In May 2020, the construction restarted on one of the most controversial and culturally sensitive megaprojects of President Rodrigo Duterte’s infrastructure campaign in the Philippines. Critics say the government’s contract with Chinese companies is unconstitutional and illegal.
According to the government National irrigation administration, the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project will increase domestic rice production by about 36,000 metric tonnes of milled rice per year and save about US $ 15 million on rice imports.
The project includes the construction of several structures, including a pumping station, a substation, a transmission line, canals and access roads.
In 2019, the government anticipated it would benefit more than 4,000 farmers in Kalinga province and create some 15,000 jobs during its three years of construction.
Opposing this is a loose alliance of indigenous peoples groups, environmentalists and some national politicians. They warned of the project’s impact on the forests and rivers of the mountainous region of the Cordillera de Luzon – the largest of the Philippine islands.
They also questioned the legality of the financing deal with development bank China Exim.
The irrigation project is part of Duterte’s signature “Build, Construct, Construct” program to create a vast network of roads, railways, bridges and other infrastructure at a total cost of US $ 177 billion.
It is expected to cost 4.37 billion pesos ($ 90 million), funded in part by a 3.6 billion pesos ($ 62 million) loan from China Exim. Duterte signed the funding agreement during a meeting with President Xi Jinping at the Boao Forum in 2018.
Work began later that year and was initially expected to complete by the end of 2021 or early 2022, although construction was halted for three months in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to at the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines.
Defend indigenous rights
In 2019, the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), a federation of grassroots organizations representing indigenous communities in the region, denounced the irrigation project for violating the Philippine Constitution and the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination.
The CPA says that the project occupies ancestral lands, that it was given the green light without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples of Kalinga and the Cordillera, and that the government did not conduct any community consultations before sign the loan agreement with China Exim.
Joanna Cariño, member of the CAP Advisory Board and a indigenous peoples activist, told China Dialogue: “The [project] is built on the ancestral land of Pinukpuk [in Kalinga province], but the government did not follow its own rules to introduce projects in indigenous communities. “
The CPA also disputes the official account of the benefits of the project, saying it will only serve one barangay (district) in Pinukpuk regions.
The Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CEC) has warned that many plant and animal species could be affected by the 8,700-hectare irrigation system, which will build on and alter a watershed of approximately 1,886 square kilometers. . Most of these lands are public lands of forests and national parks.
“The loss of this flora and fauna would take years to revitalize,” said Pia Federico, CEC’s training and community services coordinator.
Federico predicted that instead of free-flowing irrigation, the project “would lead to competition for water use, especially during times of drought, increase turbidity of river flows, especially during times of drought. its construction phase, and would cause changes in downstream flow patterns due to water diversion. . “
CEC predicts long-term physical changes to soil, water and air that will alter the health and composition of ecosystems, facilitate soil erosion, reduce vegetation, and increase risk to species. Endangered freshwater downstream of the Cagayan River, such as mullet, native catfish, snakeskin gourami, eel, goby, native snail, clam and giant freshwater shrimp.
Federico said soil erosion and siltation was already the result of a similar project, the Balog-Balog irrigation system, located south of the Chico River near the town of Tarlac.
Neri Colmenares, a human rights lawyer and former congressman, has asked the Philippine Supreme Court to declare the loan from China Exim unconstitutional and void. He asked the court to order the suspension of the project.
Colmenares is a member of Bayan Muna, one of the 12 progressive parties within the Makabayan block, a coalition of the Philippine House of Representatives.
“I got a copy [of the loan agreement] when an official asked me to review the legality of the document, and we found out that it was not valid, ”Colmenares told China Dialogue.
He explained that loan agreements of this type often lack detailed information, which is against the constitution. “Duterte is one of the least transparent presidents we have had in office,” he added.
The loan was also approved before it went to the central bank’s Monetary Board, which Colmenares said violates a transparency clause in the constitution requiring prior approval from regulators.
This is again a case of oppression and discrimination against indigenous peoples, where their resources are used for “national development” even if the project does not benefit them.
Joanna Cariño, Board Member, CAP Advisory Board
The petition has been filed for a year now, but no specific legal conference has been initiated by the court to respond to it. However, the petition succeeded in initiating a debate on the constitutionality of the loan agreement.
Many protests and discussions delayed construction of the project in 2019. The Ministry of Finance was also forced to publish a copy of document, which shows that it contains a confidentiality clause.
Colmenares opposes this clause on the grounds that it violates the Filipino people’s right to information about foreign loans.
“The current constitution was designed to ensure that Filipinos are aware of how public funds are used, especially after the Marcos dictatorship acquired billions in debt for the country,” the lawyer explained. .
Colmenares advised the indigenous peoples of Kalinga to take legal action in local courts as the main injured parties to the project. However, in the Philippines, indigenous activists are threatened with continued attacks and intimidation.
The project is particularly sensitive because it brings back memories of a battle for indigenous rights against a dam and irrigation project on the Chico River funded by the World Bank in the mid-1960s.
At the time, the martyr of Kalinga Macliing Dulag unified the communities of the Cordillera and attracted international media attention. The World Bank eventually withdrew from the project.
“This experience of development aggression during the Marcos dictatorship made indigenous peoples allergic to dams,” said APC adviser Cariño.
In January of this year, officials dismantled a monument commemorating Dulag and other protesters at the Chico River Dam. Prior to its removal, the Ministry of Public Works and Highways said the monument, built in 2017 on Dulag’s property, “obstructed” the road.
The Covid-19 lockdown has seen an upsurge in military and police harassment of indigenous activists in the Cordillera region.
The army increased the number of road checkpoints and, in May of last year, army helicopters fall counterinsurgency leaflets near the town of Sagada.
Leaflets “marked in red” activists and legitimate progressive groups by linking their names to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military arm, the New People’s Army.
Under fabricated accusations, the Cordillera police chief also launched a “shoot-to-kill” order against the president of the ACP, Windel Bolinget.
“This is again a case of oppression and discrimination against indigenous peoples, where their resources must be used for so-called ‘national development’ even if the project does not directly benefit them,” Cariño said.
Although there was no development in response to the Supreme Court’s petition filed by Colmenares, Cariño stressed that indigenous communities will continue to resist the project and assert their rights.
“A more practical and viable alternative would be government support for communal irrigation systems managed by the community,” she said.
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