eticia Bulaat was only 20 years old when engineers from the state-owned National Power Corporation, escorted by members of the Philippine Constabulary, arrived in Tabuk, Kalinga in the Philippine north.
It was 1968, and NPC was to begin building the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam Projects (CRDP) there. But local residents were not keen to play host to the engineers, the police, and especially to the dam projects.
In 1975, NPC returned, with the full backing of then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s martial law.
“We protested, and they retaliated with threats and violence,” narrates Bulaat, who became part of a grassroots anti-dam movement. “They accused us of being members of the New People’s Army (NPA, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines). Mass arrests followed, targeting especially the men, forcing many of them into hiding.”
The struggle would continue for decades, culminating in the killing of tribal leader Macli-ing Dulag in 1980. His death drew attention to the anti-dam protests, which finally began gathering support from within the country and abroad. Eventually, the World Bank withdrew its support for the dams. In February 1986, a peaceful uprising ousted the strongman Marcos Sr.; Corazon Aquino, who succeeded him, later scrapped the projects.
Nearly four decades later, Marcos’ son Ferdinand Jr. is president — and indigenous peoples’ (IPs) communities in the Cordillera, which include Kalinga, continue to resist energy corporations bent on building dams there.
Bulaat, now 75, has found herself involved once more in the fight against large dams alongside younger environmental activists.
“Nothing has changed,” she says. “They still label those who oppose dam projects as communists. The government still favors investors. In fact, things may take a turn for the worse.”
Bulaat noted that “tribal unity and sense of honor have eroded over time,” with dam projects gaining the support of several villages once part of the anti-Chico dams struggle. Differing views and approaches of indigenous peoples could, ironically, allow the construction of dams to proceed with little opposition, impacting people beyond its sites.
The communities’ lack of unity may also make them weaker parties at the bargaining table, where energy giants perceived to be close to the present administration sit on the other side.
Magnets for controversies
Dams have always been a contentious issue, with its potential benefits to energy and water needs weighed against their environmental and social costs. More than two decades after the World Commission on Dams released its report in November 2000, impacts like community displacement, economic hardships, and social breakdowns especially among peasant, tribal, and IP communities continue to haunt large dams. Several reports have also noted ecosystem harms causing declines in aquatic species, as well as degradation among wetlands, farmlands, and forests.
Countries across Asia have grappled with these realities, with several controversial dams dotting the region like the Polavaram Dam in India, Myanmar’s Myitsone Dam, and China’s proposed hydropower dam in the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) gorge in Tibet.
In the Philippines, environmental and IP groups have also raised concerns on the China-funded New Centennial Water Source, composed of nine impoundment facilities in the mountainous areas of Rizal and Quezon provinces in Southern Luzon, and the Korean-funded Jalaur mega dam project in Panay Island in the Visayas. (The Philippines has three main island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The national capital Manila is in Luzon.)
With its huge hydropower potential — pegged by the Department of Energy at 3,600 megawatts — the mountainous Cordillera has been a battleground for hydroelectric projects over the years. Called the “water cradle” of Northern Luzon, it has a drainage area of 5.5 million hectares, and is home of or partly hosts six major watersheds: those of the rivers Chico, Agno, Magat, Abulog-Apayao, Amburayan, and Abra.
The present-day Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) comprises the provinces of Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Mountain Province. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), a state agency tasked to ensure the implementation of Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), says CAR has 14 indigenous peoples’ groups, which in turn make up 33 percent of the country’s IP population.
In the 1950s, the Ambuklao and Binga dams in Benguet became the first hydropower facilities in the region. Communities affected by the construction of the facilities were forced to resettle not only in nearby towns but also as far as Palawan, an island more than 1,000 kms from Benguet. But the International Union for Conservation of Nature has since noted the lack of compensation for these displaced communities and minimal benefit for the villages, pointing out that residents got linked to the electric grid only 50 years later.
Smaller hydropower facilities were also put up in the 1990s, before the passage of the IPRA, which mandates the conduct of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) as recognition of IP communities’ right to self-determination. These include the three hydropower dams in Bakun, Benguet operated by the Hedcor Group, a subsidiary of Aboitiz Power.
Government records show that as of June 30 2023, there are 16 commercial hydroelectric power facilities in the Cordillera, with a total installed capacity of 316.34 MW or 8.79 percent of the region’s hydropower potential. Majority enters the Luzon grid, providing 887,896 MWh or one percent of the island’s entire energy demand, with about 5.35 MW going to communities in Benguet, Ifugao, and Kalinga.
The state records also show that as of June 30, there are 80 hydroelectric power projects (HEPP) in the region in their pre-development and development stage.
