‘We will not be wiped out by dams’

The indigenous peoples in the Sierra Madre mountain range and other parts of the country are mounting opposition to the mega structures that threaten to wipe out not only their ancestral homes, but also their age-old culture and identity.


MANILA — The Dumagats and Remontados of Southern Tagalog are shy by nature, living as subsistence farmers in the southern hinterlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. But for the past 35 years, they have come out of their shell to defend their homes and culture against a threat that comes from no less than the government: the Laiban dam project.

The Dumagats and Remontados are gearing up for another round of fight against the Laiban dam project, which has been revived for the nth time, now by the Aquino government.

Learning from the experience of other indigenous communities who had been displaced by dam projects, the Dumagats are anxious that they will be scattered in different places. It’s a worry shared by other indigenous tribes facing the threat of mega structures that will erase not just their livelihood and homes, but their age-old culture, their way of life, language and identity.

For that matter, it also affects the national identity, the tribes being the first peoples of the archipelago.

“We will not retreat, instead, we are keeping the fight alive, so that our great, great grandchildren – the grandchildren of our grandchildren – will not be displaced from the land of our birth,” Nanay Norma, one of the elderly Dumagat women said at the “National forum on Laiban dam and other mega dams on the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.”

Inside a Laiban Dam tunnel (Photo by Jon Bustamante)
Inside a Laiban Dam tunnel (Photo by Jon Bustamante)

The forum was organized by the Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (Kamp), Task Force on Indigenous People, and the United Church of Christ of the Philippines-Integrated Development Program for the Indigenous Peoples of Southern Tagalog (Idpipst). The forum was held at the Methodist Prayer Garden and Conference site in Taytay, Rizal on Sept. 24 to 26.

The Sierra Madre tribes are joined by leaders of Ibaloi, Mangyan, Tumandok and Manobo-Pulangyon who came from other indigenous communities in Luzon, Vizayas and Mindanao that are also being threatened by mega dams.


Since the Martial Law era, in 1979, the Laiban dam project has been on and off. It has been touted as the solution to what government claims as Metro Manila’s looming water crisis. In 1984, two diversion tunnels were constructed but the project was stalled when Marcos was ousted. Subsequent attempts to continue were thwarted by the opposition of the indigenous peoples.

n 1986, the Kaisahan ng mga Katutubo sa Sierra Madre (KKSM) was formed to oppose the project. Later in the 90s, the Makabayang Samahan ng mga Dumagat (Maskada) was organized, followed by other indigenous peoples’ groups.

During the Aquino administration, the government continued to make an inventory of the properties in the communities in the project site. Then in 1997, the Ramos administration privatized water supply distribution, and passed it on to Maynilad and Manila Water companies, owned by the Lopez and Ayala, respectively. It was the Arroyo administration that aggressively pushed for the project’s revival, and got $1 billion as technical assistance loan from the Asian Development Bank. The government, however cancelled these in 2008. In 2009, The San Miguel Bulk Water Company Inc. submitted its unsolicited proposal. Still, the project failed to push through.

In 2011, the MWSS started collecting “advanced tariffs” for the dam project from water consumers.

Now, the Aquino government has again turned on the green light on the project, to be implemented under its Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program, and renewing the threat to submerge up to nine villages in Rizal and Quezon provinces.

The site of the Laiban dam project is the Kaliwa River basin in Laiban village, Tanay, Rizal, but will also harness the Kanan river in Gen. Nakar, Quezon, thus the term “Kaliwa-Kanan dam.” The project, renamed the New Centennial Water Source (NCWS) Project, will submerge 28,000 hectares of land. Laiban dam will rise 113 meters, while the Kaliwa dam will be 62 meters high.

The NCWS is estimated to supply 2,400 million liters of water a day, and generate 30 megawatts of hydropower. In June this year, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) announced that the project will be implemented in phases, prioritizing the smaller Kaliwa dam, with the Laiban dam deferred for later years. The Kaliwa dam will cost P18.78 billion ($418 million) and has been approved for bidding. The NCWS project is projected to be completed in 2027, with the Kaliwa dam expected to be functional by 2020.


Jill Cariño of the TFIP, who is also an Ibaloi and the vice chair for external affairs of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), said indigenous peoples have learned from experience how dams “weaken” or even destroy the indigenous culture and cooperation.

“When you lose your land, you lose the base on which to continue your culture,” she said at the forum.

Cariño said it was the experience of hundreds of indigenous peoples who were displaced by the Ambuklao and Binga dams, which were constructed in the 1950s in Benguet province in the Cordillera.

Some 200 families were displaced by the 500 hectare-Ambuklao Dam that was constructed from 1952 to 1956 in Itogon. It was the same case for the tribes displaced by Binga dam, which engulfed 150 hectares of ancestral territories. There was no relocation, and the affected population were not compensated.

Cariño said dislocated tribes were forced to integrate into other communities, even migrate to as far as Palawan.

The indigenous community loses not only their homes and farms, but also access to their ancestral graves and sacred places of worship. Scattered in different places, they will no longer able to practice their tribal rituals together, or even speak their language.

