Site icon Conservation news

Controversial dam gets green light to flood a Philippine protected area

The Sierra Madre mountain range is home to numerous wildlife, which indigenous communities sometimes keep as pets. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay

  • The environment department has issued an environmental compliance certificate that allows the contested Kaliwa Dam project in the Sierra Madre mountain range to go ahead, part of a wider push to secure water supplies for Manila and surrounding areas.
  • The certificate is one of the last sets of documents required by the developers for the project being funded by a $238.3 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.
  • Yet its issuance comes despite a government-conducted environmental impact assessment showing that the dam’s reservoir alone will endanger endemic wildlife and plants, drive massive species migration, and pose risks to lowland agricultural and fishing communities with a history of flash flooding.
  • The site of the planned dam falls within the Kaliwa watershed forest reserve, which has been designated a natural wildlife park sanctuary and game refuge, and an IUCN Category V Protected Landscape/Seascape.

This is the first article in a two-part series on the Kaliwa Dam project.

GENERAL NAKAR, Philippines — In the barangay, or village, of Lumutan, the Dumagat-Remontados tribe speaks of the sacred mountain Putyokan, whose peak offers the most breathtaking view of the southern Sierra Madre mountain range on the Philippine island of Luzon.

It’s home to a herb they call karaklay, which, when boiled down into a dark, bitter liquid, serves as a cure-all for common illnesses. The plant is hugely important in this barangay where the only health center lacks supplies and the nearest hospital is more than three hours away by foot and an hour on a motorcycle. “It cures everything,” said Migueling dela Cruz, a resident of one of the indigenous communities in Lumutan, in deep southern Tagalog, a local language. “Fever, coughs, malaria, diarrhea. You just have to endure the bitterness but it always works.”

Yet this holy mountain and its herbal plants — and the eagles that glide along the ridges at the break of day, and the crevices and rock formations that hide a lake fed by a waterfall — all these will disappear once the Kaliwa Dam project goes through. Part of the New Centennial Water Source meant to pipe 600 million liters (159 million gallons) of water daily to Metro Manila and surrounding urban areas, the reservoir for the dam is expected to submerge 93 hectares (230 acres) of forestland, including 12 sites considered sacred by 11 indigenous communities.

The Sierra Madre mountain range is a key biodiversity area on the main island of Luzon with the largest remaining tract of rainforest and home to over a thousand wildlife species. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay

The karaklay, among other biodiverse and endemic species of plants and animals, will be one of the first to disappear. Putyokan will go underwater, leaving only the peak, and tribespeople will have to ferry across the reservoir to reach it. “What’s the point in that?” Dela Cruz said. “We won’t be able to pray to our ancestors … and the karaklay will disappear. That’s our main problem.”

The Dumagat-Remontados have stood firm in their opposition to the project. At a recent community gathering, they voted overwhelmingly against giving their consent for the project, which they anticipated would scupper the $238.3 million loan deal that the Export-Import Bank of China is offering the Philippines for the dam’s construction. But despite this outpouring of resistance, the government issued one of the last requirements for a project of this magnitude: an environmental certificate released to Manila’s Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) on Oct. 21.

Anti-dam groups have expressed their dismay, citing existing impact assessment studies conducted by both the environment department and independent groups that show the dam’s construction will endanger endemic local species, trigger massive migration of threatened wildlife, and pose hazards not just to indigenous upland communities but to lowland villages in Infanta, an agricultural and fishing municipality 26 kilometers (16 miles) downstream from Lumutan.

“Just by the sheer size of Kaliwa, it can be considered an environmentally critical project,” Lia Alonzo of the Center for Environmental Concern-Philippines (CEC), an NGO, told Mongabay. “Yet, they push for this project and disregard its glaring environmental impacts.”

The coverage area of the New Centennial Water Source – Kaliwa Dam project. Dotted areas represent villages and communities. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System

Key biodiversity area

The Lumutan River takes on a bright green hue during the honey-harvesting months of April to July. Dela Cruz was 14 when he first accompanied his father to look for honey; it was from him that he learned to read the flight patterns of the bees, tail them, find the pukyutan (honeycombs), and separate the honey with his bare hands.

“A morning’s hunt used to produce buckets of the golden liquid, but nowadays we’re lucky if we can fill one pail,” he said. Honey is an important source of livelihood for the tribe, and the bees are among the species threatened once the construction of Kaliwa begins. “We don’t know yet how it will impact our food sources but there will definitely be changes,” Dela Cruz said. “But we will not go down to Manila because you pay for everything there. Here, water and food are free — so we will go further up the mountain if Kaliwa happens.”

Running 680 kilometers (420 miles) north to south and traversing 10 provinces, the Sierra Madre is the longest mountain range in the Philippines. It’s also considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the country, with the largest remaining tract of rainforest. Studies have shown that the range is home to at least 201 species of mammals, 556 species of birds, more than 85 species of amphibians and 252 species of reptiles, half of them endemic and many threatened.

The southern end of the range, the site of the proposed dam, was the focus of a government environmental impact study finished in July but made public only recently. Conducted by 11 environmental specialists from February to April this year, the study covered the entire project area and confirmed its “high biodiversity” status. The group concluded that the dam’s construction would directly impact 96 endemic species that are already under threat from man-made factors.

Notable species include the endangered and rare Rafflesia manillana corpse flower, critically endangered hardwood tree species known as lauan or Philippine mahogany (Shorea spp.), and kalantas (Toona calantas), another hardwood in the mahogany family that’s an important timber tree native to the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Of the 237 tree species recorded in the watershed area, 67 are listed under either the Philippine Red List or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 58 are endemics, and 143 are indigenous.

