Defending the Cordillera Administrative Region’s last nature frontier and its ‘River People’

By Jillie Karl Basan Mar 19, 2023


This blog was written by Jillie Karl Basan, proud Isnag daughter of Kabugao (Apayao, Philippines), and one of the conveners of the Kabugao Youth.

Because of its precious and untouched natural resources, Apayao is dubbed as the last nature frontier in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). This province – in the north of the Philippines – is home to the Isnag indigenous peoples and other indigenous communities, and in its lush forests there are hidden the nests of the endangered Philippine eagle. As this is a key biodiversity area, the provincial government has recently applied to make Apayao a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

But this territory, and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live here, are now at risk. The region’s rich natural resources have attracted the interests of the government and private companies, who want to develop mining and hydro-power projects.

Already in the 1980s, the government-owned National Power Corporation had proposed to build a hydroelectric plant. Thanks to the strong community opposition, who spoke out against the potential devastating impacts of such a project, the plan did not go ahead.

Today, with the pretext of bringing so-called green development and clean energy, another company is threatening the Apayao River and its people. In 2011, the Energy Department awarded the Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corporation (PPRPPC) a contract to construct a large hydro-power dam along the Apayao river. In 2016, the contract was amended, to construct a series of seven dams in the river tributaries.1

Three of these dams (Gened 1, Gened 2 and Sicapo) will be built around Kabugao, the capital town and heart of the Isnag indigenous community. According to the 2020 local census, almost 20,000 Isnag and other indigenous people – who identify themselves as “river peoples” – live along the Apayao and its tributaries. These communities rely on the river system as a source of livelihood, as a route to move from one village to the other, as well as for their cultural and spiritual lives. The hydro-power plants would lead to irreversible damage: they will displace thousands of people and impact hectares of land along the riverbanks where people grow their food, and where there are their burial and sacred grounds, public structures, churches, and schools.

What have we done wrong to be sacrificed for the needs and profit of outsiders? They treat us as we were insects, crawling in the forest, homeless.” (Village elder Budin Balalang)

The proposed Gened 2 dam is located upstream of Kabugao, where there is another ancestral domain. Together with the dam Gened 1, that will block the Apayao River downstream, it risks inundating a total of 21 villages of the municipality of Kabugao, including the town centre (Poblacion).

Moreover, these projects are being imposed in total disregard for the right of these communities to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC), recognized by international law and the national Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA). The Philippines enacted this law in 1997, to ward off a repeat of historical injustices committed against indigenous peoples in the country. With the same act, the Philippines also created the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). Yet, in most cases, the NCIP is failing to uphold its mandate to protect indigenous rights, especially in the context of so-called development activities.

The indigenous community in Apayao is openly voicing out their opposition to the dam. But instead of being listened to, the most vocal members are being threatened, stigmatized, and red-tagged. They are branded as being left-leaning and anti-development. Moreover, the dam supports are trying to manipulate the community by spreading false claims, such as that only one per cent of the town will be submerged.

According to the Isnag community, it was the NCIP that brokered the entry of the company into their ancestral territory, despite their lack of consent and a flawed consultation project.

In February 2019, with a resolution of non-consent, the community rejected the Gened 1 dam. The project proponent (PPRPPC) filed an appeal, saying the community rejected the project because they were not informed about the benefits the dam would bring. In a second vote in September 2019, the community rejected it again. But the company – disregarding the community’s will and with the blessing of the NCIP agency – kept pushing for the approvation of the project.

By handpicking a few elders claiming to be local leaders, the company started negotiating only with them. In 2021 they covertly signed a memorandum of agreement, binding the whole ancestral domain into something that local indigenous communities did not consent to.

The community refers to this agreement, that will adversely affect the lives of the future generations, as the fruit of a poisonous tree, which is the result of a glaring manipulation of the consultation process to favour the company.

Aside from submitting three resolutions of non-consent, the community also lodged several petitions to denounce the violations of the FPIC guidelines, such as covert meetings between the company, local ‘dealers’, and the NCIP outside the ancestral domain; bribery; coercion; NCIP delaying tactics; and the exclusion of the whole community from the negotiation process. These acts, that blatantly disregard the collective rights of the Isnag people and curtail their right to participation, are frowned upon in the 2012 revised guidelines on FPIC.

Yet, the NCIP greenlighted the project and issued a Certification Precondition (CP), which indicates that the project went through a free, prior, and informed consent process. The Isnag community tried to appeal the NCIP decision, hoping the agency will put their rights over the company’s profit. They first attempted to oppose the decision through long and tedious administrative procedures, including through dispute settlement. But left with no choice, they had to seek legal remedies and filed criminal charges against the relevant public officials for falsification of documents and use of falsified documents. In these charges they were referring in particular to the 2019 community resolution, which authorized a group of elders to decide, negotiate, and sign on behalf of the whole Kabugao ancestral domain. The signatures in this resolution were fake, as even dead persons were included. Additional charges were also filed at the Office of the Ombudsman against the NCIP personnel and some elected local officials for graft and corruption.

The legal battle has just started: so far two villages have submitted their complaints, but there are additional cases to be filed by seven other villages. In this context, speaking out is incredibly risky. Most public officials identified in the complaint belong to powerful families and, to force the complainants to retract their affidavits, they are intimidating them and threatening them.

Despite these attacks, the Isnag peoples – since their first assembly in 2017 – are standing their ground to resolutely assert their rights. Community members from all walks of life have participated in capacity-building activities, raised their plights on various platforms, engaged and networked with their allies, and campaigned actively against the projects even outside the municipality. It is an inter-generational struggle: both the older and younger generations of Isnag are working together at the forefront, in defense of their resources and their homeland.

If the Pan Pacific Corporation, the NCIP, and their local cohorts really want to bring ‘development’ in Kabugao, they should first listen to the local communities, their elderly, their leaders, and the culture bearers. When these people are asked about their definition of development, they speak of lands they own and that they want to protect to pass them on to the next generations. They speak of farm-to-market roads, not of the destruction of their source of livelihood. They speak of electricity, but from a source that is community-managed and not owned by big corporations. Villages in Kabugao, for example, have started using solar panels as a source of power. But as they often say, “What good will it be to have electricity if we are uprooted from our ancestral lands?”

Along with the elders, I have stood at the forefront of the battles against these projects that risk displacing my family, my friends, and my community, forcing us to relocate to unknown places. They call us anti-development, but they failed to listen to how our community views development. They belittle our definition of progress, and have tried to sway community members with empty promises of livelihood opportunities and free electricity. They call us ‘influenced by the terrorist groups’, even though everything we have done from the beginning has always been legal: it is simply an assertion of our rights, enshrined in state legislation. They call us selfish for not wanting a ‘clean energy source’, as the global community shifts energy sources for climate change mitigation. What they are forgetting is that we, the indigenous peoples, do not have a high carbon footprint. It is them, these big corporations, that should pay the price. The mighty Apayao River sustained and nurtured our ancestors. It is our duty as younger generations to safeguard and protect what is rightfully and lawfully ours. For us, and for the Isnag-yet-unborn.

1 As of June 2022, Pan Pacific plans to construct the following dams in the province: Gened 1 (150 MW), Gened 2 (250 MW), Calanasan 1 (30 MW), Calansan 2 (220 MW), Maton (90 MW), Sicapo (40 MW), and Tabayangan (50 MW

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Jillie Karl Basan
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