P7-B Davao Mega Project Threatens Lumads, Promises ‘Wrong Solution’

The Saug River Multi-purpose Project (SRMP), part of a P7-billion mega project funded by World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, aims to bring hydro-electric power to boost the Davao provinces’ agriculture, among others. But Dibawanons, who have opposed the project since 1996, fear a big catastrophe to their lives and land.

Published: August 18, 2002Bulatlat.com

ASUNCION, Davao del Norte – Datu Dominador Tibog, 48, points to a mountain that is practically bare except for patches of what looked like gmelina trees. “Those are the lands of my people and they’ve all been taken away,” he says in Visayan. He is on a hill where his hut, which he shares with his wife and one child, is built by the slope, overlooking a small valley.

Tibog looks down at the trees and shrubs below, almost longingly. “We have lost so much of our lands,” he sighs. Tibog, the leader of the Dibabawon tribe living in several barangays in this hinterland town, is a frail-looking man with incredibly sunken cheeks. He looks vulnerable. More than that, he looks as though he’s seen it all.

In a lot of sense, he has. He tells of how his forefathers fought very hard to keep their lands. He recounts how, up to this day, they are still carrying on that struggle. He bewails that, just as his friends and relatives had experienced years ago, they are still caught in a conflict involving their land.

The Dibabawons in this part of the Davao provinces are claiming thousands of hectares as ancestral domain. Much of this land had been turned into plantations for such products as trees, coconuts and bananas for big local and foreign companies.

Today, a foreign-financed government project called the Saug River Multi-purpose Project (SRMP) is threatening to encroach into Dibabawon land, including those owned by Tibog’s family.

Although the SRMP was started as early as 1996, the National Irrigation Administration, the main proponent, only managed to start drilling for soil samples in 2001. The manner of the drilling was a portent of things to come for Tibog and his family: the NIA did not even bother to get the tribe’s permission.

In fact, the NIA has allegedly been making a mockery of the public consultations that projects such as these require. For example, NIA people have held meetings with residents of barangays other than Buan – barangays that will not be directly adversely affected by the dam. This is a constant source of anger and resentment for Tibog. “Why wouldn’t they consult with us here in Buan?” he demands.

The NIA has also held “participative consultations” that were attended mostly by government personnel. Indeed, these consultations were allegedly irregular because all the NIA did was present its plans and discuss about purely technical aspects of the project.

Mega project

The SRMP is part of the so-called “Mega Project” being pushed by Davao del Norte Governor Rodolo del Rosario, to be funded mainly by loans from the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency – agencies that push for projects that directly benefit transnational and multinational companies.

The “Mega Project” is worth P7 billion and is meant, according to its proponents, to address the province’s “worsening” flood problem as well as to boost agricultural production. The project involves the Saug River and the Libuganon River in this town and the neighboring New Corella town.

The SRMP alone, which will be implemented in two phases for 10 years, will cost P2.5 billion. It will have reservoir and diversion dams, a hydropower plant, an irrigation and drainage system, and a domestic water supply.

Dikes will also be built along the Saug River. The government hopes that these dikes will help solve the flood problems in this province and nearby. In fact, 30 percent of the components of the project is designed for flood control. “A viable solution to the flood problem had been reached,” Agriculture Secretary Leonardo Montemayor declared in February.

The government is also optimistic that the irrigation system component of the SRMP will boost agricultural production in the province. About 6,730 hectares of farmlands (5,000 in New Corella and 1,730 in Asuncion) are targeted for irrigation. The NIA says that “cropping intensity” as a result would increase by as much as 200 percent while rice production would increase to 4.55 tons from the present 2.8 tons.

Given all these benefits, why are the Lumads opposing the project?

While the flood control system will benefit the low-lying areas, particularly and especially the big plantations in the province and nearby, it would displace the Lumads living by the river banks. This, among others, Montemayor failed to mention.

