Special Report | Push for renewables threatens lands and livelihood in the Cordillera

Aside from providing food, the Apayao-Abullug River is also vital for the transport of people and goods in several villages along its banks that are reachable only by boats. (Photo by Sherwin De Vera)


Northern Dispatch/Bulatlat

MANILA — Juan Dammay was nine years old when the Philippine Constabulary imprisoned his father and other tribe leaders of the Basao and Butbut tribes of Tinglayan, Kalinga, during Martial Law for standing up against the proposed Chico River dams.

According to him, the Kalingas and Bontoc tribes resisted the project “because it will submerge our villages and farms and take away our control over our lands and resources.” The World Bank, which funded the project, eventually withdrew its support due to the solid and widespread opposition. After the ousting of the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986, the Aquino administration scrapped the proposal.

Now 56, Dammay, who chairs the group Alyansa ti Pesante iti Kordilyera (Peasant Alliance in the Cordillera or Apit Tako), said dam projects “continue to threaten not only the environment but also the livelihood and survival of communities.”

The Cordillera region, with 5.5 million hectares of drainage area, is considered the “water cradle” of Northern Luzon. Its watersheds feed six major river systems, and have an estimated generation potential of 3,600 megawatts, according to the Department of Energy.

With this substantial potential, the Cordillera region is again in the spotlight regarding dam-related conflicts more than five decades since the proposed Chico River Dams ignited popular resistance.

As of June 30, 2023, there are 16 hydropower facilities in the region in commercial operation, with 12 in the province of Benguet. Another 80 are in their pre-development and development stage, of which 18 are in Kalinga and nine in Apayao.

Land is life

Budin Balalang, a village elder from Kabugao, Apayao, recognizes infrastructure projects as part of development. However, he emphasized that people must resist investments that threaten indigenous peoples’ land, life, livelihood, and culture.

“We cannot accept it. We have too much to lose,” the 83-year-old resident of barangay Dibagat said in Ilokano in an October 19 interview.

Budin was referring to the series of hydropower dams that Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corp. plans to build on the Apayao-Abullog River and its tributaries.

“We cannot let go of our lands. We Isnags live through our lands, not money. That is what our ancestors taught us,” Budin said.

The 250-megawatt Gened 2 hydroelectric power project (HEPP) would impact 393 hectares of land in barangays Dibagat, Madatag, and Tuyangan in Kabugao. Meanwhile, the 150-megawatt Gened-1 HEPP would displace 898 households in eight barangays of Kabugao and 42 homes in Pudtol town, according to a 2016 environmental impact study.

Elder Melecia Dicray from the village of Madatag said that the forest and rivers provide their needs.

“We thrive by farming and fishing. [Our environment] provides us with all we need, including herbal medicines,” she said.

If the dam proceeds, she added, they will not only lose their lands, homes, and crops but also the plants and animals crucial to some of their indigenous recipes.

Meanwhile, six Kalinga tribes in the towns of Balbalan and Pinukpuk are also opposing the proposed dams along the Saltan River and its tributaries.

“We believe that the JWPI [JBD Water Power Inc. ] hydropower project along Saltan and Cal-oan rivers threatens our ancestral land and culture, sources of livelihood, and the environment,” said the August 2022 declaration. More than 200 elders and community leaders from Salegseg, Poswoy, Dao-angan, Ab-aba-an, and Mabaca tribes in Balbalan town and the Limos tribe in Pinukpuk signed the manifesto.

The Department of Energy issued five hydropower service contracts along the Saltan River and its tributaries. Located in Northern Kalinga, the river traverses the municipalities of Balbalan and Pinukpuk. Three were awarded to JBD Water Power Inc. (JWPI): the 49-megawatt Saltan D HEPP, 45-MW Saltan E HEPP, and the 40-MW Mabaca HEPP along the Cal-oan River.

Herman Gangot, a village leader and member of the Poswoy tribe in Balbalan, said they are against the dam because they have seen the impacts of large dams in the Cordillera.

He said the company promised scholarships for their children, concreting of roads, and construction of bridges if the project proceeds.

“It is still a no for us,” he said, “Because if we allow it, it will destroy our crops and farmlands that we inherited from our forefathers. And if it proceeds, including the roads, it will destroy more properties. The opening of the road would mean destruction of rice fields in the areas,” he added.

The 233-kilometer Chico River which meanders from Mountain Province and freely flows to the Cagayan River, passing through the province of Kalinga, was made iconic by the people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship’s plan to construct four large dams along its path. (Photo by Sherwin De Vera)

Renewable energy transition

In recent years, the concept of a “just transition” has been embraced by governments and environmental groups worldwide, with many adopting the framework in their action plans to combat climate change.
The International Labor Organization defines the concept as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities, and leaving no one behind.”

In the Philippines, the energy sector’s march towards this goal was outlined in the Philippine Energy Plan 2018-2040, intending to ramp up the “green energy” share by 50 percent by 2040. To this end, the government awarded 277 renewable energy service contracts, requiring an investment of about P2.06 billion (US$31.22 million), with P2.04 billion ($35.87 million) expected from hydropower projects.

