Farmers decry displacement over Rizal solar power plant project

Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 14 2019 07:27 PM | Updated as of Mar 14 2019 07:57 PM

Government says project aboveboard, firm secured permits

Macabud village councilor Nestor Villeza could only look from afar while watching ATN Solar’s operation in his village. Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

RODRIGUEZ, RIZAL – Dust is all over the upland village of Macabud in this province some 2 hours from Manila. Harsh buzzing, rattling and blasting from heavy construction equipment and trucks can be heard all day, even at night.

A huge part of several sitios that used to be wide, abundant farmland with a lively stream is now a vastness of excavated soil.

That is the result of over two years of land development for a 30-megawatt solar power project by ATN Philippines Solar Energy Group Inc.

ATN Solar entered into a solar energy service contract with the Department of Energy in May 2011, plus other permits needed to execute construction and operation of the 30MW facility.

Both the local and national governments expressed their support for the project citing an advocacy for renewable energy sources, especially solar energy.

The project kicked off in 2017, survived a violation notice along the way, and is still ongoing despite an administrative order from the Department Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that land development projects should have a “timely, informed and meaningful public participation of potentially- affected communities” — something that never happened, according to residents.

This landscape used to be a productive farmland. Residents, whose primary living was farming, say they were evicted to give way to a solar power plant. Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

A hectare of the then developed agricultural community could yield a minimum of 100 sacks of rice per crop cycle, as well as many other sacks of crops.

There are over 9,000 residents in the village. At least 750 of them were forced to leave, bringing with them financial assistance worth P30,000 per family, college scholarships and a relocation site in exchange for leaving their homes for the huge project.

Village councilor Nestor Villeza could only look from afar, hiding from trees while watching the operation. He is lucky his house was spared from the project.

“Nagsibabaan na sila, nando’n, namumulasi sa basurahan,” Villeza said of Macabud’s former neighborhood.

(They have come down, they're there, sorting through garbage.)

A nearby village of Lukutang Maliit hosts Metro Manila’s garbage. Several dumpsites also mushroomed in areas going up Macabud, making junk shop and scrap businesses lucrative.

Villeza said: “Naku, masamang-masama ang loob ng mga tao dito. Wala na ’yung kanilang pinagkakakitaan na mga sakahan, ’yung kanilang mga halaman.”

(People here really feel bad. They have lost their farmland, that was their livelihood.)

Evicted residents have been barred from returning to the site. Some were even charged for continuing resistance, according to village captain Judith Gandia.

“They called us criminals,” she lamented.

The power plant could be enticing for the beleaguered village that frequently encountered power outages. But this meant giving up their rich farmlands and ancestral homes.

Residents vehemently opposed the plan with a series of protests and petitions.

“Binouldoze nila ang mga pananim, pinutol ang mga punong-kahoy nang walang cutting permit, pinatag nila ang kabundukan at ang mga lupang galing dito ay itinapon nila sa Sapang Lilid at sa kanilang pagtapon, napuno ng lupa ang sapa,” read part of the residents’ petition filed before the DENR in October 2018.

(They bulldozed our crops, they cut trees without cutting permits, flattened the mountain and the land from here, they dumped into Sapang Lilid, and because of that, the pond was filled with soil.)

The plea continued: “...[A]t kung sakaling magkaroon ng malakas na ulan, tiyak na tiyak na magkakaroon ng pagguho ng lupa at matatakpan nang tuluyan ang sapa at ito ay patungo sa Rodriguez, San Mateo at Marikina.”

(And in case of heavy rains, there will sure be a landslide and the pond will be covered with soil and this will go to Rodriguez, San Mateo and Marikina.)

Some farmers vow to fight for the farmland that is still left in Macabud. "We will not allow this to be with them," says farmer Rene Negusa. Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

ATN Solar is claiming ownership of the 256-hectare disputed land with overlapping land titles. Some 124 hectares of land were declared by the Court of Appeals to be covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and, thus, ordered to be distributed to farmer-beneficiaries.

The said decision was not implemented as Palladian Development, where the land was titled to, was not impleaded in the case. Only the former landowners were named respondents. Hence, the case was sent to the central office of the Department of Agrarian Reform.

Some farmers of still untouched parcels of land have remained and continue to fight for their rights.

“Kung ito’y makukuha, talagang malaking epekto sa amin dahil ito ’yung ikinabubuhay namin,” said veteran farmer Jimmy Pascual.

(If they take this, it will really have a big effect on us because this is our livelihood.)

His land is productive enough that through it, he was able to fund the college education of his three children.

Another farmer, Rene Negusa, said: “Hindi po namin ito papayagan na mapasakanila. Ipaglalaban po namin ito. Hindi naman sapat ang alok nila.”

(We will not let them take this land. We will fight for this. What they are offering us is not enough.)

According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of Region IV (MGB IV), ATN Solar secured all necessary permits to proceed with its operations, including rock crushing.

“In so far as the MGB is concerned, ATN has an exploration permit. They are currently exploring materials,” said Dondi Sarmiento, chief of Mine Safety, Environment and Social Development Division of MGB IV.

The 256-hectare land is estimated to contain large deposits of basalt and andesite rocks.

For the farmers, it is better to live in the dark than to die hungry away from the land they long tilled.

“Kami’y nananawagan kay Pangulong Presidente na sana po ipatupad na ang programa ng CARP at ipamahagi na ito sa mga mamamayan ng Macabud. Ang tagal-tagal na po. Hangad namin na mapasaamin ang lupa para hindi na makapasok ang mga developer sa aming barangay,” Negusa said.

(We are calling on the President to enforce CARP and distribute the land to the people of Macabud. It has been so long. We hope to have the land so that developers could no longer enter our village.)

ABS-CBN News reached out to ATN Solar but the company remains unavailable as of this posting.