‘The dam is cunning’

The community members who gathered in the town of Lumutan to vote on whether to consent to the project this past September had already encountered it under its various guises over the years. This time, though, they knew “so little about this new one,” said Jaime from the Katribu coalition. “The community is confused.”

“We don’t even know what the project’s about,” said Tatang, one of those present. “They come here and ask for our votes but they didn’t even show us the plan,” he added, referring to the water agency and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Questions were also raised about how the government was speeding up the process: It had grouped the community into six clusters, essentially stripping down their communal approach to bloc voting and downplaying the great geographical distance between one community and another — an obstacle that only the most eager were likely to try to overcome. “That’s the challenge: every member has to be thoroughly informed of what’s at stake and they all have to agree among them before they cast a vote,” Jaime said.

Nilo was one of those who made the trip to Lumutan. His home village of Pagsangahan is among those that will be submerged by the reservoir. And once the water gets diverted, 1,200 farmers cultivating 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres) downstream will suffer, he said. “That dam is cunning and its effects are far-reaching,” Nilo added.

Areas in Quezon and Rizal provinces that will be affected by Kaliwa Dam. Source: Pakisama advocacy maps

“Residents here don’t want to attend the assemblies anymore,” Tatang said. “We’ve been fighting for so long and this conversation kept on repeating year after year. When will we win?”

“We did win,” Nilo said. “Some say nothing happened when we fought in 2009 but we are still here. If we didn’t win, we would have been dispersed 10 years ago and this village should have been all water. But we’re still here … our homes are still intact — that means we won. And we have to keep winning.”

When Lumutan cast its vote, it was unanimous: No to the Kaliwa Dam.

Four other indigenous clusters voted the same way, while the sixth, Malibay, was the sole one approving of the dam. But the NCIP, which oversees the process of obtaining consent, hasn’t formally released the results of these votes, and residents anticipate another round of consultation — a redo allowed under the Indigenous People’s Act if the current round is formally closed and the water agency reapplies. “All these documents that they don’t release makes us suspicious,” Pete Montellana, an activist priest with the STOP Kaliwa Dam coalition, told Mongabay. Montellana was one of the main movers of the resistance, harking back to the mobilization of 10 years ago. “Why the delay? A significant majority of the tribes already rejected the project and this should be publicized. They should release the certification that the Dumagats scrapped Kaliwa.”

The community is upbeat about how the consent results have turned out so far, but is less trusting about the indigenous people’s commission and how it has handled the process. “The NCIP should clarify their process,” Jaime said. “This clustering method is causing division … It’s this changing process that confuses indigenous peoples.”

The road to a Dumagat community in Quezon. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay

Even as the consent process has hit a temporary halt, half of the access roads leading to the dam site have been built, the military has been deployed to watch over the machinery, and a culture of impunity has washed over the area, exacerbated by Duterte’s threat to wield “extraordinary powers” to see the project through. “You have every right to protest if it … would place your place in jeopardy,” he told reporters in Manila on Oct. 28. “But if the safeguards are there then between your concerns and the [water] crisis that we are trying to avoid, I will use the extraordinary powers of the presidency.”

These extraordinary powers, groups say, include mobilizing the country’s security forces to temper community resistance to the dam in an area that’s already the site of clashes between combatants from the New People’s Army, a wing of the outlawed Communist Party, and the military. But the ongoing tensions on the ground have also strengthened the community’s resolve for another rigorous and extensive march on Manila should due process and legal interventions fall short.

“My children asked us how to put loincloths,” Kapitan said. “They’re bad at it, but little by little, they’re learning how to put it on. They want to get ready … if we march again, they will join me for this cause.”

The names of community members have been changed for their safety.

Banner image of the Kaliwa River in the province of Quezon, the site of the Kaliwa Dam project that is targeted to ease Metro Manila’s water woes. Image by MWSS

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