Plunge pool by Ambuklao dam, Philippines (c) Elke Praagman

Supporting indigenous peoples’ rights when facing plans for large dams

The Philippines have a long history of building large dams, especially in the mountainous areas of the Cordillera region. Their impact on the environment and livelihoods has been extremely high. For the coming decade, numerous large dams are planned, often in places of great ecological and cultural value. The impacts of the proposed dams are often not communicated clearly to those directly affected. Indigenous peoples from the Sierra Madre in the Philippines therefore embarked on a learning exchange to the Cordillera to see how large dams from past decades have impacted the lives of those affected. 

Header photo: Plunge pool by Ambuklao dam, Philippines © Elke Praagman

President Duterte has engaged in the ambitious ‘Build, Build, Build’ project, aiming at investing $180 billion on infrastructure. As part of the program, large dams are being planned to cater for the country’s energy demand and water supply. In the Cordillera region alone, 108 hydropower dam applications have already been approved by the Department of Energy, whilst 20 more are still awaiting approval. In the Sierra Madre, an area of vast mountain ranges and forests, a dam is planned for the supply of water to the capital of the Philippines, Manila.

For the indigenous peoples living in the areas where dams are planned, this means they will be displaced by the dam and their ancestral lands will be flooded. Freshwater ecosystems are disrupted by the blockage in the river system, preventing fish from swimming up the river to breed and preventing sediments from flowing down to generate fertile soils. 

Thorough assessment and consultation required

In order to reduce the impacts on the environment and the people living in the affected area, the planning and design of large dams requires a thorough assessment and consultation with all stakeholders. When aiming to develop an area that is marked as ancestral land of indigenous peoples, the Philippine government is required to receive approval from the inhabitants. This process is called Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), where the affected people can make an informed decision without being pressured on whether they consent or do not consent to the proposed plans. “For dams, including access roads and electricity lines or water diversion channels, this process is crucial to offset possible impacts on people’s livelihoods,” says Elke Praagman, Senior Expert Ecosystem Services at IUCN NL. 

Learning exchange on dams

To help indigenous groups from the Sierra Madre region to be well-informed about the expected impacts of a planned dam in their region, IUCN NL, in collaboration with partner organization the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), organized a learning exchange visit to two large dams that were constructed in the Cordillera region over 50 years ago. During the learning exchange, indigenous peoples and civil society organisations from both regions visited the Ambuklao and Binga dam. “Both dams had a clear impact in the landscape,” Praagman states. “The river was silted up and the river fish populations were decimated.” “The rivers are biologically dead,” one of the participants from the area explained. 

Lack of compensation for displaced communities

A community that was displaced by Ambuklao dam shared their experiences from the past 60 years since they had to leave their ancestral lands. “The compensation that was promised to some of the communities never materialised, while rice farming, our livelihood, could no longer be sustained.” 

Although the dam was constructed for hydropower generation, the communities were only connected to the electricity grid 50 years later. The displaced community had a clear message to the participants from Sierra Madre: “Oppose projects that are destructive, they have irreversible impacts”. 

Better risk understanding

The three-day learning exchange resulted in a better understanding of the risks of large dams on livelihoods and the ecosystem. ‘The communities from Sierra Madre felt strengthened in their efforts to protect their livelihoods,’ says Praagman. 

The visit also led to concrete action plans ranging from undertaking legal action to media campaigns and from opposing one specific project to advocating for the conservation of an entire river to maintain its natural unregulated character. 

Shortly after the learning exchange, Al Jazeera covered the topic of the proposed Kaliwa dam in Sierra Madre, focusing on the concerns of the indigenous peoples about a large dam.

Watch the video by Al Jazeera

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Maartje Hilterman
Project Leader – Forests for a Just Future