A threatened tribe: Dumagat vs dams

The residents of Sitio Paydas have to cross the Agos River using a small boat due to the regular overflow of the river.
Photo by Kathleen Lei Limayo

(Last of two parts)

The Dumagat-Remontado, an indigenous people who settled in Tanay, Rizal province, believed they had seen the worst until Typhoon “Ulysses” struck in November last year. Most of their homes were on high ground, but storm-blown trees and other debris swept along the slopes eventually clogged the Daraitan River, raising the water level, and flooding the older homes. relatives.

“We were praying that the rain would stop,” said Imelda Bandilla, 35, recalling how she and her neighbors were surprised by the flooding up to their necks. They literally had to climb trees to survive.

Dumagat-Remontados crosses the Agos river by boat after the rupture of the bridge between Sitio Manggahan and Magata during Typhoon Ulysses. The typhoon, they said, was the most powerful storm to hit their community, displacing many and uprooting their livelihoods. Photos by Kathleen Limayo

The Bandillas lost their pets, livestock, and produce, but managed to save something they knew was crucial if they were to recover from the calamity quickly: their 140-watt solar panel and generator.

For clean energy advocates and climate crisis watchers, the Dumagat tribe is an example of how a poor, off-grid community highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming has found a lifeline in one of technological solutions proposed to slow it down.

But the tribe has also caught their attention these days due to another threat it faces:

“Ulyanin na ang panahon”

Largely isolated on the Sierra Madre, the Dumagat live on plowed land and forests, their rustic environment providing little buffer against natural disasters. Waterfalls flowing into the Tanay River irrigate their fields, but also cause heavy flooding during typhoon season, according to Climate Change Commission Commissioner Rachel Herrera.

Climate change due to climate change “makes it increasingly difficult for the Dumagat to rebuild their communities,” Herrera added.

Telling Ulysses, Margie Amuin, 32, a public school teacher, said she had “never seen our house submerged by flooding like this before. It has traumatized us so much that, to this day, even a little rain can make us anxious. “

She compared the unpredictable seasons to a person who has become senile: “Ulyanin na ang panahon”.

Amuin blames destructive practices like deforestation for these life-disrupting changes, with barren mountains no longer being able to substantially absorb rainwater and sediment runoff, and leaving more areas prone to landslides. Reduced forest cover also means the loss of carbon sinks, or natural environments that can absorb carbon dioxide and help slow the rate of global warming.

Amuin’s concerns are backed up by science: Research conducted in 2020 by scientists at the University of the Philippines (UP) found that the Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in the country, has seen a significant decline in dense forest cover from 2017 to 2019 despite government tree planting efforts.

Citing satellite images, the UP study noted that since the launch of the national greening program in 2011, “the state of forest cover, at least in the greater Luzon region, does not show significant improvement. both regionally and regionally ”.

Not one but two

The calamity that plagued the Dumagat community last year caught the attention of environmental groups like the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) and 350.org. These groups first helped the tribe rebuild their lives by donating solar panels and generators for collective use, increasing those previously purchased by individual households.

During its immersion in the community, 350.org expanded its involvement by joining the conversation about another more existential threat to the Dumagat way of life.

Chuck Baclagon, head of 350.org’s digital campaign in Asia, said the communities of Dumagat are located in a heavily deforested valley with no permanent structures that would protect them from extreme weather events.

And the situation, Baclagon said, is exacerbated by ongoing “mega-infrastructure” projects that threaten to flood their community.

Over the past decade, the Dumagat have protested against not one but two large dam projects planned in the Kaliwa Watershed Forest Reserve, a conservation site in the Sierra Madre Biodiversity Corridor. Under the ancestral domain clause of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act 1997, the corridor is vested in the tribe.

The tribe had fiercely opposed – and succeeded in blocking – the first during the administration of Benigno Aquino: the Laiban dam project of the Metropolitan Water and Sewer System (MWSS).

