Cordillera going down the drain

>> Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ramon Dacawi

This is water under the bridge, but Cordillera autonomy would have empowered  the people of Kabayan, Benguet and other water, mineral and forest resource bases in this upland  region to immediately and effectively deny outside efforts to exploit such resources without their prior knowledge and/or consent.
Given its natural wealth , our region is beset with applications for mining and water rights applications of outsiders, entities and individuals. Under the present condition, we hardly have a say on these.  Their applications to harness and profit from our natural resources are being approved now and then by officials of national government agencies who, more often than not, are unfamiliar  with the social, political and economic factors obtaining in our highland region.
Autonomy would have empowered our region  to approve or deny applications for water, mining and natural resource exploitation rights based on the present and future needs and sentiments of the people living within these resource-bases. As it is, we who are being affected the most by  mining , energy and water rights  are ignored by officials in Imperial Manila who are ignorant of the social, political and economic factors obtaining in the Cordillera.
Autonomy would have empowered the Cordillera Region to immediately  act on the now pending petition of the indigenous communities of Kabayan, Benguet for the denial of water rights applications of outside entities wanting to harness the town’s natural water resources.
As it is, the application for water rights in Kabayan  filed by Hydroelectric Development Corporation (Hedcor) had been filed with the National Water Resources Board, to which the Kabayan indigenous communities also filed their opposition. We do not have the figures but it seems all the river systems of the Cordillera are  already subject of water rights applications and permits of outside corporations  we, the residents are or were never informed of until we try to assert our rights over these resources. 
The Kabayan communities anchored their opposition to the lack of FPIC, or “free, prior and informed consent”  coming from them on the proposed water-harnessing project for energy generation.
Fact is, there are already a  lot of water rights permits  already approved over the years by the National Water Resources Board, with or without the knowledge, approval or opposition of the communities hosting these water resources. More often, the communities to be affected the most  by these permits are the last to know to know of such issuances.  More than ever,  harnessing our water resources has become  a  gold mine  for outside corporations which, ironically,  never contributed to watershed protection and conservation. It’s only when they’re tapping these resources that they come up with token projects over the water resources that the host communities had conserved since time immemorial.
As the Cordillera experience bares us out, outside corporations had already  mined out our metallic gold and mineral resources, mainly for the development of Metro-Manila and not the host communities. In the same token, the enormous power generated for years by the Ambuclao and Binga Dams in Benguet spurred the development of Metro-Manila and lowland areas of the country while towns and villages within spitting distance of the plants were the last to be energized.
With autonomy, the regional government would have the power to deny or approve mineral, water and natural resource development applications within the Cordillera, not by offices in Metro-Manila who are unaware of these resources until the applications were brought to them for their approval.
On the FPIC, several  Cordillera communities are wondering how and when these were done  as they were not aware of any until the water and mineral permits were issued, notwithstanding  official certifications that these were covered by free, prior and informed consent.
Curiously and Ironically, some officials of would-be host communities tend to favor outside  and corporate initiatives to harness their river resources but object to local efforts like those of the Benguet Electric Cooperative which is home-based and owned.
Autonomy would have allowed us,  Cordillerans , greater hold on our remaining resources for the region’s development.  At the present rate the region’s development pales in comparison with those  of the other regions of the country whose progress was spurred by the gold and energy coming from the Cordillera.
Autonomy was designed to  correct this imbalance that  my Ifugao mind sees as an aberration of the BOT (build-operate transfer) scheme of doing development projects. As it is or was, they built and operated the mines and hydroelectric dams in the Cordillera, and then transferred the gold and electric power to Metro-Manila, including the taxes.
Notwithstanding  the ease with which  outsiders  obtain  water and mining rights over what remains  of our Cordillera resources,  we can still do something to give our resource-rich communities a bargaining hand. This, however,  can only be done  with the sincerity of their provincial and municipal leaders in making a credible stand without the sway of  token  benefits  accruing to them at the expense of far more substantial benefits their constituents deserve to have.
In the case of hydro-electric dams,  the indigenous communities, with backing from their political leaders,  must demand that the contract of the builder or operator should be time-bound. A company should be allowed to build and operate a hydro-plant for, say, 20 to 30 years, after which it should  turn over ownership of the facility to the host community or town. The developer should not own the facility forever as if it also owns the river forever.
It’s water under the bridge, but Benguet would have recovered from the damming of its communities that displaced its people  in the building of the Binga and Ambuklao Dams if, at the end, these facilities were turned over to the local governments hosting the facilities. That’s why the option for autonomy was offered us, to empower us to take hold of our resources and give us bargaining power on how benefis should be shared from their exploitation.
Cordillera communities can take cue from Ifugao province which tapped developed countries in building   some of the province’s hydroelectric power dams without any strings attached.
For one, G7  countries, through Japan, built a hydroelectric power facility in Kiangan and turned it over for the province to operate and own.  The only condition was that the income from the power sales  would be used for the maintenance of the rice terraces in Kiangan, Banaue, Hungduan and Mayaoyao.
Japan also bankrolled the development of a mini-hydroelectric plant for Hungduan town and then turned over the facility for management by the residents. Recently,  the Japan International Cooperation Agency began building a bigger dam which, when operational, would be turned over to the province.
Such tie-up projects for energy generation can be pursued by other provinces under the present set-up. More so, if this region were autonomous. More so if the regional government, through the Regional Development Council, would pursue this line of developing project grants for the region. 
That’s why there’s wisdom in opposing outside initiatives to obtain water rights over our rivers. Otherwise,  we would lose our prior right in exploiting these resources for our own region’s development when a grant like the aforementioned comes.   (feedbacks      


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