Dacawi: Pacifying this whimpering watershed cradle

A FEW years back, we heard that Ilocos Region was worried over the dwindling river flow from these Cordillera uplands that is the life-blood of its lowland agriculture economy. Ilocos Region said so in a message from its Regional Development Council (RDC), the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) to their counterparts up here in the boondocks.

The Ilocos Region bodies reiterated the obvious: Less water flow, less food production. What was missing was the less obvious, a fact ignored for generations: Watershed preservation is a collaborative task, given the truth that everybody, whether you’re up here or down there, lives in a watershed.

For so long, the Cordillera has been at the receiving end of neglect. In a "user-friendly" view of national development, the resource base is ignored until it fails to produce and deliver. Or when it refuses to, as in the case of upland tribal villages now opposing new, "responsible" gold mining explorations and operations because previous extractions had them left holding the empty bag in an environment dug up and left to waste. Or when the lowlands get flooded, something the plains easily perceive to have been triggered by deforestation of the watersheds and siltation from the dams or mines up here.

It's more than spilt milk that the Cordillera lost and sacrificed through the extraction of its gold and the damming of its water resources - all in the name of national development. Yet we're told the whimpering, the shouting in our remaining wilderness, is over. We're told it's time to move on, for the sins of neglect will no longer be repeated -- again. It’s no longer simply “gold mining”, kiddo; its now “responsible mining”, as if the qualifier works like a magic wand.

With its message, Ilocos Region (together with Regions 2 and 3, which also benefit from the law of gravity) can help us square the account of national development.

Perhaps at the roundtable to discuss their worry over dwindling water, we seek a quid pro quo. They can help us address the following suggested resolutions to our national development planners and decision-makers in imperial Metro Manila.

These issues should also be linked to our region’s quest for autonomy, which is still in its embryonic stage simply because advocates fail to link these issues to the over-all issue of self-rule that autonomy is supposed to empower us as a special region. Under autonomy, we have the greater power to urge national line agencies to consider \and adopt these issues for the Cordillera’s development:

1. Urging the Department of Energy (DOE) to redefine "host community" under the implementing rules of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA), from one based on dam location to one anchored on the river-basin concept.

You see, for every kilowatt hour produced and sold from the operation of the San Roque Dam in Pangasinan, one centavo is set aside for livelihood and other development projects for the "host community", to include watershed conservation and protection.

While Benguet is where San Roque's watersheds are, the province can not avail of the fund as it does not fall within that myopic definition of a "host community" provided for by the EPIRA’s Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR).

The term is limited to where the dam is located, in this case in San Nicolas and San Manuel in Pangasinan. Pangasinan is qualified to a share as host province, so is Region 1 as host region. One centavo may mean nothing, except when equated to the fact that San Roque has a 340-megawatt capacity.

We pointed this injustice when then Energy Secretary Vincent Perez came up for a hearing on the IRAA of the Epira. He said the observation was “most insightful” and assured it would be considered. Not so. When the IRR was released, it adopted the old definition.

2. Urging the Office of the President, the Congress, the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, the National Power Corp., the National Irrigation Administration and other national line agencies supposed to be concerned, to come up with incentive policies for the keepers of the watersheds up here.

For generations, the integrity of the Cordillera watersheds was maintained not because of state policy but through indigenous wisdom exemplified by time-honored indigenous forest and water resource management systems such the "tayan" of Mt. Province, the "lapat" of the Tingguians and the "muyong" or "pinugo" of Ifugao.

In fact, state laws were passed and are still in effect that restrict and constrict the indigenous peoples' access to the land and forest resources that they have conserved for centuries for their -- and the lowlands' -- survival.

The law did not allow them to have titles to their lands that are over 18 degrees in slope. It bans them from cutting trees situated 1,000 meters above sea level and over. It was only lately that government began recognizing their watershed preservation practices that are the original models of effective (as we all can see) community-based resource management.