In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. announced that his administration would pursue this as part of its climate agenda.

“The use of renewable energy is at the top of our climate agenda. We will increase our use of renewable energy sources such as hydropower, geothermal power, solar, and wind,” Marcos said in his speech.
Not only did the president include hydropower in his policy, but the son of the dictator also appointed people with sizable interest in the energy business in the government.

Sabin Aboitiz, chief executive officer of the Aboitiz Group, was named as the lead for the Private Sector Advisory Council. Former AboitizPower Vice President Dennis Edward A. Dela Serna was appointed to the state-led Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management Corp board a few months later.

Hedcor, a subsidiary of AboitizPower, owns and operates 11 hydropower plants in the Cordillera. Meanwhile, SN Aboitiz Power (SNAP), a partnership with Norway-based Scatec, controls the Ambuklao and Binga dams. It is also the proponent of the 390-megawatt Alimit Hydropower Complex in Ifugao.

Malana Gulayan of Barangay Dibagat points to a hill across the river, where his house and the tomb of his mother are located and would be submerged if the dam pushes through. (Photo by Sherwin De Vera)

Cause for concern

To the government’s credit, efforts to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources are a significant move. However, the inclusion of hydropower projects has raised alarm among indigenous peoples and environmental groups, as its benefits weighed against its impacts remain contentious.

Much more worrisome, they say, is Marcos Jr.’s appointment of officials from one of the leading energy players in the government has raised alarms among environmental and indigenous peoples’ groups.

According to Rei Paulin of Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous peoples’ groups, appointing Aboitiz could lead to more aggressive investments in hydropower projects.

“The implication of this is the seizing of lands from indigenous peoples and farmers, along with militarization to suppress resistance against these projects,” he said.

Paulin added that indigenous peoples should also brace themselves for more fraudulent process of obtaining free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). The FPIC is a requirement for projects in indigenous peoples communities as enshrined in the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA).

Such is the case with the proposed Gened and Saltan dams. Allegations of manipulation and irregularities hounded the projects despite repeated claims from the regional leadership of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) of the proper conduct of FPIC process.

Several Isnag leaders from Kabugao filed criminal and administrative complaints against NCIP officials in the province and in the region. Meanwhile, communities affected by the Saltan dams also urged the NCIP regional office to probe FPIC procedural breaches.

A report by the World Commission on Dams in November 2000 noted impacts like displacements, and economic and social issues especially among peasants and indigenous peoples’ communities.

More than two decades after the release of the report, the issues remain the same, as Joan Carling, a Champions of the Earth awardee, raised during her talk on just transition and climate justice last August.

Carling emphasized that indigenous peoples not only suffer from the impacts of climate change but are also victims of just transition initiatives.

“From the experience of indigenous peoples… we are at the frontline suffering the consequences of climate change and at the same time becoming victims of the just transition,” she said.

The indigenous rights activist, who hails from Mountain Province, pointed out that hydropower is considered a clean and renewable energy source. However, these facilities have also caused “massive displacement and forced evictions” and the “destruction of livelihood, food systems, and cultural heritage.”

Residents of barangay Limos in Pinukpuk made campaign posters against the proposed Saltan dams using recycled tarpaulins seen in the different sitios along the river. (Photo by Sherwin De Vera)

Targeting dissent

Carling also noted that indigenous peoples and activists resisting dam projects are red-tagged, and their advocacy and actions are criminalized, a reality that anti-dam activists in the Cordillera face.

In August last year, Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) regional council member Stephen Tauli was abducted in Tabuk City and was released after more than 24 hours. He was active in the anti-Saltan dams campaign at the time of the attack.

Rogyn Beyao and Camay Bog-as, youth campaigners of Sumkad (rise), an anti-dam network in Kalinga, have been consistent targets of red-tagging and harassment.

Meanwhile, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, an agency tasked with safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights, tagged groups opposing the Gened dams as “members or supporters of the front organizations of the CPP/NPA/NDF [Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front].”

In April, the 50th Infantry Battalion also included the CPA, Apit Tako, and its local affiliate, Timpuyog ti Mannalon ti Kalinga, in its list of alleged communist front organizations in the province of Kalinga. The groups have been active in the anti-dam movement and have provided support to the affected communities.

This list emerged just months after state forces implicated Tauli and CPA leaders Windel Bolinget, Jennifer Awingan, Sarah Abellon, and Lulu Gimenez, a member of the Apit Tako secretariat, in a rebellion case in Abra. The court eventually excluded them from the charge for lack of probable cause.

The latest of these attacks is the designation of Tauli, Bolinget, Awingan, and Abellon as terrorists by the Anti-Terrorism Council for their alleged links with the communist guerrillas.

According to Dammay, the human rights violations and intensified military deployment in the region, especially in areas affected by dam projects, are reminiscent of Martial Law. Despite the odds, he said they would continue to oppose the projects and support communities facing similar threats.

“Those who came before us stood their ground against the dams during the Marcos dictatorship. We honor them by continuing the struggle to defend our lands, resources, and way of life,” he said. (RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

This story is supported by Google News Initiative News Equity Fund.

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