The Multinational Monitor


T H E   P H I L I P I N E S

Polluting the Sacred

by Robert Weissman

KIDAPAWAN, MINDANAO, PHILIPPINES "How would you feel if we drilled a massive hole through your church, because, say, there was oil underneath?"

That is the rhetorical question asked by indigenous Opponents of the Philippine government's Mt. Apo geothermal energy project.

Nearly one half million indigenous People on Mindanao, organized into six ethnic groups collectively known as Lumads, regard Mt. Apo, at 10,300 feet the highest peak in the Philippines, as sacred. They believe that disfiguring the mountain to drill for energy is blasphemous.

Alongside Philippine and international environmental organizations and human rights groups, the Lumads have waged a high-profile campaign against the geothermal project. But while they have garnered substantial domestic and international publicity and support, they have not been able to stop the government from proceeding with the project.

The government has responded to the Lumads' protests by heavily militarizing the area, creating even more problems to]- local people. Thousands of troops have been deployed into the Mt. Apo area, and serious human rights abuses 11.1\c been committed against individual Lumad leaders and entire Lumad communities.

Drilling the Pearl

Located in Southeast part of the island of Mindanao, Mt. Apo is known as the "Pearl of Mindanao." It sits amidst a rich and diverse ecosystem, is the source of 28 rivers and creeks and is the most important watershed in Mindanao. President Manuel Quezon declared the mountain area a national park in 1936, in 1982 the United Nations placed it on its list of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves; and in 1984 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) named it an ASEAN Heritage Site.

It is also a dormant volcano that sits astride a rich source of geothermal energy. Since the late-1980s, with the Philippines plagued by a severe energy crisis, the government has eagerly sought to tap the geothermal reserves beneath the mountain.

The Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) began test drilling for energy on Mt. Apo in 1987. This and other exploratory PNOC activities appeared to violate the area's park status. In 1988, the country's environmental minister declared the PNOC's activities illegal; along with domestic and international opposition, the environmental minister's declaration led to the shelving of the project. And after lending initial financial support, the World Bank withdrew its backing from the project.

The respite proved to be only temporary, however. In January 1992, then-President Corazon Aquino issued a proclamation designating a 701 hectare area of the Mt. Apo National Park a geothermal reservation, excluding it from the protections afforded national parks. The PNOC now plans to operate three power plant units of 40 megawatts each. It aims to have the first unit operational bv July 1996.

The energy project has inflicted new damage on the precarious Nit. Apo ecosystem, already weakened by illegal logging and forest fires.

To build roads to the project site far up the remote mountainside, it was necessary to cut trees, which has contributed to soil erosion, the weakening of slopes and river siltation, according to Maricel Alave, research coordinator for the Integrated Philippine Project on Natural Resources Management, a non-governmental organization in Kidapawan established to lend support to indigenous peoples' struggles to maintain their land and protect their rights. Windy Reguerzo, public relations manager of the PNOC Energy Companies, responds that -deforestation has been very limited and N-cry well controlled," noting that only 112 hectares have been cleared. Reguerzo adds, "PNOC's commitment is to plant 200 trees for every tree that is cut down; this will require planting in many other parts of the national park, which PNOC is doing." Environmentalists have been critical of this effort, pointing out that the PNOC is planting eucalyptus, a non-native tree which requires an immense amount of water and can dry up underground water sources. A March 1993 fact-finding mission of the Task Force Apo Sandowa, a nationwide non-governmental coalition opposed to the geothermal project, concluded that the PNOC's "tree planting is just for show, [there is] no seriousness, no commitment."