Kakay Tolentino of Katribu partylist cited the displacement and loss of farms of the Alta and Bugkalot tribes and other population in the construction of the Pantabangan dam in Nueva Ecija in 1969. She said that the whole town was submerged, dislocating the whole population.

Subsequent dam projects in the 80s were fiercely resisted by the Cordilleran tribes, such as the Chico dam in Kalinga.

Cariño said the government made various attempts to build a dam along Agno river but were all foiled by strong resistance. The Ramos administration decided to move the dam site in his home province of Pangasinan, thus what came to be the San Roque dam.

In the struggle against the San Roque dam, the Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes formed the Shalupirip Santahnay Indigenous Peoples Movement (SSPIM) in 1996. They researched and studied the project and started an education and information campaign. The group formed alliances with other sectors and brought the campaign against the dam to Metro Manila and abroad.

Among the leaders was Pascual Pocding, an Ibaloi and World War II veteran. Cariño recalled how Pocding, in a dialogue with the funding agency Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), told its officials: “During the war, you tried to kill us. Now, you are again trying to kill us with this dam and your money.” His words touched the Japanese officials who made reforms in the project.

Although the campaign failed to stop the dam construction, the government was forced to provide relocation and compensation to the affected population, following the standards set by the World Commission on Dams. Cariño said that one of the achievements of the anti-dam struggle was the strengthened unity among the indigenous peoples, and the broad support gathered from other sectors.

“The struggle raised the awareness of the people, of how a project, no matter how destructive and opposed, is forced on the people,” the CPA leader said. She added that the indigenous peoples also came to understood the deeper ills of society and the need to struggle for their rights and for genuine freedom and development for the whole country.

Dam nation

In his State of the Nation Address in July, President Aquino mentioned the construction of mega dams to ensure adequate power and water supply. He gave no mind to the indigenous peoples who are opposed to having their lives and livelihood sacrificed.

Among those Aquino mentioned were the Jalaur dam in Calinog, Iloilo province, and the Pulangi 5 dam in Bukidnon.

Roy Giganto, leader of the Tumandok, said the first Jalaur dam constructed in the 70s is now seen as insufficient to provide energy to the island. And so the Jalaur Multipurpose River Project 2 was put into motion, a pet project of Senator Franklin Drilon who hails from Iloilo.

The P 11.2 billion ($249 million) Jalaur dam will submerge 18 villages, affecting 17,000 population including Tumandoks, and will wipe out various species of flora and fauna. The project had received P450 million ($10 million) from Aquino’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (Dap), and the remaining will come as a loan from the Korean Export-Import Bank.

An environmental investigation mission conducted by the Agham in 2012 observed “geological risks” as the dam site is prone to landslides, and is 11 kilometers from the West Panay fault line.

Recently, the National Irrigation Authority gave assurance that the dam is designed to be quite fortified that “only a terrorist attack” can destroy it. The Jalaur River for the People Movement countered this in a statement, saying that the designers of the Titanic gave a similar pronouncement before it sank.

Giganto said that as experienced in the past years, the Jalaur river tends to overflow and cause flooding in the eight towns along its banks, which are at greater risk with the dam project.
Giganto said the government had been spending on a media campaign and bribing Tumandoks to get their support.

At present, the construction of the high line canal is ongoing but the Tumandoks are protesting that the project proceeded without the “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) from the indigenous peoples, which is required under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Ipra).

A writ of kalikasan is pending at the Supreme Court, filed by Panay representative Augusto Syjuco Jr.

In Bukidnon, Datu Nilo “Matingaw” Cabungkal, secretary general of the Save Pulangi Alliance, said the local government and proponents of the 300-megawatt Pulangi 5 dam project were the first to divide the indigenous peoples ranks, to get their required consent.

He recalled what he told pro-dam government officials at a 2012 dialogue: “You agree, because to you, money is important. But to us tribes, land is more important.”

The Pulangi 5 dam will inundate a total of 44 villages in Bukidnon and North Cotabato.

Eight of the 10 villages that have agreed to the project eventually retracted when they were informed of its adverse effects.

Datu Matingaw recalled that in 2012, officials of the First Bukidnon Electric Cooperative (Fibeco), the dam proponent, summoned him, and offered to give him P80,000 cash ($1,782), and a monthly allowance of P10,000 ($223), if he will stop opposing the project. He responded that these were just “silver coins” and that he refused to do a Judas Escariot on the anti-dam movement.

To the Dumagats and Remontados in the forum, Datu Matingaw said: “My fellow indigenous tribes, don’t be afraid. I, too, was afraid at first, but when my fear ran out, my courage surfaced. If we’re afraid, we will bring the next generation to damnation. All of us will face death, but it’s better to do so standing up and defending our land.”

Flood and silt

Amit Gabriel of the Hagibbat-Mindoro (Hanunuo, Alangan, Gubatnon, Iraya, Buhid, Bangon, and Tadyawan) said that dams only look good on paper but in reality are destructive.