Under the Duterte administration, they are once again up in arms, this time against the Chinese-funded Kaliwa Dam worth 12.2 billion pesos, one of the most expensive components of the “Build Build” program. Build ”. Kaliwa is intended to supply 600 million liters of water to Metro Manila and neighboring areas that currently depend on the Angat and Ipo dams.

On its website, the MWSS has identified areas in four municipalities that will be directly affected by construction: Tanay and Teresa in Rizal and General Nakar and Infanta in Quezon.

In Tanay, said the MWSS, “the fringes of the reservoir area (will) occupy part of Tinipak (cave and river)” in the village of Daraitan.

The construction will affect approximately 1,465 families, according to a project summary prepared by the DENR Environmental Management Office.

As with Laiban, the Dumagat are opposed to the Kaliwa Dam because it encroaches on their ancestral domain, said Octavio Pranada, one of the tribal chiefs.

By law, the government can only start infrastructure projects on ancestral lands if it has obtained a free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) certificate from title holders.

Social impact assessment

But despite opposition from tribal communities and conservationists, the project received an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) in 2019 from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

“Unfortunately for this project, securing FPIC is a post-ECC condition,” said Nestor Castro, an anthropologist appointed by DENR to conduct a study assessing the “social impact” of the proposed dam.

Castro decided not to approve the project because, according to his assessment, the MWSS “failed to gain social acceptance from the population”.

Oddly, Castro said he was not even allowed to visit the future project site because he had been informed by the MWSS of the presence of Communist rebels.

Its final assessment therefore relied heavily on petition letters from members of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe, who primarily rooted their objection in physical and spiritual matters. They said the dam would destroy not only local biodiversity but also their sacred sites.

Among these sacred areas are the Tinipak Cave and the Tinipak River, where they set up animist shrines and perform rituals imploring the spirits of nature for protection.

As a compromise, the MWSS said it could erect “mini-dams” to divert the flow of water and leave sacred sites intact.

Nature reclaims the concrete tunnel of the Laiban Dam infrastructure that was abandoned when the project was halted.
Photo by Kathleen Lei Limayo

“Valid dissent”

But ultimately, the Dumagat fear that their land will “be taken away” and they “will have nothing more to transmit to [their] descendants, ”Pranada said.

And they are not alone in their worries.

The Haribon conservation group has estimated that at least 126 animal species hosted by the Sierra Madre, including the critically endangered Philippine eagle (they are found not only in Mindanao), the Philippine warty pig, and deer. Philippine brown will lose part of their natural habitat which currently extends to the Kaliwa watershed.

At least 300 hectares of forested area will be permanently flooded, Haribon added in a study published in June 2019.

The Human Rights Commission had also weighed and recognized the “valid dissent” of the Dumagat.

The CHR, in a November 2019 statement, agreed that “the Kaliwa Dam project would result in the destruction of their ancestral domains and the displacement of their populations” and that they “have the right to full disclosure of information on the project and the right to negotiate and object.

Related Story: Why the ECC Process for Kaliwa Dam was Flawed, According to Anthropologist

“I couldn’t blame the people who are very pessimistic with the government’s plans [because] they have had several projects… from which they have not benefited, at least in a sustainable way, ”said Castro. “The bottom line here is people’s consent, because at the end of the day they are the ones who will be affected and, as has always been the case in many hydroelectric projects in the Philippines, people at the project site are welcome to make sacrifices. “

When the groundbreaking program of the Kaliwa Dam Project was held in Rizal Province on June 29, an article about the event published by China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency headlined: “Water failure in Metro Manila is expected to end with an innovative Philippines-China dam project.

It may be music for many urban ears, but not for those of Pranada. “Even if I am the only one standing, I will oppose the project. Our ancestors left us this land. I will not let it become water, ”he said.


Editor’s Note: This story is supported through the Climate Change Reporting Fellowship Program by the Asian Journalism Center and Internews Earth Journalism Network.

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