The purpose of a watershed is to slow down the flow of water to the river and to the sea, so that it will seep underground to recharge the natural water table. That's what the rice terraces do -- slow down the water flow. This system made the terraces monuments to "sustainable development", long before world leaders started mouthing that term in the 1992 World Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

3. Urging the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and Congress to include the preservation of the Cordillera mossy forests in the country's Forest Management Plan, that is, if such plan exists and has been ratified.

Our mossy forests up here serve as the water tanks and towers of the river systems that are dammed for electricity of the urban centers and for irrigation of the lowland farms.

They act like a sponge, harvesting and absorbing mist and rain, releasing water gradually to form the rivulets, creeks and springs that form the rivers that flow into the dams, and then piped and channeled to irrigate the lowland rice lands. While their damp condition insulates the mossy forests from heat, their natural elevation immediately above or beside the resinous and easily combustible pine stands makes them also vulnerable to fires.

We are losing these unique and vital forests because conservation is focused on the lower forests of these islands. We do not even have a national forest fire management plan, and the Bureau of Fire Protection, whose concentration and expertise are on structural fires, is also given jurisdiction over forest and brush fires.

4. Urging the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) and the NIA to review and fine-tune equitably policies governing access to and harnessing of water resources.

It took too long for the government to transfer the NWRB from the infrastructure-based Department of Public Works and Highways to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

We understand the NWRB had awarded water rights over rivers up here to electric power developers and speculators from the outside without the knowledge and consent of indigenous villagers who regard water as a common resource. Recently, villages have learned to oppose these “water rights” obtained by outsiders, by strangers who had never seen our rivers until they decided to have these allocated for their own development and, as in the gold mines of the past, at our own expense.

Before he quit to become mayor of Bauko, Mt. Province, then NIA regional director Abe Akilit saw the wisdom of including provisions for sustainability of water sources in the agency’s irrigation development plans. Yet we wonder how many irrigation projects in the past went to waste because of their limit to infrastructure -- dam, inlet and outlet --, without ever taking into account the protection of the watersheds that fed them and had since dried up.

5. Urging the DOE and other (supposed to be) concerned agencies to share electric power to all the villages up here in the Cordillera for the region’s role as renewable energy source and resource.

The two dams built in Benguet in the 50s -- the Binga and Ambuclao – were recently on their death throes (before Ambuclao was rehabilitated), yet some of our villages within spitting distance of these power generators have yet to be energized. Some of the people displaced by their construction remain uprooted, like pine that can't survive in lowland relocation sites.

Perhaps the practical thing for the Cordillera RDC and NEDA to do is to help the local government units seek grants for the building of mini-hydros to be owned by these provinces, towns and barangays. Given the wealth of the Cordillera as a gold mine in hydropower, hydro plants continue to be built, yet these are operated and owned in perpetuity by investors. There’s wisdom in limiting their operation and turning these facilities to the host communities after the investors have recouped their investments and made profits, as in a build-operate-transfer scheme. Personally, I wonder if new host communities took the developers’ promise hook, line and sinker and agreed to investors’ ownership in perpetuity.

Residents of Kapangan and Kibungan in Benguet who are opposing the construction of a weir for a hydro plant may find the B-0-T scheme less onerous to adopt if they are left with no choice but to accept the project that the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples claimed was subjected to a residents’ vote.

Tongue-in-cheek, the Cordillera pioneered the B-O-T scheme of development. They built the mines and dams here, operated them and then transferred the gold and electric power, including the taxes, to Makati and Metro-Manila.

These are more than enough concrete issues that proponents of Cordillera autonomy must anchor their campaign for self-rule on, to make the ordinary Cordillleran realize the importance of obtaining self-rule so we can get hold of our own water and other resources rather than have Imperial Manila assign rights over them to strangers in our own land.

(e-mail: mondaxbench@kyahoo.com for comments.)
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