Among those who participated in the recent Lakbayan, the national peasant caravan, were members of the Aberlin Aetas, a tribe in Tarlac whose communities and livelihood are being threatened by a mega-dam project started by the administration of Cory Aquino and now being pursued by the Arroyo regime.
By MARYA SALAMAT
GUIGINTO, Bulacan — Victor Castillo describes himself as a “taong bundok” (literally, mountain people). An Aberlin Aeta, one of the indigenous tribes in the Philippines, he has never left his mountain dwellings in Tarlac. “The farthest I’d gone to was Zambales,” he joked. Zambales is just a few hours’ trek from their home in the mountains.
Last week, Victor and other Aetas ventured not only out of their sitio, which is some four hours of walk away from their barangay (village) proper, they also reached Capas town, then Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, then San Fernando, Pampanga, and further to Malolos City in Bulacan.
From Malolos, Castillo and dozens of others from his tribe, marched to Meycauayan, Bulacan, then to Monumento in Caloocan, until they reached the main office of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in Quezon City on Jan. 22. From there, they marched with other farmers and advocates of agrarian reform from different parts of the Philippines to Mendiola near Malacañang in Manila to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Mendiola Massacre, the bloody carnage in 2007 that not only killed several peasants and activists but also extinguished any illusions people had about a genuine agrarian reform in the Philippines.
The Aberlin Aetas left their mountain dwellings for the first time in their lives to join the first ever nationwide Lakbayan for land reform and justice.
The land problem they brought to the city for resolution is simple: they are seeking to avoid losing their homes and communities in the mountain and with it their sources of livelihood. They are being driven away from their lands, they said, because the government plans to build a mega-dam project, called the Balog-Balog Dam, in Tarlac.
In interviews with Bulatlat during the march last week, the Aberlin Aetas said the Arroyo government had not even bothered to propose relocation sites or assistance so they could pick up their lives in another place should they acquiesce and vacate their communities in favor of the dam. Worse, they said, it is doubtful whether they or other ordinary Filipino farmers stand to benefit from the dam once it is completed.
The other megadams in Central Luzon, such as the San Roque Dam, had driven away residents. During the height of the storm Pepeng last year, the San Roque Dam was filled to capacity for power generation before releasing huge volumes of water in the shortest time possible to prevent if from collapsing. As a result, thousands of homes were submerged.
Aside from the Aberlin, other subgroups of the Aetas, such as the Umay tribe, would be displaced during the construction of the Balog-Balog Dam. It would displace 500 families, mostly members of the Aberlin and Umay subgroups of the Aeta minority, said the group Peasant Alliance of Central Luzon.
“The Umay Aetas have also joined the Lakbayan, but they had to return back home after reaching Pampanga,” Castillo said. Other Aberlin Aetas told Bulatlat that the barangay captain of the Umay Aetas is under the “control” of the military. “We couldn’t just go to their community,” one of them said.
Balog-Balog Dam on Record
On paper, Balog-Balog Dam is referred to as the Balog-Balog Multipurpose Project because once built, it is supposed to irrigate farms, produce hydroelectric power and mitigate flooding. It has been on the government drawing board since 1988, under the Aquino government, which signed a deal with the government of Italy to build the dam. It was shelved after the 1990 killer earthquake that destroyed large infrastructures in Central and North Luzon.
It was resurrected, however, in 1999, with a price tag of P12 billion ($235 million at the July 2008 rates of $1=P44.956). Former president Joseph Estrada visited Tarlac in 2000 to launch the Balog-Balog project, but after he was deposed, it was Arroyo who submitted the project to the Japanese government for funding.
It remains an “ongoing project” up to now, as measurements are being done and markers put in place on the Tarlac-Zambales mountain ranges. The military has also been deployed, said the Aetas, putting up markers for their “shooting range” right in the areas being claimed by the Aetas as their ancestral domain. The military has been setting up checkpoints and patrolling the area so that Aetas are routinely searched by soldiers in case they were “carrying items from the New Peoples’ Army.”
The Balog-Balog dam is the biggest budgeted dam in the proposed and ongoing projects of the National Irrigation Administration. In a World-Bank study, the same Balog-Balog project was recorded to have received a total of P10.850 billion (US$241.855 million) funding from 2001 and 2004 up to 2009 from the government.
Based on documents procured from government agencies, the dam is supposed to be operational by 2011. From the initial requirement of P12 billion ($235 million), the cost of the Balog-Balog project has reportedly ballooned to P17 billion (more than $363 million).
“The major feature of the project is a 113 meter high earth and rockfill dam with a storage capacity of about 625 million cubic meters,” according to the National irrigation Administration website. It will have a 2,004-hectare (or 1,700 square kilometer) reservoir, wiping out 27 communities and displacing 500 families from their means of livelihood and way of life.
When finished, the dam would catch water from three big rivers, the Tangan-Tangan, Boboy and Malilit Rivers, flowing down from the mountains. It would inundate 14 sitios and communities along the three rivers in Barangay Maamot, San Jose and Buboy River in Capas, Tarlac, the Peasant Alliance of Central Luzon said.