The Kaliwa Dam project will threaten numerous endemic species including the Philippine eagle (Pithecopaga jefferyi), as the Sierra Madre mountain range is one of the last strongholds of this critically-endangered species. Image courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Residents of Lumutan sometimes spot the famed Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the world’s biggest eagle and the national bird. “My neighbor saw one just last week,” Dela Cruz said in July. “He said it has a white head and when it nestled in a lauan, the whole tree shook. It probably weighs around 5 kilos [11 pounds].”

Indeed, the Sierra Madre is one of the last strongholds of the Philippine eagle, as well as of other birds. Of the 69 avian species recorded during the period of the study, 23 were found to be endemic to the country and three are Luzon endemic. The rufous hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax) and the northern Philippine hawk-eagle (Nisaetus philippensis) are among those threatened by habitat loss.

The watershed is also home to threatened endemic mammals such as the Philippine brown deer (Rusa marianna) and the Philippine warty pig (Sus philippensis), which depend on the “extensive lowland and montane forests of Sierra Madre,” according to a report by the Haribon Foundation, a conservation organization. “It cannot be overemphasized that the proposed Kaliwa Dam will drive countless species of birds, plants and animals into extinction — all of which are woven together into one intricate web of life,” said Maria Belinda de la Paz, the foundation’s chief operating officer.

While the government’s impact assessment recognized these environmental repercussions and the “disruption of behavioral patterns of species during the construction stages of the project,” it only recommended stringent implementation of construction standards and proper waste disposal.

The riverine system that nourishes Kaliwa River also supports upland indigenous communities, who are far from the coverage of potable water systems. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay

“The impact assessment said the disruption is temporary, that it will only be during the construction phase,” said the CEC’s Alonzo. “But they also admit that the damages to ecology are irreversible and permanent. We are ruining the very foundation of the ecosystem, so we have to look at it in terms of ecosystem services and not just in terms of water production.”

Railroading a protected site

Approval of the dam project breaches prevailing designations meant to protect the very area that will be affected. The site falls within the Kaliwa watershed forest reserve, declared in 1968, which has also been a natural wildlife park sanctuary and game refuge since 1977 (both designations were granted through presidential proclamation). Ancestral domain titles have also been handed out to the Dumagat-Remontados, covering 188,305 hectares (465,312 acres) in Sierra Madre. The tribe’s deep-rooted relationship with the landscape has garnered the area a designation of IUCN Category V Protected Landscape/Seascape.

But despite its ecological importance, the region lacks a wealth of species-specific research and long-term conservation efforts, in part because of persistent security issues. The mountains around the municipality of General Nakar, where Lumutan is located, are a hotbed of the long-running communist insurgency, and have witnessed countless skirmishes and armed exchanges between combatants from the outlawed New People’s Army and the military.

The southern end of the range is also wracked by massive illegal logging activities, which drove the loss of 161,240 hectares (398,432 acres) of forests from 1988 to 2010, according to statistics from the environment department. Land degradation is notable, and the denuding of the slopes has been blamed for exacerbating the impact of two super typhoons that hit the area in 2004 and unleashed landslides and flash floods that killed 1,400 people.

“That river became five times bigger in 2004,” Dela Cruz said, pointing to the mossy Lumutan, one of the tributaries of the Kaliwa River. “How can we forget that? Some of our houses were washed all the way to Infanta … It happened around 7 a.m. here. Some village members were carried by the waters too … and their relatives went down to look for their bodies. When they asked people from Infanta what time the flash flood hit, they said it’s also at 7 a.m.”

The Lumutan River, a tributary of Kaliwa River, is one of the main water sources for the Kaliwa Dam project. This same river ballooned to five times its normal size during the two supertyphoons in 2004, triggering a flash flood that left behind 1,400 casualties. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay

Fears of a repeat of that disaster and of loss of livelihoods were the primary concerns among residents who would be affected by the project, the environmental impact assessment report said. Yet these considerations had little influence over the environment department’s decision to issue as early as Oct. 11 (Oct. 21 was the public release) the environmental compliance certificate (ECC) required for the project to go ahead.

The “conditional” ECC gives the MWSS, the main proponent of the project, permission to begin operations, but only after securing other necessary government permits. These include the consent of the affected indigenous peoples, a massive information campaign, a signed memorandum of agreement with local government units on social development interventions, an indigenous people’s development plan, the construction of a buffer zone, and the establishment of reforestation and carbon sink programs.

But environmental and human rights groups and experts alike say the environment department shouldn’t have issued the ECC to begin with, as it complicates the tug-of-war between development and conservation in an already contested area.

“While we recognize that Metro Manila has legitimate concerns on water security, these should not be addressed at the expense of human rights, our environment, Philippine laws and sovereignty,” said STOP Kaliwa Dam, a coalition of groups that includes the Haribon Foundation and indigenous rights organizations. “The government has the responsibility to protect its people from environmental harm and provide long-term solutions to respond to the needs of all its people, not only in Metro Manila.”

“We all know building that dam has environmental repercussions,” Pete Montellana, an activist priest with the coalition, told Mongabay. “We have studies to prove that, but why does the government insist despite having alternatives?”

The group launched an online petition against the dam in June, and has since gathered more than 41,000 signatures.

Continued to Part Two: A Philippine tribe that defeated a dam prepares to fight its reincarnation

Banner image of one of the more than a thousand wildlife species seen in the Sierra Madre mountain range, which indigenous communities sometimes keep as pets. Image by Leilani Chavez / Mongabay 

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.