The San Roque dam, which is supposed to have a “multipurpose” function for flood control and irrigation, caused flooding because of its water releases at the height of typhoons or monsoon rains: in in 2004, in 2009 during during typhoon Peping, and again in 2012.

Tyrone Beyer of the TFIP added that this was even compounded in 2012 when a tailings dam of the Philex mining corporation spilled into the Agno river, and eventually reached San Roque dam.

Cariño said what the government and the dam proponents don’t warn the people about is that a dam causes siltation, as rocks and sand builds up upstream, at the back of the dam. As a result, pasture land and farms upstream are affected. She said that for one, Binga dam became unoperational for two years and had to be dredged of silt.

Noel Alasco of the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham) said dam projects are implemented by private businesses and are profit-oriented. In spite of faulty designs and opposition from indigenous peoples, projects are allowed to push through by corrupt government officials. The World Commission on Dams requires that the community should give unanimous approval of the project. Instead, resisting indigenous communities are harassed, their leaders killed.

Water for all

Katribu’s Kakay Tolentino said there are 35 dams functioning in the country, and 21 of these are located in indigenous peoples’ ancestral domains. Of these, 15 dams are being used solely for power-generation; six for power, flood control and irrigation; four for power and irrigation, seven solely for irrigation, and three for water supply.

“Most of the dams are being used for power. And the biggest consumers of power are the businesses, the corporations,” Tolentino said.

“We recognize the need to harness energy from water, which is not just for the indigenous peoples but for all. But water should be owned by the people, utilized by all, not as a means for a corporation to accumulate profit,” she said. “We are open to development but it should not violate the right of the indigenous peoples to ancestral lands and for self-determination.”

Tolentino said Aquino’s PPP policy worsens the situation, as government reneges on its responsibility to develop and utilize natural resources to give service to the public, and instead gives privates business the right to own these.

Viable options

Instead of building dams, Agham said there are more viable options for government to ensure the water supply, such as ensuring consumer use efficiency and repairing leakages, which result to water waste. Government could also “develop the existing water reservoirs, implement an efficient water distribution system and facilities that do not pose adverse environmental and socio-economic impacts,” Agham said in an article “Laiban Dam: The answer to water crisis?” by Ibon Features.

Agham said the government could solve the “water crisis” if it scraps its water privatization policy, nationalize the water industry and implement a pro-people water agenda. “The government must focus on designing an effective water servicing and technology like modern pumping stations, water distribution facilities or wastewater treatment and recycling facilities,” Agham said.

Fists raised

“I have been living a quiet life and yet the soldiers still came,” said Adeling delos Santos, the widow of Maskada leader Nicanor delos Santos who was shot dead on December 8, 2001 by soldiers of the Task Force Panther in Antipolo.

“I have decided to become active again..because if I keep quiet, my ancestors’ land and my husband’s sacrifice will be for naught. And so I am returning with my fist raised to the struggle and the fight against Laiban dam,” said Dela Cruz. Her son, 26-year-old Arnel, is now the secretary general of Maskada.

Arnel said the Dumagats and Remontados are against the Laiban dam but some are afraid of the soldiers, who brand villagers as sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA). “Sa sundalo, pag me magandang katwiran e me nagtuturo. Pero ang mga katutubo, natuto na sa mga nakikita nila.”
(Soldiers say that when the people reason out, that means someone is teaching them. But in truth, the indigenous peoples have learned from what they have seen.)

“Even if all seven villages are deployed with soldiers, we will still persist in fighting the dam. We do not need the dam, we do not need the military. What we need is education, health service, projects that will not destroy the environment and culture of the indigenous peoples.”

Lodima Doroteo, 22, a Dumagat student of Harris Memorial College in Taytay, Rizal, recalled that as a child, she was brought by her parents in rallies against the Laiban dam project in the 90s. Her grandfather, Lope dela Cruz, was among the Dumagat leaders opposing the project.

Doroteo said she realized the importance of having joined the protests against the dam, and is now joining the fight on her own volition.

“If we did not come together then, the dam would have pushed through and caused destruction,” she said. “The forest is our life. If you remove the forest, then you remove our life. We will be wiped out.”

“We don’t want to fall into the ‘kinsi-kinsi’…we cannot survive in a cemented community. Where will our animals, our goats go to pasture?” said Nanay Norma, referring to promises that there will be jobs for the indigenous peoples. “Kinsi-kinsi” refers to pay day every 15th of the month for employees.

A Dumagat barangay official from Canawan, for his part, said: “It has been 30 years of struggle against Laiban dam, and it seems that this fight will never end. .Still, our action is forward, not retreat.”

Sierra Madre

AJ Espino of the Protect the Sierra Madre Network and Alliance said there is a need to defend the Sierra Madre mountain range – its indigenous communities and natural resources – which has been under attack by government and big corporations pushing for mining, dam projects and land use conversion. She said the mountain range – which straddles 10 provinces in the regions of Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog — is home to endangered species such as the monkey-eating eagle.

She said the Protect Sierra Madre Network and Alliance hopes to unite the indigenous peoples from the Sierra Madre communities, and mobilize support from other sectors in a campaign, which will also include the opposition against Laiban dam. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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