’s about,” said Tatang, one of those present. “They come here and ask for our votes but they didn’t even show us the plan,” he added, referring to the water agency and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Questions were also raised about how the government was speeding up the process: It had grouped the community into six clusters, essentially stripping down their communal approach to bloc voting and downplaying the great geographical distance between one community and another — an obstacle that only the most eager were likely to try to overcome. “That’s the challenge: every member has to be thoroughly informed of what’s at stake and they all have to agree among them before they cast a vote,” Jaime said.

Nilo was one of those who made the trip to Lumutan. His home village of Pagsangahan is among those that will be submerged by the reservoir. And once the water gets diverted, 1,200 farmers cultivating 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres) downstream will suffer, he said. “That dam is cunning and its effects are far-reaching,” Nilo added.

Areas in Quezon and Rizal provinces that will be affected by Kaliwa Dam. Source: Pakisama advocacy maps

“Residents here don’t want to attend the assemblies anymore,” Tatang said. “We’ve been fighting for so long and this conversation kept on repeating year after year. When will we win?”

“We did win,” Nilo said. “Some say nothing happened when we fought in 2009 but we are still here. If we didn’t win, we would have been dispersed 10 years ago and this village should have been all water. But we’re still here … our homes are still intact — that means we won. And we have to keep winning.”

When Lumutan cast its vote, it was unanimous: No to the Kaliwa Dam.

Four other indigenous clusters voted the same way, while the sixth, Malibay, was the sole one approving of the dam. But the NCIP, which oversees the process of obtaining consent, hasn’t formally released the results of these votes, and residents anticipate another round of consultation — a redo allowed under the Indigenous People’s Act if the current round is formally closed and the water agency reapplies. “All these documents that they don’t release makes us suspicious,” Pete Montellana, an activist priest with the STOP Kaliwa Dam coalition, told Mongabay. Montellana was one of the main movers of the resistance, harking back to the mobilization of 10 years ago. “Why the delay? A significant majority of the tribes already rejected the project and this should be publicized. They should release the certification that the Dumagats scrapped Kaliwa.”

The community is upbeat about how the consent results have turned out so far, but is less trusting about the indigenous people’s commission and how it has handled the process. “The NCIP should clarify their process,” Jaime said. “This clustering method is causing division … It’s this changing process that confuses indigenous peoples.”

The road to a Dumagat community in Quezon. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

Even as the consent process has hit a temporary halt, half of the access roads leading to the dam site have been built, the military has been deployed to watch over the machinery, and a culture of impunity has washed over the area, exacerbated by Duterte’s threat to wield “extraordinary powers” to see the project through. “You have every right to protest if it … would place your place in jeopardy,” he told reporters in Manila on Oct. 28. “But if the safeguards are there then between your concerns and the [water] crisis that we are trying to avoid, I will use the extraordinary powers of the presidency.”

These extraordinary powers, groups say, include mobilizing the country’s security forces to temper community resistance to the dam in an area that’s already the site of clashes between combatants from the New People’s Army, a wing of the outlawed Communist Party, and the military. But the ongoing tensions on the ground have also strengthened the community’s resolve for another rigorous and extensive march on Manila should due process and legal interventions fall short.

“My children asked us how to put loincloths,” Kapitan said. “They’re bad at it, but little by little, they’re learning how to put it on. They want to get ready … if we march again, they will join me for this cause.”

The names of community members have been changed for their safety.

This article is the last of a two-part series on the Kaliwa Dam project. Part One: Controversial dam gets greenlight to flood a Philippine protected area

Source: Mongabay

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