BAGUIO CITY – Indigenous people in highland Cordillera are very discerning when others outside of their realms suddenly appear offering to develop their rivers, undisputedly accepted as the “watershed cradle” north of the Philippines.
Their skepticism happens to have merit. One only has to look back at shades of yesteryears when attempts were made to develop a dam in the province of Kalinga and the experience in Benguet when Ambuklao Dam came on stream. In the case of Kalinga, blood was spilled.
Now, a battle is a-brewing between the Apayao indigenous tribal folks and those holding white collar positions at the National Commission on Indigenous People- Cordillera Administrative Region (NCIP-CAR).
And the battlefield has been moved – fortunately – to the neutral grounds of the courts.
The bone of contention expressed by the Isnag communities of Apayao is that they were not entitled to effectively determine the outcome of decision-making that affected them, not merely a right to be involved, on the specific matter of the Apayao dam project.
And they put the blame on this fiasco squarely on the shoulders of those at NCIP mandated to “protect and promote the well-being of Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigenous people with due regards to their beliefs, customs traditions and institutions.”
A major tributary in the province of Apayao and considered the 9th largest river system in the Philippines is the core of dispute from the time a plan was hatched to construct a dam in the highland province. It is called the Apayao-Abulog River.
With the entry of the project, it has shattered the once peaceful glass of amicability among Apayao residents, according to Angelo Umingli,51, from barangay Poblacion, Apayao.
Now, chances are rife that some officials of NCIP-CAR will be in for a long haul for supposedly finagling the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) regarding the Apayao dam project.
On the other hand, the Isnag communities, saying it will be a long process for them to attain what they deem just for them, are bent on digging in their heels to restrain any further physical insertions into their river under the guise of development.
FPIC is an emerging standard in the dialogue on rights of indigenous people and a most important principle tribal people believe can protect their right to self-determination. FPIC gives indigenous people like he tribe folks of Apayao the right to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
NCIP stated in previous press statements that the principle of FPIC regards the dam project was implemented. The Isnag community says otherwise.
A Community Resolution No 3, series of 2021 titled “Resolution of Non-Consent to the Proposed 335 MW or 250 MW (redesigned) Gened 2) Mega Dam by Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippine Corporation) was furnished Daily Laborer last week.
In page three of the resolution shown to this column, it states, “resolved further, the Kabugao Ancestral Domain re-iterate their prior rejections to the 150 MW Gened1 Mega Dam as the same was the product borne out of irregularities, violations and unlawful acts, not limited to falsification and forging of signatures.”
In essence, the resolution repudiates the actions of NCIP-CAR as contrary to the principles of FPIC, hence their action to seek solace from the courts.
The legal counsels for the Isnag communities also gathered documents which conjecturally present traces of forgery in the signing of names of those supposedly in favor of the dam project.
In the Motion for Reconsideration submitted to the Honorable Commission En Banc, NCIP, Diliman Quezon City, paragraph 3, statement 2, was, “Statement and attestation of members of the Kabugao IPs who claimed that their signatures were forged/falsified…”
Paragraph 4, statement 3 was more pointing, stating, “Other relevant statements/affidavits to prove our claim that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) Process was violated and railroaded. . .”
During a press conference conducted last week at Ibaloy Park, Baguio City, a group of lawyers publicly manifested to file cases before the Ombudsman to seek redress for the Apayao folks who stated in sworn affidavits that they were never consulted and neither had they consented to the dam project.
Where the ax will finally land on the heads of those suspected to have allegedly engineered the FPIC will finally be known as the cases will steadily progress, according to Atty. Rene Cortes, one of the counsels for the Isnag communities.
Atty. Ryan Solano, lead for the defense counsel, intimated to this column that leadership governance in Apayao has somehow been frayed when it comes to the dam project as there remains political leaders opposed to the project while there are those for it.
That might be the case, the overarching line is respecting the will and wish of the majority of the Apayao tribal folks, Solano explained.
