Philippine water plan threatens thousands of tribal people

Local leaders claim Chinese-funded scheme will displace at least 100,000, destroy communities
Philippine water plan threatens thousands of tribal people

A tribal leader places a cross on the altar during a celebration on April 22 to mark past victories of Philippine tribes against so-called development aggression in tribal lands. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Tribal communities in the northern Philippines are being threatened by a government-sponsored water project that is being funded by China, tribal leaders claimed.

Windel Bolinget, a tribal leader in the Cordillera region, said that while the US$62-million irrigation project on their ancestral lands could benefit poor farmers, it would submerge tribal communities.

On April 10, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he was able to a loan agreement with China to fund the building of an irrigation project in the Cordillera region.

The project, which includes the construction of a pump station, canals, service roads, and a dam, is expected to serve about 8,700 hectares of agricultural land.

The government's National Irrigation Administration also claimed that it would benefit at least 4,300 families in the northern provinces of Cagayan and Kalinga.

A statement from the agency said the project will generate 14,784 jobs during its implementation and more than 8,000 jobs when it becomes operational.

The irrigation project will source its water from the 175-kilometer long Chico River, which straddles the Cordillera mountain range and flows down to join the Cagayan River.

The river is, however, considered a "river of life" by tribal people who live along its banks.

The Cordillera People's Alliance, claimed scheme will displace at least 100,000 individuals and submerge their communities and farmlands.

Alliance spokesman, Bestang Dekdeken, said it will also result in the "privatization of agricultural services ... under the guise of advancing a socio-economic agenda."

He said the government is trying to fast track the project to allow foreign mining interests in the region.

The Cordillera is one of the country's richest regions in terms of mineral resources and is a major source of gold and copper. 

Church leaders have also voiced their support for the threatened tribes by calling on the government "to cease all projects that promote devastation of the common home."

"The church remains firm on its stand on the protection of the environment," said Redemptorist priest Alex Bercasio, adding that the church recognizes tribal people as "the vanguard in the protection of all creation."

"The indigenous peoples' right to life and a safe environment is compelling enough to oppose any development project that would deny them basic rights," he said.

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Bishop Pedro Torio of the United Methodist Church commended the "self-awareness" of tribes to demand their rights to their land.

"We assert the obligation of the state and people within society to implement compensatory programs that redress long-standing, systematic social deprivation of racial and ethnic people," said the Protestant prelate.

Tribal people perform a dance during the celebration of Cordillera Day in the northern Philippines on April 22. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


Remembering past victories

Meanwhile, tribal people in the region marked more than three decades of what they described as "victories of people's struggle for land rights" on April 22 in a celebration called "Cordillera Day."

Among these victories was the successful opposition to the building of a series of dams along the Chico River in the 1970s 

The event has become an annual solidarity gathering that aims to remind Filipinos of tribal peoples' opposition to late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

"This is a celebration of victories we gained and a reminder to intensify our struggle against plunder of our ancestral lands," said Bolinget, who is also chairman of the Cordillera Peoples' Alliance.

The gathering also commemorated the April 24, 1980 killing of Macli-ing Dulag, a tribal leader who unified warring tribes to oppose development projects of then president Ferdinand Marcos.

Their resistance during the Marcos years has since become a benchmark for ancestral domain cases in the country.

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