Once more into the breach: Indigenous folk march against Kaliwa Dam

Kaliwa Dam_Famy
Day 5, Feb. 19: Marchers back on protest road, leaving Famy, Laguna. —STOP KALIWA DAM FB PHOTOS

Some 240 tribespeople and advocates are trekking to Malacañang to press President Marcos Jr. to stop the construction of Kaliwa Dam in their ancestral land in the Sierra Madre mountains in Quezon province, and the memory of a similar protest march in 2009 against Laiban Dam upstream in Rizal province is still fresh on their mind. 

“That was a victory for us,” Conchita Calzado, a Dumagat-Remontado tribe elder, told CoverStory.ph by phone on Friday afternoon from the side of a highway in Barangay Maragondon in Real, Quezon. It was the third day of their scheduled 9-day protest march from their homes in General Nakar, also in Quezon, to the seat of power in Manila.  

In November 2009, around 200 tribespeople, including Calzado and farmers, environmentalists, and nuns marched 148 kilometers from General Nakar to Malacañang to dramatize their opposition to Laiban Dam. Their peaceful march resulted in the government’s shelving of the project the following year. 

The P48-billion Laiban Dam project was designed to divert water from two river systems in the Sierra Madre—Kaliwa and Kanan—to supply potable water to Metro Manila. 

‘We come in peace’

Sound of protest rings loud on the highway.

This time, members of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe from Quezon and Rizal, backed by dozens of church workers, environmentalists, farmers, fishers and residents, are taking the same grueling route to ask the President to halt the latest iteration of the P12.2-billion Kaliwa Dam. 

The China-funded project will inundate around 9,700 hectares of watershed area and displace 1,465 families in Tanay, Rizal, and in General Nakar and Infanta, Quezon, according to the Save Sierra Madre Network. 

Per the estimate of the Environment Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the project will affect 56 Indigenous households and put some 284 tribal households at the risk of flooding.  

“We want the President to stop the project and find an alternative source of water,” Calzado said in Tagalog, summing up in simple terms the marchers’ demand. “We come in peace and we seek a peaceful solution.” 

The marchers are hoping to deliver a letter to Mr. Marcos listing their reasons for opposing the project and their proposals for alternative courses of action.  

“We won’t budge unless he gives us a clear answer,” Calzado said. 

Certificate of precondition

Early this month, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) announced it had secured a certificate of precondition from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) for the project—supposed proof that the two agencies had obtained the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of the 46 tribal communities that would be affected.

Construction could then proceed after eight long years of securing permits, the MWSS declared. 

This was farthest from the truth, Calzado said.  

If at all, she said, these two agencies “railroaded” the process by wangling an FPIC from pre-selected pro-Kaliwa Dam signatories and excluding Sierra Madre Indigenous communities vocally opposed to the project.  

And neither have they obtained endorsements from the local governments of Infanta and Real in Quezon, and from the province itself, Calzado said, adding: “What then is their basis for proceeding with the project?” 

The Sierra Madre Indigenous communities have lodged complaints and filed petitions over alleged breaches of the law and due process, including demanding the recall of the certificate of precondition from the NCIP, but there was not a word from the two agencies.  

They also urged the DENR to cancel the environmental compliance certificate issued to the project. 

Final straw 

Kaliwa Dam march
Scenic segment for protest route.

And then suddenly last December, news broke that the MWSS and the Department of Public Works and Highways were boring a tunnel in the town of Teresa in Rizal. For the tribespeople, it was the final straw.  

“That alarmed us, and so we decided to mount this march,” Calzado said. 

The MWSS had warned of a possible shortage of water supply by 2024. It said the projected Kaliwa Dam would supply an additional 600 million liters per day to the metropolis and nearby areas that rely on Angat and Ipo dams in the province of Bulacan.  

The project envisioned to be completed at the end of 2026 entails 22-km tunneling work and actual dam construction.  

An audience with Mr. Marcos in Malacañang, if it comes to pass, will bring the project to full circle. 

The proposal to build the dam dates back to the 1970s, during the term of his father, the strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Since then, the project has been reviewed and shelved due to various reasons, including fierce opposition from the Indigenous peoples, civil society, and the Church; its high cost of construction; MWSS privatization; and fears that it would lead to a spike in water rates. 

It received a shot in the arm in December 2019 when President Rodrigo Duterte gave the greenlight for its construction, calling the proposed dam the “last resort” for the capital’s dwindling water supply. He secured a $283.2-million loan deal from China for the “flagship project.”

But calls against the dam’s construction only grew louder. 

So far, the marchers have been riding a wave of support from residents of various towns who line the streets to cheer them on, and hand them food packs, umbrellas, rubber slippers, cash, and just about anything else to boost their morale. In Infanta, Vice Mayor L.A. Ruanto gifted each marcher a buri hat.  

“That’s giving us a lot of strength to press on,’’ Calzado said.

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