Solano narrated of the time of the late Elias K. Bulot Sr., when he still l headed the province, of how he constantly showed his concern for the preservation of the river and its habitat by reminding Apayao folks to always keep parts of the river as sanctuaries for fishes to rehabilitate, to lay eggs and for the fry to have a safe haven to improve fish population and serve as source of food and income of people of Apayao.
Such sensitivity for Apayao-Abulog River by the late Bulot Sr., as narrated by Apayao folks has also been corroborated by Dr. Andrew Don Martin, a prominent resident of the province who told this column that way back when Bulot Sr. was then the congressman, investors tried to offer to him construction of a 750-megawatt dam at Calanasan, Apayao.
But fully cognizant that many barangays will be severely affected, and despite the juicy offer, Bulot Sr., flatly refused what was proffered.
The same investors altered their plans for five dams in the scope of Guinid 1 dam situated between Pudtol municipality and Kabugao municipality, Guinid 2 dam at barangay Madatag in Kabugao and dam 3 at Calanasan municipality.
Atty. Solano bluntly said at the press conference that the director of NCIP-CAR who endorsed a certificate of pre-condition for the dam project “has not done his job.”
On the other hand, Atty. kurdell Paroy said the officials concerned “reneged on their duty to protect the rights of the indigenous people” of Apayao.
Atty. Joe Molintas, Baguio City councilor and member of the counsel for the Isnag communities said, “The essence of FPIC is the indigenous people’s right to self-determination. It is their right to decide whether to allow another dam or not. Their NO should mean NO.”
To drive home his point, Molintas added, “I am an Ibaloi and a descendant of those whose land have been submerged by the Ambuklao dam in Bokod.”
Atty. Rene Cortes, a prominent member of the counsel likens to believe the dam project as having been stained by political tentacles, resulting to the FPIC messed.
Apayao-Abulog River spans 3,776km2 and stretches to 175 kilometers, which makes it no wonder why multi-national companies are keenly interested to establish their business stakes there.
Apayao-Abulog River traces its origins from the mountains of Apayao. Considered twin of another river, which is the Apayao River, it meets the latter in the municipality of kabugao, then takes a northeasterly course towards the sea.
It can be remembered that an Asian Development Bank (ADB) study earlier recommended that investment in the Apayao-Abulog River should hinge on “nature-based solutions with green infrastructure and socially inclusive concepts.”
Nowhere in the ADB master plan submitted to the Philippine government through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and titled “Formulation of Integrated River Basin Management and Development Master Plan (IRBMDMP) for Apayao-Abulog River Basin” did it explicitly state for construction of a dam.
The ADB plan even explicitly cited examples of green infrastructures beneficial and acceptable to the Apayao people which exist along its river’s belt to include eco-tourism sites like Blue haven, Agamata Park, Dacao Irrigation Intake, Jamboree Site, Turod View Deck, Swan Hilltop View of Mount Solo, Lizardo Brooks, Negritoes Village and the various waterfalls of different sizes that eventually pour their waters into the river.
Green infrastructure often is in the form of functionally designed green spaces that serve the hydrological functions among other ecosystem services, which ADB found out can be enjoyed for recreation and which is especially beneficial in populated areas within the Apayao-Abulog River Basin belt.
Such green infrastructure along the river’s belt has never been rejected by majority of the Apayao people.
Jille Karl Basan, convenor of the Kabugao Youth and a member of the Isnag tribe said, “Do you think we do not know what we are rejecting?” in reference to the dam project.
“We are not against development. But your definition of development is far from what we aspire for. What kind of development are you giving when houses, schools, agricultural lands will be submerged? Even the Poblacion will be submerged,” Basan emphasized.
Ms. Basan revealed during the press conference that the dam project will seriously affect about 200 hundred households in nine barangays, immerse agricultural lands and sacred burial sites.
Robie Halip, coordinator of the Right Partnership with Indigenous People explained they have made studies on FPIC implementation similar to the incident of manipulation committed in the Apayao dam project.
“We have been raising why companies are allowed motion for reconsideration after communities have already said no,” Halip stressed during the press conference.
In a resolution, majority of the tribal folks penned their signatures last January 15, emphatically signifying their antithesis to the project which was awarded to a company by the name of Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corporation.