Earlier this March, 86-year-old Ramos Bongui, with some 20 individuals who belong to the Isnag ethnic group, endured a 12-hour travel from Kabugao, Apayao to Baguio City in an attempt to confront officials of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).
The villagers have mounted a protest against the proposed gigantic 150-megawatt hydropower plant project that threatens to submerge their ancestral domain, and alter the biodiversity of the Apayao, dubbed the “last nature frontier of the Cordillera.”
Rejecting the project, they claim collusion and anomalies in the conduct of the Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process implemented by NCIP, which led to the alleged consent of the affected Isnag communities.
“Our forests and rivers are still pristine and abundant. Why would somebody destroy such beautiful creations of God?” said the Isnag elder, who was accompanied by his wife, Jean, an Ibaloy of the Laoyan clan of La Trinidad, Benguet.
The proposed 150-megawatt Gened 1 is but one of the dozens of colossal dams being pushed to harness the power of the waters of Cordillera, the watershed cradle of the north.
Based on a 2022 Philippine Statistics Authority report, Cordillera’s river systems have an estimated drainage area of 18,293 square kilometers, which is about six percent of the Philippines’ land area.
Cordillera is home to 13 principal river systems, fueled by 46 major proclaimed forests and watersheds, according to the “Asset Accounts for Land” study released by the PSA in 2019.
Interestingly, data from a study comparing 2010 to 2015 showed Cordillera’s forest covers are expanding. Tree-covered areas of the region, which composed of open, closed, and plantation forest, generally increased from 800,871.5 hectares to 856,765.3 has., a growth rate of seven percent.
More tree covers meant stronger waters. This makes the Cordillera an even stronger magnet for hydropower plant developers.
However, this also triggers more of the eternal classic tussle between rights of the minorities against the benefit of the greater masses; or the environment-versus-industrial development struggle.
In the course of securing FPIC for these projects, Bongui’s complaint echoes across indigenous cultural communities in the region.
In Kalinga, Andres Wailan, a Malbong elder, said issues on hydropower plants remind him of their struggle to maintain the flow of Chico River unhampered in the 1970s.
ICCs in Kalinga and Mountain Province launched a remarkable resistance against government-backed giant dams, which led the World Bank that bankrolled the project to revamp its operational guidelines on projects affecting IPs.
It was also key to the passage of Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, which institutionalized the mechanism for FPIC, which gives IPs the right to approve projects that could affect them and their ancestral domains and negotiate terms and conditions.
“If we did not resist, it would have opened the floodgates to the destruction of rivers and mountains in Kalinga,” Wailan said in a 2021 interview.
Yet even with the successful Chico River resistance during the Marcos administration in the 1970s, Cordillera’s rivers remain the hotbed of hydropower projects.
Based on a December 2022 data, 63 percent or 78 of the 122 hydropower projects awarded by the Department of Energy which are on its development or pre-development phase are in the region’s water bodies.
There are 24 projects in Benguet, 17 each in Ifugao and Kalinga, 11 in Mountain Province, and nine in Apayao while there is only one in Abra.
While many are considered as a mini-hydropower project for being below 10 megawatts in capacity, there are gigantic proposals like the 150-MW and 250-MW dams in Kabugao; the 220-MW in Calanasan, also in Apayao; and the 250-MW and 120-MW along the Alimit River Basin of Ifugao.
It is in the conduct of the FPIC to ask the consent of the communities affected that complaints of irregularities and oppression of indigenous people’s rights become replete.
Allegations of deceit, corruption, and collusion between the proponent and government officials riddle the large-scale projects affecting indigenous lands.
In Apayao alone, Isnag villagers from Kabugao sued officials of the NCIP and two local government officials before the Office of the Ombudsman and the Provincial Prosecutor in December 2022 and earlier in January.
They alleged irregularities in the FPIC and the documents emanating from its conduct which were facilitated and condoned by the NCIP despite complaints.
To worsen the situation, NCIP released a statement in August 2021 dismissing allegations; claiming that “some front organizations of the communist terrorist groups, the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front” were intervening in the FPIC process.
