The aggravating plunder and destruction of the mountains are fanning the flames of people’s protest.
By DENNIS ESPADA
ANTIPOLO CITY – Covering a vast land surface from Cagayan in the north to Laguna-Quezon in the south, the Sierra Madre is the country’s longest mountain range. Its teeming rivers, falls, springs and other resources not only provide sustenance to people living in the uphill, slopes and borders but also benefit the urban population as well.
As one of the world’s biodiversity centers, its 1.4 million hectares (or 40 percent of the country’s total forest cover) is home to a great number of endemic species, including our national treasure, the endangered “Haring Ibon” (king of birds) or Philippine Eagle.
Ecological groups believe the mountains, despite its fragile state, shield Luzon Island from devastating typhoons originating from the Pacific Ocean. The impacts of flood-causing heavy rains triggered by typhoon Ondoy in 2009 have turned the importance of preserving its remaining forests into a matter of public concern.
Though President Benigno Aquino III has proclaimed September 26 as “Save Sierra Madre Day”, his administration hypocritically allows the further destruction of the mountain range by big foreign and local corporations through its Private-Public Partnership (PPP) program. This is according to affected communities and concerned sectors that assembled on the same date this year to form an alliance, aptly called Protect Sierra Madre.
Threatened biodiversity, resources
“The mountains serve as a natural pharmacy, food source, and sacred ancestral ground for our indigenous folk,” the green group Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE) said in its solidarity message. “High mountains also hold hidden mineral reserves, which, if the people would develop based solely on their needs, could serve as a platform for our genuine development and industrialization.”
The group revealed that the Sierra Madre has three national parks and 10 protected areas, two of which are found in the Southern Tagalog region—the Quezon Protected Landscape and the Upper Marikina Basin Protected Landscape. These protected areas cover more than 27,000 hectares of land and forests.
Our country relies on the mountains for renewable energy, but “neoliberal” policies under past and present regimes have turned over the control and utilization of these resources into the hands of profit-oriented businesses.
These include: Metro Manila Waterworks and Sewerage Systems’ New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam project in Tanay, Rizal; Sierra Madre Water Corporation’s 35-million watt multi-river hydropower cum bulk water project in Pakil, Pangil and Paete in Laguna, and Real in Quezon; and Green Circle Properties’ Pacific Coast Cities project in General Nakar in Quezon and Dingalan in Aurora, among others.
Will the people benefit from the construction and operation of these dams and other “development” projects?
Dr. Giovanni Tapang, a physicist and national president of AGHAM (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People), said these PPP-initiated projects would do good only for big business, foreign investors and President Aquino himself.
In a forum attended by Dumagat-Remontado folk, students, church people and environmental advocates, he explained how large dams, if damaged or not properly built, could cause flooding in downstream communities.
Dams also involve submerging of rich biodiversity sites, including species with medicinal properties waiting to be discovered. Dr. Tapang said that once it is gone, we would not be able to restore it. “The Sierra Madre came into being after millions of years, along with all the species of flora and fauna that evolved with it…If these are destroyed, it’s like the whole world has suffered a huge loss,” he warned.
The physicist pointed out that affected indigenous people’s right to their ancestral domain and self-determination should be the basis for any development plan or initiative.
The KPNE, in addition, explained the concept of national patrimony: “The country’s natural wealth should primarily serve the interests of its citizens, to have a sustainable agriculture, to conserve nature and build industries that would create more jobs and develop our lives.”
Suffering of Stewards
Since 2003, the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly has recognized the key role of indigenous people, settlers and poor peasants as stewards of the mountains, especially in maintaining ecosystems and providing environmental services.
According to Kakay Tolentino of Katribu Partylist, what endangers them from taking responsibility or fulfilling such role, apart from worsening hunger and landlessness, are the continuing ethnocide, forced evacuations and harassments by military and paramilitary elements.
The brutal massacre of school head Emerito Samarca as well as Lumad leaders Dionel Campos and Bello Sinzo in Lianga, Surigao del Sur last September 1, she said, has aroused public outrage on the Aquino government’s counter-insurgency campaign that victimizes innocent and unarmed civilians.
UN special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz disclosed that 100 indigenous people were already killed while defending their lands and environment over the past three years alone.
“We’re not turning our backs on development but the government should consider our own development as well,” Dumagat-Remontado leader Arnel delos Santos said. “We just want to live peacefully in the rural areas, but why are they demolishing our homes?”
He denounced the “inutility of the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and its obvious collusion with big local and foreign corporations to deceive and divide the indigenous people. And despite the brutal killing of his father, anti-dam activist Nicanor “Kano” delos Santos, in December 2001, he told supporters that their unity remain strong even under difficult situations.
“For as long as dam proponents repeatedly and seriously push through with the project, we will also repeatedly and seriously stand our ground to oppose it. We’re not afraid of their attempts to suppress us since our goal is for the welfare of our fellow Dumagat-Remontado folk,” he said.