China-backed dam threatens indigenous people in the Philippines

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Kibawe, Philippines – The Pulangi River flows through the remote Pantaron variety of central Mindanao, where the Manobo Indigenous people move between their small riverside encampments by boat; their income depends on growing food and medical plants in mountains they consider sacred.

But an $800 m China-backed hydropower dam task is set to drastically alter this landscape in the southern Philippines, displacing dozens of Native communities who call this peaceful river basin in Bukidnon province house.

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Regional Indigenous leaders do not desire to move. However they say their voices have actually been muzzled by the militarisation of Mindanao, which has actually made communities afraid of organising to safeguard their ancestral lands.

The proposed 250- megawatt South Pulangi Hydroelectric Power Plant project, located about three hours north of Davao City, the home town of President Rodrigo Duterte, will indicate the building of a 143- metre dam and a tank that will flood about 2,833 hectares (7,000 acres) of Native land in 4 towns, according to documents acquired by Al Jazeera.

According to a 2018 job strategy released by Pulangi Hydro Power Corporation, or PHPC, building will affect the citizens of 20 neighborhoods.

There are 30,000 individuals living in the location, according to 2015 census information. Not all will be subject to moving however residents in the rich mountain communities have not gotten exact figures of affected homes.

Those who will be straight impacted state no one has actually requested for their consent to continue with the job as needed by law.

” They did not follow the appropriate legal process,” said Nilo Cabungcal, vice chairman of the Manobo Pulangihon Tribal Council and a member of the Save Pulangi Alliance. “There is no authorization.”

$800 m contract

PHPC president and CEO Josue Lapitan signed the $800 m contract arrangement with Dong Bin, chairman of China Energy Engineering Co Ltd in April 2019, on the sidelines of the 2nd Belt and Road Online Forum in Beijing, which Duterte went to.

The job “aims to enhance power supply dependability and strength” the nation’s Department of Trade and Industry said in a statement.

The deal is the current in a series of connections in between Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Effort and the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build facilities programme.

But the two federal governments have not made the funding information public, stated Neri Colmenares, a previous congressman and lawyer who had actually questioned loan contracts with China, including the Kaliwa Dam project.

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Pulangi River - Philippines

An estimated 30,000 individuals who live along the Pulangi River could be impacted by the task [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

The agreements triggered concerns over high interest rates that could give China control over essential Philippine assets – consisting of the ancestral lands of Native individuals – should the nation stop working to repay its loans.

Colmenares has asked the Supreme Court to purchase the general public release of the loan details.

Indigenous homeowners impacted by the Kaliwa dam, along with a pump irrigation job on the Chico River, have also stated they did not provide complimentary, previous and informed consent before agreement arrangements were signed.

‘ Worry of militarisation’

People living in South Pulangi, nevertheless, have actually seen their concerns silenced by martial law on Mindanao.

Environmental groups tracking the project are being bugged by the government, according to Leon Dulce, chairman of the Manila-based environmental network Kalikasan Individuals’s Network for the Environment, likewise called Kalikasan.

Dulce said environment guard dogs in Bukidnon had actually been targeted by “full-scale militarisation”.

Pulangi River - Philippines - Nick Aspinwall

Neighborhood activists state numerous Manobo individuals fear the military and can not grumble about their scenario to the government [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

The Davao-based Panalipdan (Defend) Southern Mindanao local alliance stated martial law had prevented campaigners from collecting information and informing residents of the task’s possible effect.

Martial law in Mindanao was lifted on January 1, after being imposed for 31 months.

However the armed forces are expected to maintain a substantial presence on the island, which remains among the world’s deadliest locations for environmental protectors. Duterte’s “state of emergency” declaration is also still in place.

Since of his efforts to stop the Pulangi dam task, Cabungcal, the Manobo leader of Save Pulangi Alliance, stated he has received many text messages advising him to drop his opposition. On May 17 in 2015, a gun was fired at his home. He thinks it was a “caution shot”.

Pulangi River - Philippines - Nick Aspinwall

Aclan, priest for a Philippine-based group, informed Al Jazeera lots of communities near Pulangi River had actually been ‘militarised’ [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Davino Padua Aclan, priest at Iglesia Filipina Independiente in Kibawe, among the 4 impacted municipalities, stated fear of militarisation had kept residents from speaking out.

” If the community responds, it’s possible the military will come here,” Aclan stated.

Chinese survey

The issues of the regional communities have not stopped investors from surveying the area.

Homeowners say that in July 2017, two years before the Pulangi agreement was signed, they saw a Chinese guy flying drones around the proposed dam website.

