SPECIAL REPORT: Tribal leaders to withhold support for Pulangui V

By Carrell C. Magno and Laurie Ailynne M. Benito
Bangsamoro Center for Just Peace
(with permission from VERA Files)

Leaders of indigenous communities in Bukidnon have refused to engage in any discussion over the planned construction of the Pulangui V Hydroelectric Project (HEP), until dam proponents submit a cultural impact assessment that will detail the damage the dam will cause the tribes.

The dam, which is expected to generate 300 megawatts into the Mindanao grid, and 1,256 gigawatt hours of cheap renewable energy nationwide, is touted to provide more than half the projected power shortage in Mindanao by 2014. Since it is renewable energy, Pulangui V HEP will generate very cheap power.

Last July, the project got the go signal from the Regional Development Council of Region 10, which includes Bukidnon. Dam proponents, however, were told to update their feasibility studies and secure clearances from concerned government agencies such as the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Department of Natural Resources.

Although business groups and local government units have hailed the project as a source of sustainable and cheap energy, indigenous and civil society leaders say the dam will submerge the burial grounds, sacred places and hunting grounds of both Maguindanaon and Manobo tribes, forever erasing their identity as indigenous and cultural communities.

The existing Pulangui hydroelectric power plant in Bukidnon. Mindanews Photo by Bobby TimoneraAbout 3,300 hectares will go under water once the dam is built. These are spread out over the towns of Damulog, Kitaotao, Kibawe, and Dangacagan in Bukidnon and President Roxas in North Cotabato.

“These are not public lands. These are ancestral lands of the Manobos. It is ours,” said Datu Wilmar Ampuan of the Natabuk Federation, an alliance of indigenous people’s groups in Mindanao.

Bukidnon Gov. Alex Calingasan, who favors the project, earlier said the economic benefits outweigh the displacement of the indigenous or lumad communities. “It (displacement) is being addressed. It can be talked about,” he had said.

Ondo Asupra, vice chairperson of the Kibawe Tribal Council of Elders, said his group would refrain from discussions with the dam proponents. “Hindi pa kami makikisali diyan (We won’t get involved for now),” he said. “Naghihintay pa kami ng cultural impact assessment. Saka na tayo magsungayan (We are still waiting for the cultural impact assessment. Let’s debate after).”

Other Manobo leaders say the Pulagui V consultations continue to sow division among the Manobo people and are tearing them apart.

“Now there is Lumad ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B,’” said Datu Roldan Babilon of the Central Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Negotiating Council, describing the split in the tribe between those for and against the proposed project.

The dam is a joint undertaking of Greenergy Development Corp., an energy company formed in 2008, and the First Bukidnon Cooperative (Fibeco), one of the province’s two power providers. The project will harness the potentials of the Pulangui River, the longest river in Bukidnon and the second largest river system in the country.

One of the major tributaries of the extensive Rio Grande de Mindanao, Pulangui River is 320 kilometers long, traversing a majority of the cities and towns of Bukidnon from its source in Barangay Kalabugao, Impasug-ong, Bukidnon. It is said the name “Pulangui” could have come from the Manobo term “empamulangi,” which means “center of the island,” possibly referring to the location of the river within the island of Mindanao.

Greenergy president Cerael C. Donggay said, “The power that can be harnessed from this great river through Pulangi V Hydro is a form of gold for Mindanaoans. It is our golden ticket to social and economic progress.”

Donggay, the former Mindanao chief of the National Power Corp., added that the project would be like “digging gold in our own backyard.”

A research released by the Pulangi V Management Team in March 2010 said Pulangi V Hydro will avoid burning 1,882,500 barrels of fuel oil for power and help save the Philippines P10.95 billion per year. They say Mindanaoans will no longer be heavily dependent on expensive imported fossil fuels for power.

Among those who support the proposed construction of the dam is Damulog Mayor Romy Tiongco, a former priest and social activist who said, “So far, I have seen the sincerity of the project proponents in addressing the concerns of the affected communities.”

Fibeco president Raul Alkuino said the pre-development stage of the project is progressing well, and that they were addressing the “minutest details” as far as social and environmental impact of the project is concerned.