Opponents of the geothermal project have also complained about the use of chemicals in the drilling process and the disposal of excavated earth and water. Tapping the energy beneath the mountain requires drilling wells one to two miles deep. The PNOC sometimes uses chemicals to soften the rocks and then discards the waste water and rock that has been contaminated with heavy metals. Refuerzo says that the PNOC is handling the pollution responsibly. In response to a report of high arsenic levels in rivers below the geothermal reservation, the government commissioned two government agency investigations which determined that there was no indication that arsenic came from geothermal drilling and praised the PNOC for establishing drinking water facilities in areas where arsenic is naturally high. The PNOC also claims that it is using non-hazardous chemicals and that the waste will be sifted in aeration ponds and disposed of properly. But Task Force Apo Sandowa questions these assertions. It contends that the ponds are poorly constructed and will overflow during heavy rains, contaminating rivers and groundwater supplies.

A sacred mountain

The main dispute Over the geothermal project is not environmental, however, but cultural. "To speak of Mt. Apo is to speak of the Lumad," says Alave.

Mt. Apo is the centerpiece of the Lumads' elaborate system of religious beliefs. The mountain itself is viewed as the Supreme God, the God of all gods. "We consider Mt. Apo the main source of all living creatures on Earth. If not for Mt. Apo, no one on Earth could breathe," explains one Lumad elder who lives in the mountain's foothills. "Before we undertake any activity, we ask permission of Mt. Apo. After the harvest we go to Mt. Apo and give thanks."

"Our laws, traditional practices and culture are still intact because of Mt. Apo," adds a second elder. "Because of Mt. Apo, we [the Lumads] are considered as one, we are like brothers; we know each other and have one ancestor."

For the Lumad, the PNOC's project is despoiling the world's most sacred place.

Refuerzo, however, argues that the Lumads "consider Mt. Apo sacred but not inviolable."

Embittered by the government's determination to forge ahead with the geothermal project, in 1989 more than 20 Lumad leaders formed the first dyandi, [blood pact] entered into since the thirteenth century, in which they pledged to lay down their lives to protect Mt. Apo and to oppose to the geothermal project. Their resolve was strengthened by the displacement of dozens of families from the geothermal site.

Militarizing the mountain

The indigenous opposition to the geothermal project has attracted the support not only of civilian non-governmental organizations but of the rebel New People's Army (NPA) as well. As a result of the combination of widespread, vociferous indigenous opposition to the project and the NPA's promise to prevent it from going forward, the government has brought hundreds of army troops and civilian paramilitary forces known as Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs) into the region. Young men with big guns blanket the mountain area.

The troops commit atrocities against the Lumads regularly, burning villages, evacuating thousands of people from their homes to centralized hamlets and generally intimidating the local population. Two vocal Lumad opponents of the geothermal project were gunned down, reportedly by a CAFGU member, in August 1992.

The experience of the small Kalingahon community is representative of the abuses experienced by many indigenous communities in the Mt. Apo area. According to community leaders, more than 30 Kalingahon families evacuated their homes in early June 1993, fearing they might be hit in a cross-fire after a large military detachment began carrying out operations against NPA forces in the area. When Kalingahon residents returned to their village, they found their crops largely destroyed, some houses demolished and their livestock and belongings missing-all of which they attribute to military and CAFGU forces. "They destroyed our crops, destroyed some houses and our pots and our chickens were lost," says a leader of the Association Of Awakened Bagobos (the Bagobos are One of the Lumad constituent groups).

Within weeks Of the evacuation, the community leaders report, children were suffering, from hunger and falling ill. A deeper tragedy was averted when the displaced families received relief supplies channeled to them through the Integrated Philippine Project on Natural Resources Management.

According to the leader Of the Association of Awakened Bagobos, the Kalingahon families will not return to their homes and land. Instead, he says, they will try to clear new land and reestablish their community in a new area located an hour and a half hike away from their old homes.

An indigenous split

As the PNOC has proceeded with the geothermal project, and actively sought to defuse its opposition, the united Lumad front has splintered.

After the killings of the two Lumad leaders, the PNOC, which had previously provided only heavily guarded tents for the displaced Lumad families, established a more substantial relocation site, with sturdier housing. Refuerzo reports that all of the displaced families were persuaded to either go back to then - lowland residences or to a nearby relocation area. Only 21 families opted to join the relocation site with all of the communal amenities [including] free houses, water and electricity plus livelihood opportunities in upland farming and reforestation projects. All others took the compensation, returned to their former homes and accepted employment in PNOC civil works jobs. We have not received any complaints from the relocatees since then."