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In December 2018, PHPC employees likewise went to the proposed dam website with drilling devices, they said.

Residents approached them and asked to leave, saying they did not have approval to survey the area.

Pulangi River - Philippines - Nick Aspinwall

Community leader Arlyn Sandong Balilihan has actually been battling on behalf of the Manobo to stop the project [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Military units frequently guard infrastructure websites in the Philippines and face Native challengers to projects. In many cases, community leaders are arbitrarily put behind bars or eliminated.

On Might 9, 2012, Margarito Cabal, an organiser for Save Pulangi Alliance, was killed. He had previously informed loved ones he was under monitoring by the military, which had branded him a member of the New Individuals’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the nation’s communist party, an act called “red-tagging”.

Aclan sat near the river and motioned towards Cabungcal as he remembered Cabal’s story. “It can happen with this job, for the leaders for this,” he said.

Aclan stated many members of his church have likewise been “red-tagged” by armed forces, which have been fighting NPA rebels for years.

He said this was because of their work with farmers and Native neighborhoods involved in land struggles.

” If you’re versus the federal government, you are NPA,” he said. “You undergo …” He held a finger to his throat and, simulating a weapon, brought his thumb down.

‘ Prohibited project’

The job’s “ground absolutely no” – the site where the main dam structure will be built – is a short boat flight from Sanipon, among a number of communities that will be immersed.

Pulangi River - Philippines - Nick Aspinwall

Community leaders and ecological advocates state the project failed to get required government clearance to begin construction [Nick Aspinwall/ Al Jazeera]

The communities, only accessible by motorbike, are house to Manobo individuals who farm the surrounding mountains and tend to horses and water buffalo. Children collect on the riverside, swimming and capturing fish.

A dam access roadway is slated to cut through the forests, permitting heavy equipment to reach the website. The individuals of Sanipon will be forced to move.

Aclan stood on the riverbank and gestured to where the dam will increase along with the mountains. “This job,” he stated, “is prohibited.”

Under Philippine law, the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), need to carry out environmental and socioeconomic impact research studies and get approval from impacted Indigenous neighborhoods prior to a job can begin.

In spite of signing an agreement, PHPC and China Energy have actually not released figures on how many homes will be transferred, or provided the required files to citizens.

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Pulangi River - Philippines - Nick Aspinwall

The business leading the task, and China Energy have not released figures of the number of households are set to be transferred [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Aclan accused the government of operating in concert with investors and city government authorities to avoid these requirements, a criticism typically levelled by watchdogs, including the United Kingdom-based NGO Global Witness.

” They worked together with each other in favour of this project without previous notice,” Aclan said.

‘ Stolen land’

PHPC has actually accepted pay landholders yearly settlement of 25,000 Philippine pesos ($489) per hectare (2.5 acres) for 25 years – a figure William Dakawan, a Manobo chairperson from Sanipon, firmly insisted was not enough.

” We’re not anti-development,” Cabungcal stated. “But they stepped on our rights. We are anti-development for this particular job.”

Arlyn Sandong Balilihan, a Manobo homeowner of close-by Natulongan, stated the dam will immerse ancestral land that belonged to her family but was taken during the martial law rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

” My lolo [grandfather] was buried there,” she said. “If I have cash, I will combat them.”

Sanipon - Manobo - Philippines

Numerous Manobo have actually lived along the riverbank of Pulangi for generations [Nick/Al Jazeera]

Balilihan says her neighborhood was approached by a PHPC representative in March with 1.35 million Philippine pesos ($26,420) in money – an effort to protect their approval for the job.

She and other tribal senior citizens, including Cabungcal, chose to return the money.

Many village chiefs, nevertheless, signed files approving the dam regardless of the objections from residents, Cabungcal said.

Lapitan, president of PHPC, did not respond to numerous demands for remark at two noted phone numbers and an e-mail address.

China Energy, NCIP and DTI did not respond to demands for comment.

‘ No action from government’

Cabungcal stated he met Allen Capyuan, head of the company for I ndigenous individuals, in May and informed him that PHPC had not followed appropriate legal process. Up until now, the meeting has not produced a resolution to their grievance, Cabungcal stated.

Aclan is pessimistic that the Manobos’ voice will be heard, as the job is “important” to the Duterte administration.

Balilihan, a Manobo leader, understands speaking against the job brings personal danger. She has prompted her kids to move away for their safety. On her own, she said she is not afraid.

” It’s ok for me. I can safeguard myself,” she said. “I will provide my blood.”

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