NorDis explores impact of hydropower projects on Cordillera Indigenous communities

CHEERS TO Northern Dispatch (NorDis) for its special report that mapped out the hydropower projects in the Cordilleras and highlighted its impact on the Indigenous population. Written by Sherwin De Vera and published on November 13, the report showed how various Indigenous communities have fought for their lands and how they continue to struggle against threats to their lands and livelihood.

The report started and ended with Juan Dammay, whose father had been imprisoned during martial law for standing up against the proposed Chico River dams in the ‘70s. He currently chairs Alyansa ti Pesante iti Kordilyera (Peasant Alliance in the Cordillera or Apit Tako) which, like his father and the Kalinga and Bontoc tribes, resists dam projects that “continue to threaten not only the environment but also the livelihood and survival of communities.”

De Vera explained in his report that the Cordillera region, with 5.5 million hectares of drainage area, feeds six major river systems and has an estimated generation potential of 3,600 megawatts. This potential “spotlights” the region with dam-related conflicts that have gone on for more than five decades since the proposed Chico River dams ignited popular resistance.

NorDis counted 16 hydropower facilities in the region in commercial operation, with 12 in the province of Benguet as of June 30, 2023. Another 80 are in their pre-development and development stage, of which 18 are in Kalinga and nine in Apayao.

De Vera interviewed village elders from the villages of Kabugao, Madatag, and Balbalan in Apayao and Kalinga. While the residents conceded that the projects are part of development, they nonetheless said these threaten their lands, homes, and crops. De Vera focused on the projects’ effects on the villages, citing the residents and a 2016 environmental impact study.

One resident said they have been promised scholarships for their children, concrete roads, or construction of bridges, but the residents still chose to oppose the projects. Accompanied by photographs taken by de Vera himself of the rivers, mountains, and the residents, the report captured how Indigenous peoples value and protect their land and heritage from “development.”

De Vera recalled President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s first State of the Nation Address where he claimed that the use of renewable energy is a top climate agenda of his administration. Marcos said the government will increase the use of hydropower, geothermal power, solar, and wind as energy sources. Here, de Vera pointed out that, since then, Marcos has appointed to government positions “people with sizable interest in the energy business.”

More specifically, environmental and Indigenous groups have raised concerns over the appointment of former officials of the Aboitiz Group, a company that owns and operates hydropower plants in the Cordilleras and elsewhere. These appointments, they said, could lead to more aggressive investments in hydropower projects and may lead to the processing of questionable free, prior and informed consent or FPIC, which is a legal requirement for projects in Indigenous communities.

The report also recalled the attacks against those who resist these projects, who are often red-tagged, charged with trumped-up cases, or even abducted. It listed cases of attacks against environmental defenders and their groups in the Cordilleras, including the abduction of Stephen Tauli in August 2022, the terrorist designation of leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance this year, and the consistent red-tagging and harassment against Rogyn Beyao and Camay Bog-As. The report did not mention it but Indigenous rights activists in the Cordilleras, Dexter Capuyan and Gene Roz “Bazoo” de Jesus, are still missing, among the more recent cases of enforced disappearances under Marcos. 

Reports like de Vera’s raise the standards of discourse on Indigenous issues and enable the general public to hear and learn from Indigenous people themselves. It is crucially important that the media expose and explain development projects that have an impact on communities. The media’s attention on these projects and the plight of the affected communities helps to empower the Indigenous population as they face continuing aggression by business interests that are often enabled by the state.