The son’s turn
As it was during his father’s two-decade rule, hydropower projects are a significant part of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidency.
“The use of renewable energy is at the top of our climate agenda,” he said during his first State of the Nation Address in 2022. “We will increase our use of renewable energy sources such as hydropower, geothermal power, solar, and wind.”
Marcos Jr. later appointed former Aboitiz Power vice president Dennis Edward A. de la Serna to the state-led Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management (PSALM) Corp. board; de la Serna is now PSALM’s acting president and chief executive officer (CEO). Energy Secretary Raphael P.M. Lotilla used to be Aboitiz Power’s lead independent director before assuming his current government post. The president also designated Aboitiz Group’s CEO, Sabin Aboitiz, as lead of the Private Sector Advisory Council, which comprises business leaders and is envisioned to help the government achieve its economic objectives.
Hydropower now makes up 13.3 percent of the country’s energy sources. While many welcome Marcos Jr.’s push for renewable energy amid worsening climate change, his inclusion of hydropower dams and the appointment to state posts of individuals with ties to the country’s leading energy players have raised alarms among environmental and indigenous peoples’ groups.
Out of Hedcor’s 22 hydropower facilities, 11 are in the Cordillera. SN Aboitiz Power (SNAP) now owns and operates the Ambuklao and Binga dams as well. SNAP is also the proponent of the 390-megawatt Alimit Hydropower Complex in Ifugao.
In recent years, Hedcor and SNAP have been entangled in disputes with local communities over their hydropower facilities and projects.
The Ibaloy and Kankanaey of Benguet, for instance, have been fighting for their equitable share from the operation of hydropower facilities built in their territories before IPRA. These include facilities under Aboitiz Power: SNAP’s Ambuklao and Binga dams, and the three Hedcor minihydropower plants in Bakun, Benguet.
In December 2020, Hedcor and SNAP were among the six major corporations operating in Benguet province that the NCIP regional office flagged for not paying royalties to their host communities.
In 2021, Hedcor was also caught in dispute with Bakun IPs about the payment and increased royalties from its three Bakun plants. This resulted in the NCIP and community leaders shutting down its facilities; after Hedcor renegotiated with the community, the plants have resumed operations.
More recent among the Aboitiz Group’s Cordillera troubles was the rejection by indigenous peoples in Bokod, Benguet, of SNAP Benguet Inc.’s bid to continue the operation of the 105 MW Ambuklao HEPP. Community elders rejected the company’s final offer of 3.25 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh) share, calling it “pitiful and exploitative,” considering the “over P2 billion in annual revenues the company generates.” (Current exchange rates hover between PHP 55 and PHP 56 to the U.S. dollar.)
Replying to ADC’s queries, SNAP reiterated its commitment “to the agreed principles that
framed the negotiation for additional benefits” for the indigenous peoples hosting its
hydroelectric power plants and “reaffirms its willingness to continue the negotiations with the
IPs of Bokod.”
Clash between the ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’
Bulaat meanwhile rues how two dam projects, the Upper Tabuk and Karayan Hydropower Projects, have divided have divided her Nanong tribe and created enmity between members of its Dallac and
Minanga subtribes. Despite protests from her group, the companies clinched agreements with the affected communities along the Chico River. The proponent for the former will undertake the project in partnership with the Provincial Government of Kalinga while the latter has recently gotten the nod of majority of the residents.
There is much dismay as well in the communities along the Saltan River, a major Chico River tributary. There, four Kalinga tribes are opposing proposed dams that “threaten ancestral land and culture, sources of livelihood, and the environment.” As with other similar projects in the region, allegations of manipulating community consultations hound the dam projects in the area.
But those now protesting against major dams in the Cordillera are finding themselves vilified and tagged as supporters of communists, if not being communists themselves – echoing the experience of their elders who had resisted the proposed Chico Dams during the Marcos dictatorship.
Eufemia Bog-as of the Salogsog tribe says that speaking out against dam projects online has earned her backlash from pro-dam individuals in her town and from state forces. She recounts: “My social media posts have become the subject of gossip and accusations of my alleged links with communist rebels. Even my fellow villagers have labeled me (as such), and some of my relatives have given me the cold shoulder.”
“Some of my fellow youths even consider my ‘No to Dam’ posts rebellious,” adds Bog-as. “They even blame our actions for the continued presence of the NTF-ELCAC (the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, a state anti-communist task force) in our community.”
Indeed, there has been increased military presence in the areas where the dam projects are. But those opposing the big dams – many of whom belong to the younger generation — remain undaunted.◉
Sherwin De Vera is a Baguio-based journalist covering the environment, indigenous peoples, and human rights. He is an editor of alternative media outfit Northern Dispatch and also writes for Rappler.