The members of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe protesting the construction of Kaliwa Dam are back home in the provinces of Quezon and Rizal, disheartened that their nine-day, 148-kilometer march to Malacañang ended without a dialogue with President Marcos Jr., but unbowed.
“We won’t stop until he (Mr. Marcos) responds to our letter,” tribe leader Conchita Calzado told CoverStory.ph by phone on Saturday morning, or more than 12 hours after the 240 protest marchers arrived in their hometowns of Infanta and General Nakar in Quezon, and Tanay in Rizal. “We’ll be back.”
The marchers will plot their next course of action after the 15-day period for the reception of their letter to the President lapses, Calzado said.
They had sent a letter to the Office of the President ahead of their arrival in Malacañang, hoping to seek an audience with Mr. Marcos. It was duly received.
But when they reached Mendiola Street leading to the Palace on the afternoon of Feb. 23, they were blocked by antiriot policemen from proceeding to the seat of power in Manila.
“We were crestfallen. He did not even send representatives to talk to us,” Calzado said in Tagalog.
The marchers retreated to a public school in Paco, Manila, where they reached a consensus to return home the next day after coming to terms with the missed opportunity to personally tell Mr. Marcos of their opposition to the P12.2-billion dam project on the boundary of Quezon and Rizal in the Sierra Madre mountain range.
A number of them had fallen ill after days of walking in scorching heat and bursts of rain.
The dam project is envisioned to supply an additional 600 million liters of water per day to Metro Manila and other parts of southern Rizal. It will submerge 291 hectares of forests and displace 1,485 families in Tanay, General Nakar and Infanta, according to the Save Sierra Madre Network.
“But we count as our victory the many people who have committed to support us,” Calzado said, referring to the hundreds of people who came out to support their march on the road to Malacañang, and signed their online petition against the project.
As they trudged the highways in the middle of Quezon and Rizal’s lush forests en route to Manila, the Dumagat-Remontado drew expressions of support from townsfolk and local officials alike.
It felt like deja vu for the marchers who, in November 2009, were provided shelter by the Catholic Church in the municipalities and cities they passed during their protest march against the planned Laiban Dam in upstream Rizal from Quezon to Manila. The project was shelved the following year.
The Dumagat-Remontado have accused the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the National Council for Indigenous People of railroading the consultation process by wangling consent from preselected pro-Kaliwa Dam signatories, and excluding the Sierra Madre Indigenous communities vocally opposed to the project.
According to the protesters, the two agencies also failed to obtain permits from the local governments of Infanta and Real in Quezon, and from Quezon province itself.
“Is the P12 billion from China more important than the lives of 100,000 people put in danger?” Fr. Pete Montallana, coordinator of the Indigenous People’s Apostolate in Infanta, said in an open letter to Mr. Marcos posted on Facebook last Thursday.
“Mr. President, the need for water of 20 million people cannot justify the destruction of the habitat of a comparatively small population of [Indigenous people] which has its roots in Sierra Madre,” Montallana said, adding:
“Remove them from Sierra Madre, they die as a people. The centuries-old life and culture of the Dumagat-Remontados will be a big loss to us Filipinos.”
Last Wednesday, in the middle of the protest march, the MWSS gave P160 million to elders of the Dumagat-Remontado as compensation for the 160 hectares of ancestral land that would be submerged. These elders distinguish themselves from the marchers, who belong to a younger generation of the tribe.
When the dam becomes operational in 2027, the tribe will again be entitled to yearly payouts of P36 million and P10 million, respectively, for 25 years.
But Calzado said: “We have nothing to do with that. That is just for the errant leaders, and we doubt that [the money] will be cascaded to the communities on the ground.”