Tumandok struggle against mega-dam project that threatens their land and existence
The Jalaur megadam project in the Philippines has been promoted by the government to become a major source of irrigation and cheap and green electricity in the island of Panay, but people know that megadams are devastating rivers, forests and biodiversity and displacing thousands of people, particularly the indigenous people.
Kung madula daya nga duta, kami nga Tumandok madula (If our land is gone, we, the Tumandok will die)
To reach our destination, we had to wade through the waist-deep water of Jalaur River twice and struggle through a steep rocky slope. The water was rather brownish and the current in some parts of the river was strong, a palpable sign that it was raining in the mountain and the water could rise anytime.
The place that we wanted to reach is one of the sacred sites of the Tumandok (indigenous people of Panay Island) - the burial ground of their ancestors.
As I was grappling to pass through the slope, I saw three Tumandok children, two boys and one girl, not older than 12 years old, coasting through the rough water while mounted on drift logs twice as big as themselves. The logs I later learned will be turned into charcoal by their parents to sell in the market as an additional source of income.
Upon reaching the portion of the bank where the river bends, 60 year old Romeo Castor, one of our Tumandok companions, signalled to us to stop, pointed to the hill at our right and said, “That is where my ancestors are buried.”
“Four generations of my clan are there,” he added as we huddled around him to hear his story.
Romeo revealed that they stopped burying their dead at the site a few years back after the local government banned their traditional burial system and forced them to bury their dead at the public cemetery. But the site remains sacred to them believing that this is where the spirits of their ancestors and the guardians of the forests dwell.
It was devastating for Romeo and for the whole Tumandok people because the government’s order violated their beliefs and practices. But they needed to follow, he said.
Yet he never thought that that was just a foreboding of something more tragic to happen to the Tumandok who are now bound to lose their ancestral land that includes the great Jalaur River as the government adamantly pursues the construction of a megadam on this site.
As a matter of fact, a few meters from the burial ground, the land was already bulldozed for the construction of an access road.
The spot where we were standing will be inundated to serve as an after bay dam, a component of the P11.2 billion Jalaur River Multipurpose Project II, listed as one of former President Aquino’s big-ticket priority projects. Besides the after bay dam, a high dam and a catchment dam will also be constructed to provide irrigation for 32,000 hectares of farmlands, a 6.6 megawatt hydroelectric plant, and an 81-kilometer high-line canal for flood control.
The project is in the list of the Private Partnership Program Center of the National Projects for Medium-Term Rollout. Funding for the project comes from a P8.95-billion loan from the Export Import Bank of South Korea while the remaining P2.2 billion will be provided by the Philippine government as a counterpart fund.
INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY MISSION
I was part of an International Solidarity Mission last July to support the Tumandok’s campaign against the construction of the dam. The campaign is spearheaded by Jalaur River for the People Movement (JRPM) and Tumandok People’s Organization which also initiated the solidarity mission. Gabriela Iloilo chapter is a member of JRPM.
Just recently, with Gabriela’s assistance, Tumandok women formed their organization which they called Anggoy Women. The organization’s urgent task is to organize women in their communities to confront the rising number of human rights violations and the militarization of their communities to pave the way for the construction of the megadam.
According to JRPPM, the project will directly affect 16 Tumandok communities 9 of which will be totally submerged. Meanwhile, 30 barangays from two nearby towns of Passi and Calinog are identified as crash areas. Downstream communities will also become vulnerable to flooding during heavy rains.
Based on studies, the project site is prone to landslides and is under great risk of earthquakes due to the West Panay Fault located 11 km from the site. The West Panay fault line was the epicenter of one of Panay Island’s most destructive earthquakes in 1948.
“Our rivers are a source of life. We conduct many of our sacred rituals in the rivers. Thus we should nurture and protect them,” explained Romeo.
The Tumandok is an indigenous group living in the mountains of Central Panay in Visayas. Books and scholars refer to them as Suludnon, meaning “people from the interior”. People in the plains call them Panay-Bukidnon, a derogatory label which means “ignorant people from the mountain”. The Tumandok despise being called Panay-Bukidnon.
Most of the Tumandok use the slash and burn method in farming with rice as the main crop. Several families plant coffee and banana which they sell to middlemen for additional source of income.
In recent years, many of the Tumandok have experienced severe hunger and poverty due to a significant decrease in their harvest caused by persistent calamities that befell them such as typhoons, landslides and lately the El Niño phenomenon.
Like any other indigenous people in the Philippines, the Tumandok suffer utmost discrimination from the non-IP population and have always been at the mercy of land grabbers and corporate interests hiding in the guise of government “development projects”.