The PNOC also sought to soften the Lumads' cultural concerns. In response to the dyandi, says Refuerzo, "PNOC held the pamaas ritual to appease the gods. PNOC also avoided sacred sites by using directional drilling techniques."

Mane Lumads have been bribed and drafted into a paramilitary group originally known as the Mindanao Defenders. This organization has now been transformed into regular CAFGU units.

And the military claims to have changed its approach, emphasizing conciliation over confrontation in compulsory community meetings. In an effort to establish better relations with civilians, the military brings representatives from government agencies to the region to teach the Lumads about herbal medicines, demonstrate new farming techniques or share other useful information. These meetings seem to have blunted some of the opposition to both the military presence and the geothermal project. Happy to receive useful information, longing for peace after years of fighting and intimidated by the show of force all at the same time, many Lumads are eager to reach a peaceful understanding with the military. For example, after attending a compulsory meeting with the military, a resident of the Tudaya community recalled the military looting and burning Tudayan houses and forcing residents into centralized hamlets in the 1980s, but said he "now hoped and believed that the military was serious about its reconciliation campaign."

Since 1992, some Philippine environmental activists had concluded that the Philippine government's desperate search for new sources of energy had given the Mt. Apo geothermal project a momentum that could not be stopped. The weakening of the indigenous opposition to the project may well remove any doubts it will be carried out.

Crisis in the Cordillera

THE LUMADS OF MINDANAO and the Cordillera people of Northern Luzon are the two main groupings of indigenous people in the Philippines. (Luzon is the largest Philippine island and the one on which Manila is located.)

The Cordillera people consist of more than a dozen ethnic-linguistic groups which inhabit five mountainous provinces in the Cordillera region. Numbering nearly a million, the Cordillera people have a long history of resisting cultural and military encroachment from outside powers. Today, in their efforts to defend their land, protect their rights and lives and maintain their culture, they face a daunting series of challenges.

To meet these challenges, the Cordillera people, who have a tradition of internecine warfare as well as resistance to external forces, have created an extremely impressive series of unifying organizations to promote their interests. The Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (CPA) is an umbrella organization which serves as an informal regional assembly. The Office for Cordillera Peoples' Concerns (OCPC), based in Manila, is the CPA's secretariat.

Father Eddie Balicao, executive director of the OCPC, outlined for Multinational Monitor the main sets of problems he sees facing the Cordillera people.

First, he says, is the issue of corporate and governmental resource extraction and development plans - what Balicao and other indigenous activists in the Philippines label "development aggression" - and the Cordillera peoples' demand to control their own lands. A half dozen major mining companies operate in the Cordillera region, including the Benguet Corporation, which runs the second largest mine in the Philippines. These corporate mining operations, especially as they switch to bulk or open-pit mining from underground mining techniques, are increasingly coming into conflict over the issue of land rights with tens of thousands of small-scale indigenous miners who have mined mineral-rich regions of the Cordillera for generations. They are also creating environmental problems; in processing huge amounts of earth, the corporate mines create a correspondingly large amount of waste rock and use an abundance of processing chemicals. Despite clean-up processes, the waste and chemicals inevitably enter and pollute nearby rivers, ruining local water supplies and harming local agriculture.

The region is beset by logging concessions granted by the government to timber companies -though the number of concessions has fallen in the last decade from 25 to around 16 as the Cordillera has become progressively more deforested.

Balicao is especially wary of a series of hydroelectric dams proposed for the region. In the mid-1980s, the World Bank and Philippine government proposed a massive dam on the Chico River which would have flooded an enormous region and displaced thousands of indigenous people. Balicao fears the new dams may pose similar threats as the Chico Dam, which was abandoned only after the potentially affected communities undertook a protracted resistance campaign that garnered international attention and support.