Lawyer Ryan James Solano, among the pro bono counsels of the complainants, observed the NCIP would often resort to linking opposition groups to the armed insurgency.
“That is very dangerous and places the lives of those they red-tag at security risk,” Solano said.
NCIP Chair Allen Capuyan is the executive director of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), while then NCIP-Cordillera Director Marlon Bosantog is the former spokesperson.
The NTF-Elcac has been notorious for red-tagging activists.
The same narrative has been observed in the conduct of the FPIC in the proposed dams in Ifugao and in Kalinga, said Solano.
A team of lawyers are currently working with indigenous communities in Apayao, Kalinga, and Ifugao to bring the alleged irregularities before the courts.
Ifugao elder Tony Tanguid said they have previously filed complaints after another before the NCIP due to irregularities in the FPIC but these fell on deaf ears.
“We understand the need for electricity but the public should also understand the more important need to conserve the environment,” said Tanguid.
For farmers and fisherfolk like Tanguid, maintaining the watershed and the natural flow of the river remains the most beneficial and sustainable, practically and culturally.
Renowned marine geologist and professor Fernando Siringan of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute agreed in the importance of managing the watershed of the Cordillera.
Siringan, who has extensively studied the coastal erosions in the Ilocos region, said changes in the natural flow of the river such as damming could have devastating effects not only in the region but in the coastal regions as well.
He said alterations in the flow of rivers in the Cordillera may change their course and the natural environment along its banks, worsening erosions along the rivers and the delta.
“The best approach is the holistic reef-to-ridge because what you do up there affects things below and vice versa,” he said.
The ridge-to-reef approach is an intervention which proposes that addressing the environmental degradation in the uplands (ridge) also addressed the coastal ecosystems problems and protecting marine ecosystems (reef).
Meanwhile, indigenous elders also propose a win-win solution to conservation of their ancestral domains while resolving the increasing demand for power in the urban communities.
Isnag elder Warling Maludon proposed that hydropower plants which are considered “mini” could be better accepted by ICCs as they bring less destruction and disturbance.
“As long as they do not submerge large areas and they don’t diminish the flow of the river, they will be accepted,” he said, adding skepticism that “large profit only” companies may not agree to it.
Otherwise, wind and solar may be explored, Maludon said.
Bongui said the government should trust in the wisdom of the IPs who have maintained their traditional knowledge systems, passed down from one generation to another.
This wisdom includes the preservation and maintenance of the forests because they sustain the rivers with waters, which in turn, sustain the communities with food and livelihood, he said.
“Energy production can be achieved while preserving our forests, rivers, and rights to our lands,” the Isnag elder added.
But the ultimate key to preserving environmental preservation is the passing on of the genuine value and concern towards the environment from one generation to another, he said.
Solano said this value is even supported by the landmark case of Oposa versus Factoran where the Supreme Court upheld that each generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve that environment.
“Without passing on the flame, the richness of Cordillera will fade with the passing of these old guards,” said Solano.
In 1993, the SC has decided on the case of Oposa versus Factoran (G.R. No. 101083), which became the milestone of many environmental cases filed before the Philippine justice system.
Forty-four children filed a case against the government to cancel existing timber license agreements in the country and to stop the renewal and issuance new ones.
Citing a plethora of statistics and events as evidences, the complainant children contended that massive and fast degradation of forests led to “unabated hemorrhage of the country’s vital life support systems and continued rape of Mother Earth.”
Aside from filing for themselves, they asserted that they “represent their generation as well as generations unborn.”
The children claimed the resultant damage to the environment violated their constitutional rights to a balanced and healthful ecology, and the disturbance of this balance resulted in a host of environmental tragedies.
Needless to say, every generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve that rhythm and harmony for the full enjoyment of a balanced and healthful ecology, stated the SC in the case. “If the younger Filipino generations will not see the value of conserving the forests, not only in the Cordillera, then they might as well brace for the future or hell,” said Solano.