Butch Baz, head of the Project Management Office, said the company has conducted more than 200 community consultations. Of the 22 communities affected, he said, 17 have given their support. These communities are in the Bukidnon towns of Kitaotao, Kibawe, Dangcagan and Damulog, and Roxas in North Cotabato. In the next months, they are expecting to get 100 percent approval.

In a meeting with the project proponents during the Bukidnon Sangguniang Panglalawigan Session in March 2010, Ampuan and other tribal leaders argued that the proponents violated their human rights by conducting consultations without their consent. Their opposition stems from the fact, they said, that the project “is clearly not for us.”

Last June, however, the municipal council of Kibawe passed a resolution opposing the construction of Pulangui V.

The Manobos opposing the dam are likening it to the San Roque Multipurpose Dam in San Miguel, Pangasinan built from 2001 to 2004. San Roque was supposed to generate 345 megawatts, irrigate thousands of hectares of farmlands and act as a flood control mechanism.

But the dam displaced the indigenous Ibaloi communities of the Cordillera region. And rather than control floods, opponents say, San Roque caused massive floods at the height of storm “Ondoy” and typhoon “Pepeng” in 2009 when the dam overflowed and dam personnel abruptly released water, causing widespread damage.

The Manobos’ opposition to the project is supported by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which called the Pulangui V project “anti-people” and “simple development aggression.”

“The beneficiaries are not the poor Manobos and Moros but the elites of society, especially the factory owners,” said Muhammad Ameen, chairperson of the MILF Central Committee Secretariat.

The secretariat also branded the project a scheme to drive away the Manobo indigenous tribes and Moros in Bukidnon and North Cotabato from their ancestral domain, and to dry up the Liguasan Marsh for distribution to outsiders.

The Manobos also earned the support of civil society organizations and community leaders who issued a declaration in December 2010 saying “ (the dam) will destroy our much-valued ancestral domain and heritage from our ancestors that are the foundations of our unique identity since time immemorial.”

Dam opponents say an estimated one million indigenous peoples and settlers inhabiting 27 municipalities in the provinces of Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, Maguindanao and the city of Cotabato will be adversely affected. They say Pulangui River is the only tributary supplying water to Liguasan Marsh, and that the dam would drain the marsh and endanger its ecosystem.

Liguasan Marsh has been a “Game Refuge and Birds Sanctuary” since 1941, is part of the National Integrated Protected Areas System, and is considered a repository of Moro culture and heritage.

“The social impact of the project is minimal, but its impact on Mindanao’s economy is enormous,” said Baz of the Project Management Office.

Baz said they wanted not just to give equal livelihood opportunity to the lumads but improve their lives as well. Aside from compensation, each family will have a reserved slot in the construction work and will be allowed to till their lands while construction is ongoing.

Also, part of the livelihood program for the affected communities includes agro-forestry, like planting of rubber and fruit trees, engagement in freshwater fisheries, and the development of tourism to generate income for these families.

Baz said the figures of oppositions are “pure fiction.” The total land area of the 22 barangays to be affected by the proposed dam is only about 30,000 hectares and only about a tenth of it will be flooded for the reservoir.

Based on their field validation, only 1,060 households will be directly affected and the flooded area for the plant’s reservoir would only cover 3,300 hectares and not 3,000 households with 78,000 hectares inundated as reported by opponents, he said.

Donggay said the welfare of the affected residents and the whole of Mindanao remains a priority in pushing the project. “Mindanao cannot develop with the current power infrastructure and supply that we have,” he said.

Datu Roldan Babilon of the Central Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Negotiating Council clarified that they are not opposed to the project. “Our non-negotiable stand is we are not against development, only to the negative effects of the project,” he said. “The proposed dam is like ethnocide for the Manobo Pulangiwen tribe.”

Datu Migketay Vic Saway of the Talaandig tribe and member of Kasapi, an indigenous people’s party-list group, said the project did not get the consent of the lumads, an accusation Fibeco has denied. But Saway insists, “The issue is social justice for the historical injustice committed against the lumads.”