Government services like education and health services rarely reach them. Government officials have long ignored them except during election periods where candidates outdo each other in giving the Tumandok a litany of promises to win their votes.
For the Tumandok, the land and all its natural resources are not merely a source of livelihood; the whole of Tumandok identity is inseparably linked with it. Their identity as indigenous people will not survive if they are separated from their land and its resources.
Hence, they cannot imagine how the government will compensate them for all their losses for the sake of the project. This feeling of indivisible unity with the land makes it impossible for the Tumandok to consider relocation or compensation for the damage done.
That is why the Tumandok are opposing the claim of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), the government agency implementing the project, that it had already received the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected Tumandok communities to start the construction of the dam.
‘Free prior and informed consent’ (FPIC), is the principle that a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use.( http://www.forestpeoples.org/guiding-principles/free-prior-and-informed-consent-fpic )
The National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP), whose primary mandate is to protect the rights of the indigenous people and whose main task is to facilitate the FPIC, has been blamed for manipulating the process in favor of the project. Tumandok opposing the project are claiming that NCIP violated their traditional decision-making process and had even installed its own “council of elders”, all of whom are known to have favored the construction of the dam, to guarantee consent.
Members of the “council of elders” have been accused by their fellow Tumandok of having received bribes from NIA. There were reports that NIA even funded excursions for these elders to some tourist spots in the country even billeting them in some luxury resorts. Tumandok opposing the project have derisively called them the “council of dealers”
Forty- seven-year old Remia Castor said that during the community consultations as part of the FPIC process, NIA and NCIP dangled to the communities promises of development and good life - just like manna from heaven.
“I never heard from them any negative impacts of the dam like the displacement of our communities and the destruction of our way of life or its adverse impact on the environment. Isn’t it the task of the NCIP to inform us of these?” asked Remia.
A day after our mission, we met with the provincial governor, Arthur Defensor, Sr., to present to him the result of the solidarity mission, and this is his response:
“The welfare of the IPs is also our concern. We have supported and endorsed the project because we believe that it is for the welfare of the people of the province. Shall we not give the opportunity to the IPs to improve their lives? The dam might give them the opportunity to improve their lives, have better education, improved services and employment.”
But Remia wondered why the governor still needs to wait for the dam to improve their lives? With or without the dam, it is the responsibility of the government to realize what the dam project has promised to bring to the Tumandok.
When someone asked the governor if he was informed of the adverse impacts of the dam, his reluctant answer was: “I don’t know about it, I leave that to the experts.”
INTIMIDATIONS AND HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
According to JRPM, the international solidarity mission was aimed at lifting the voices of non-consenting Tumandok long muted by relentless government propaganda and the constant harassment and intimidation of local officials, the police and military.
A number of Tumandok claimed to have been forced to sign consent forms while leaders of opposition have constantly been receiving death threats.
NIA has threatened those who are defending their lands with an expropriation case charging them with violation of government and corporate eminent domain claims on lands within the proposed dam site.
Military camps have been set up around the project site to quell the rising opposition of the Tumandok.
The Court of Appeals junked last year the Writ of Kalikasan filed against the project claiming that the petitioner failed to show evidence to support petition to stop the construction of the dam. A Writ of Kalikasan is a legal remedy under Philippine law that provides protection of one's Constitutional right to a healthy environment.
But despite these setbacks, the Tumandok continue to fight for their right to their ancestral land and self-determination. Campaigns to stop the project are ongoing as they continue to strengthen and expand their organization which serves as the center for action and cooperation among different Tumandok communities.
They have taken to the streets, written petitions, lobbied and confronted concerned agencies to hold back the government from pursuing the project. As a result, actual dam construction has already faced several delays and postponements.
We were supposed to cross the river again to reach Bukay Isda(white fish), an important site for Tumandok’s sacred rituals. The name was derived from the fish-shaped white rock at the center of the river where Tumandok perform their rituals. Our Tumandok companions, however, sensed that the water had become more dangerous for us to cross, so we decided to go back.
Before we left the burial ground, a priestess performed a ritual to appease the guardians of the forest who, she said, might have been disturbed by our surprised presence there. She also asked the spirits to protect us.
The ritual started with a chant by the priestess, and followed by a ritual killing and offering of a native chicken. It could have been my imagination but when the priestess slit the throat of the chicken, I thought I heard from the burial ground a sudden stirring followed by shrill cries of the birds as if someone roused them from their roost. Or could it have been the spirits?