Collectively called the i-Apayaos, the province is made up of seven ethnicities: Isnag (29.95%), Malaueg (3.69%), Itneg (3.48%), Kankana-ey (1.24%), Bontoc (1.04%) and Ibaloi (1.01%) while the rest practically comprises of Ilocanos. Though distributed amongst different tribes, a significant part of the population is still national minority.
Indigenous peoples, specifically the Isnags in this case, have exemplary practices that contribute to the environmental conservation of the province. These have been proven so effective that Apayao is considered a Key Biodiversity Area and is protected by the Department of Natural Resources (DENR).
The lapat system, for instance, is an important conservation practice in many areas within and around Apayao. It prohibits access or entry to a part or the entirety of a forest, river or land for a specified time. It can also prohibit the collection of a specific resource found in these areas. This allows the portion or the resource under lapat to rest and recover. Local government units recognize this system and assist the Isnags in the facilitation of this tradition.
But in 2016, despite the minorities’ independent efforts to conserve their territories and in violation of the minorities’ right to self-determination, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte approved the construction of four hydropower dam projects in Apayao. Amounting to Php19.8 billion, the dams are to be built on the 175-kilometer Apayao-Abulug river. Aside from hydropower dams being one of the most destructive projects in history, the river is a declared critical watershed by the DENR.
Under the Aquino I, Ramos and Arroyo administrations, the proposal have had different revisions in terms of the height of the dam, supposed funders and even in pertinent government policies. It was during the second Aquino term that the Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corporation (PPRPPC) secured a hydropower service contract from the Department of Energy. The company intended to create a 600-megawatt dam along the Apayao-Abulug river.
With Duterte as president, the PPRPPC again modified the project and opted to create four dams in different areas in Apayao. In 2016, it was also among the beneficiaries of the three billion USD loan agreement with China.
The construction of the dams in the said province has been a plan of the parasitic national government since the first Marcos’ regime. During the dictatorship in the 70s, the World Bank funded such projects, including the supposed construction of the Chico Dam in Kalinga and Mountain Province. These were shelved due to the strong opposition of the Cordillera people. Macliing Dulag sacrificed his life, in the hands of Ferdinand Marcos’ henchmen, as proof of the Cordillera peoples’ resistance.
Destruction and Displacement
The continued opposition of the i-Apayaos to the dam construction is based on many factors: (1) impact to the environment and natural resources, (2) impact to the people’s livelihood and (3) human rights violations.
The area where the dams are to be built is home to different species, including 105 plants, 51 birds, 11 amphibians and reptiles and 19 mammals. Rafflesia, the largest and rarest flower in the world, can be found here. Nearly extinct animals such as the Philippine Eagle, Rufous Hornbill, Philippine Duck and Mottle-winged Flying Fox, among others, are living in the area.
Various herbs and medicinal plants used by the indigenous peoples also thrive in the area. The establishment of the dams will cause massive deforestation and will adversely affect the irrigation, endanger sources of potable water, decrease nutrients in the soil, lower crop yields and trigger flooding in the downstream provinces.
The dams will also displace the residential houses, communities and farm lands. Families who have burial grounds in the targeted area will also have to transfer the graves of their deceased at the risk of once again losing their ancestors.
The Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act provides for the company’s securing of the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of the affected tribes before any project commences. But in this case, the PPRPPC employed several manipulation tactics to divide the communities and hijack approval.
In February 2019, the Isnags have already rejected the project and signed a Resolution of Non-Consent in a meeting at Poblacion, Kabugao. The PPRPPC applied for a reconsideration immediately thereafter. The following month, the corporation took several elders to a hotel in Tuguegarao City and conducted a so-called consultation which suspiciously resulted in a “yes for negotiation only” decision.
More than 300 elders and leaders then retracted this ‘decision’ by January 2021 in Poblacion, Kabugao. The meeting is the same venue that discussed and ratified the document ‘A Resolution Strongly Expressing Our Opposition and Banning of the Proposed 150 MW Gened 1 HEPP of PPRPPC and Withdrawing Our Yes to Negotiation Only Consent from the Continuing the FPIC Process in Whatever Stage.’ The representatives of the PPRPPC, however, questioned the technicalities of the resolution and disregarded it by continuing the negotiation. And despite the many irregularities and violation of the FPIC process, the Cordillera Office of the National Commission on Indigenous People granted the Certification Precondition to PPRPPC.
The campaign of the i-Apayaos to prevent the construction of the dams continues despite the manipulative tactics of the corporation. The people continue their resistance despite the bias of government agencies towards the company, despite their supposed mandates to serve the interest of the indigenous peoples and affected communities. I-Apayaos remain resolute even if military forces have been mobilized and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has Red-tagged known elders and leaders.
Community-based organizations were created like the Kabugao Youth. Allies and advocates have also come together under the LAPAT APAYAO: Movement Against Apayao Dams (MAAD). The communities rightly find the fuel to forward the struggle by organizing themselves and forming principled alliances. Lessons from previous incursions, both of recent memory and of distant past, have served the i-Apayaos well. They gather strength from their ancestors whose courage lives on in the indigenous peoples’ determination to defend their land and their lives that depend on it. The fight of the i-Apayaos is the fight of every national minority for self-determination, and by extension, of every marginalized Filipino against oppression. ###
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article is that of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization nor of the CPDG.