Of all the components, it is the reservoir and the power plant that will most affect the Lumads and residents of barangays Buan and Camansa, according to Tibog. The reservoir will eat up as much as 669 hectares. The power plant is projected to generate 2.6 megawatts of electricity – power that Tibog says will definitely not be for the Lumads, who generally don’t use electricity in their huts.

In the end, according to Tibog, Lumads would be the last to enjoy whatever benefits the project will produce.

Then there’s the question raised by peasant’s groups: In the first place, are projects such as the SRMP the solution to the country’s chronic problems with low agricultural productivity? The Davao del Norte Farmers Association (Danofa), a peasant group affiliated with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), is against the SRMP. It argues that not only will the project displace thousands of peasants and Lumads in Davao del Norte and neighboring provinces – its much-vaunted benefits are questionable to begin with.

For one, there is something inherently unjust in the idea that the ricelands of New Corella, Davao del Norte – the main service area of the SRMP – will prosper at the expense of the Dibabawon people’s ancestral land and survival. According to Danofa chairman Lito Posadas, more than 8,000 Lumads live in the lands that will be eaten up by the project’s reservoir, dam, canal and road network. Most affected would be barangay Buan, particularly the lower portions.

Half of the more than 600 hectares for the reservoir is within the 3,600-hectare ancestral lands of the Mamanwa, Dibabawon and Mansaka tribes in New Corella while the other half falls within the 5,000 hectares being claimed by the Dibabawon and Manguangan tribes in Asuncion, among them Tibog ‘s family.

The project, Posadas adds, would submerge and wipe out portions of barangays Mambing and Cabadiangan in New Corella; barangays Buan and Camansa in Asuncion; and barangays San Vicente and Lilon in Montevista, in the adjacent Compostela Valley province.

“Clearly, these people will be displaced from their lands and homes,” he says.

He cites the fact that even the design for the project done by the Overseas Agricultural Development Association recommended resettlement areas for those dislocated by the project. “This only proves that even the project ‘s proponents admit the fact that the project would forcibly dislocate the Lumads from their lands,” he says. This only means, he adds, that the government does not respect nor recognize the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral domains.

Tibog puts the Lumads’ position in perspective by saying that the Saug River, which will practically be rid of people if the project pushes through, “is our life. It is the source of our livelihood. Our fruit trees are planted not far from this river. It has an abundant supply of fish that has sustained us through the ages. You take these from us and what will become of us?”

For the Lumads, even if they were given resettlement area, displacement from their land can only mean their displacement as a people.

Wrong solution?

Another aspect of the opposition to the SRMP that is deemed more crucial is that, as with many projects of this nature, it is not, according to the project’s critics, the solution to the main problem identified by its proponents, which is low agricultural productivity.

Posadas emphasizes that the most crucial factor for low productivity in agriculture is landlessness. Based on his group’s data, more than 60 of the farmers in Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley Province do not own the land that they till. Couple that with the government’s policy of promoting the production of export and cash crops, such as banana, among those who do have lands (to the detriment of basic crops), the situation becomes even more problematic.

Indeed, even if it were true that the irrigation system will benefit the ricelands of Davao del Norte, it is also true, according to Posadas, that it will service the big banana plantations in the province.

The interest therefore of Japan in this project is not only limited to providing the loan — it is also bankrolling a project that directly benefits the Japanese, the local banana industry’s main export market. Other big plantation projects are also being eyed in the areas that would benefit from the irrigation system.

These are the reasons, according to Posadas, “why we have such an undeveloped agriculture sector.” Landlessness, he emphasizes, “is the root of the exploitation of peasants and farmers: unequal sharing of produce favoring the landlords; low wages for agricultural workers; usury; high prices of farm inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides and seeds; and low buying price of the produce.”

These, Posadas says, prevent the growth of the agriculture sector and the people who depend on it for survival. He says that even if the SRMP did improve crop production, “as long as the basic problems such as landlessness that breed all these inequalities and abuses are not addressed, this project will not improve the condition of the farmers and peasants.” Bulatlat.com

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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