Veterans of Chico River Dam struggle join grandkids’ generation in new fight

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Apr 23 2018 07:00 PM

Lakay Banag Sinumlag

BAGUIO CITY -- Lakay Banag Sinumlag remembers losing friends and mentors four decades ago as tribes of the lush, rugged Cordillera region in the main Philippines island of Luzon battled the army of dictator Ferdinand Marcos to prevent construction of the Chico River dam.

As widespread opposition led to attacks on legal activists, including the 1980 assassination of Macliing Dulag, the leader chosen by heads of tribes in the Bontoc and Kalinga areas, resistance escalated into armed struggle.

“Ten years we fought. Our people won, but I saw friends and relatives die,” Sinumlag recalls at the gathering of tribes during a three-day festival commemorating the 34th Cordillera Day, celebrated April 24, the anniversary of Dulag’s death.

Now 85, the farmer from Dulag’s Butbut tribe once more sacrifices farm days to campaign against a new threat.

The Duterte administration is pursuing the lower part of the 170-km long Chico River, an irrigation project contracted to China CAMC Engineering Co., Ltd, a company affiliated with the state-owned China National Machinery Industry Corp.

The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) will administer the P4.37-billion project, which will serve almost 9,000 hectares of farmlands in the lower Kalinga areas and adjoining towns of Cagayan province.

It is partly underwritten by a P3.1-billion loan from China, signed earlier this month on the sidelines of the four-day Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, China.

RAILROADED? 

Leticia Bula-at

Sunumlag and another veteran of the Chico River Dam protest movement, 70-year-old Letica Bula-at, told ABS-CBN News the irrigation project would include impounding dams and tunnels that could affect the land’s topography and aquatic life.

Bula-at, Mother Letty to many Cordillera activists, was a 28-year-old widow and mother of two in 1976 when she joined women of her tribe in tearing down an army tent in the early days of the protests against the planned Chico River dam.

She said several Kalinga organizations are also opposing hydro-electric power projects approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), including the Karayan dam in Tabuk City.

Both veterans accused the government of short-circuiting the process of getting free, prior and informed consent from residents affected by the two projects.

"They consulted the beneficiaries of the irrigation system in the lower Kalinga and Cagayan areas, but not those in the upper parts of the Chico river,” Sinumlag told ABS-CBN News in an interview.

"The dam and tunnels will worsen siltation problems above and increase the potential of flooding,” he said.

 "They say 4,500 families will be served by irrigation, but thousands will also be facing greater danger upstream,” Sinumlag stressed.

The 170-km Chico River has a combined watershed area of 405,000 hectares. It originates in the tri-boundary of Ifugao, Benguet and the Mountain Province.

The river drains into vast plains after tumbling down the lush rice granary of upper Kalinga, where farmers have built communal irrigation systems that allow three annual harvests of rice.

SUBVERTING BODONG 

Bula-at accused big corporations of subverting the Bodong, an indigenous system of getting tribal consensus that was the key in the victorious campaign against the Chico River Dam project.

"They are creating new tribes as ‘initiators’ of new projects to avoid dealing with original tribes still defending ancestral lands,” she told ABS-CBN News.

The Karayan dam at the junction of the Chico and Tanudan rivers will serve the 10-megawatt Upper Tabuk Hydroelectric Power Project, which the government claims was initiated by a Minanga tribe. 

But the Minanga tribe was long ago subsumed by the Naneng tribe, said Bula-at, who belongs with the dominant group. The new tribe was given a certificate by the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP).

"They are avoiding dealing with the Naneng of Dupag, because we are the same people who dismantled the camps of the National Power Corp. during the Chico River Dam protest,” she said.

Naneng, Dallak and Minanga sub-tribes and the residents of sitio Banat, Bagumbayan directly affected by the project managed to temporarily win a suspension of the dam and hydro-energy project in January this year.

NCIP Regional Director Roland Calde said the agency will first try to resolve issues of consent before giving the initiatives the greenlight.

San Lorenzo Ruiz Builders and Developers Group Inc., proponent of the dam, said it continues to seek the communities’ consent.

The company said its project is not like the massive, 160-meter-high Chico River Dam project of the Marcos era, as the new dam is only 25 meters high.

ANTI-POVERTY THRUST 

The NEDA approved the Chico River Irrigation Pump project as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s 10-P­oint Socioeconomic Agenda , which focuses on massive infrastructure programs to reduce poverty from 21.6% in 2015 to 15% in 2022.

The NIA expects the project to increase farmers’ income from P28,952 per hectare annually without irrigation to P42,000.

The project will benefit more than 4,300 families in 21 villages, the agency said.

The Chinese loan that underwrites the irrigation project has been criticized because its 2-percent per annum interest rate is much higher than the 0.25-0.75% that Japan offers for Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia has defended the loan, noting it is an improvement on the interest rates imposed by commercial banks.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.