Yet another manifestation of development aggression are government-promoted, cash-crop, export-oriented agricultural schemes. "Rice paddies are turned into vegetable gardens for export production" in these schemes, Balicao says, depriving local people of the means to feed themselves and creating environmental problems tied to the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Cash-crop production is now predominant in Benguet, one of the provinces that makes up the Cordillera region, and is spreading north.

The root of the problem of development aggression, Balicao says, are laws that "have made the Cordillera a resource base of exploitation without even considering what [the affected] people think." A special culprit is a Philippine law which decrees that all land with a slope of 18 degrees or higher is owned by the state; because the Cordillera is so mountainous, this law places most of its territory under state control.

The notion of government ownership of the Cordillera people's land "directly contradicts the Cordillera peoples' views of ancestral domain," Balicao says. Land is central to the Cordillera peoples' complex social-political system, and control of land is carefully divided between different communities. "There are boundaries between each tribe, set up by the peace pact system (known as bodong) long before the government came in," he says. Within a community, three types of ownership prevail: family ownership, clan ownership and tribal ownership of large areas of land, such as forests. The government's assertion of control over territory in the Cordillera ignores the claims the indigenous population has staked to the land and essentially makes them squatters on their ancestral homeland.

A second problem facing the Cordillera peoples, according to Balicao, is the destruction of their social-political systems. The Philippine government has imposed its laws on the population, without regard for the indigenous system of rules and laws and without allowing the indigenous system to evolve and adapt to changing times. `The result is that, with the exception of the peace pact system, there has been no development of tribal law beyond the tribal level, to the municipal and regional level," Balicao explains. Law at the village level is inadequate to deal with multinational corporations, or even inter-village commerce, which has sharply increased in recent years, he notes.

The only time in which the government acknowledges indigenous social systems, Balicao says, is when it "tries to use indigenous structures to coopt indigenous people." The government has tried to create peace-pact associations and Councils of Elders that would be more amenable to its plans for the region, for example.

A third, related problem is social neglect. Illiteracy and poverty are increasing among Cordillera peoples, and communications and health services are lacking. "Infrastructure is being built for corporations or military operations- not for people to use," Balicao charges. "There is no sign of projects that will uplift the life of the people."

A fourth problem is militarization. Under the Marcos, Aquino and Ramos regimes, the Philippine government has deployed massive numbers of troops in the Cordillera region. Including civil defense forces, more than 10,000 troops now occupy the Cordillera region, Balicao estimates.

While the strong presence of the rebel New People's Army is one reason for the large-scale troop deployment, says Balicao, "the main reason for the military operations is to silence people so that they won't oppose any so-called development projects."

Under the Aquino and Ramos administrations, military operations have become particularly brutal, as the army has launched a "total war' policy. This includes a range of tactics from bombings and utilization of heavy firepower on the ground to counterinsurgency techniques designed to win hearts and minds. The counterinsurgency techniques include propaganda, military-sponsored civic actions (for example, providing dental aid to civilians) and cultivating ties with conservative community members.

Militarization has had a far-reaching impact on the Cordillera people. Fear is pervasive. Thousands have been arrested, harassed, massacred or evacuated from their homes. In the second half of 1992 alone, one of the Philippines' leading human rights organizations, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, documented 59 cases of human rights abuses affecting more than 2,700 people in the Cordillera.

The final major problem identified by Balicao is commercialization of the indigenous culture. The Philippine government and the domestic tourist industry are working to promote the Cordillera as a tourist destination, showcasing the area's natural beauty and the culture of the region's indigenous peoples. In those tourist spots already established, Balicao says, "the Natives come and dance in front of the tourists, and the tourists take pictures. ... It is as if the indigenous people are living objects for mausoleum purposes."

The separate and combined effect of these encroachments on the Cordillera is devastating. "We view all five [sets of problems] as forms of ethnocide - the destruction and dislocation of the identity of indigenous people," Balicao says.

He notes, however, that "the problems in the Cordillera are not far from those of the rest of the country. All the regimes have promised a democratic process, but we don't see a democratic process going on."

- R.W.

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