SINCE last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected peoples in the Philippines. These socioeconomic impacts have only worsened the existing challenges facing the indigenous peoples and increasing their vulnerabilities.

For the Dumagat-Remontados along the Sierra Madre, the lockdowns have severely affected their economic opportunities due to restrictions in mobility. For instance, a community in Tanay, Rizal has had difficulties in sustaining income from selling root crops, fruits, and other agricultural products. Some of the men also lost their jobs in nearby towns, adding to the economic insecurity.

"It has been hard for us to sell our products and meet our daily needs," said Robilyn Reyes, president of the Kababaihang Dumagat ng Sierra Madre.

While her barangay has been receiving assistance from the local government during the pandemic, Reyes notes that this has not been enough to sustain their daily needs. This problem has only been exacerbated during the barrage of storms that hit the Philippines during the final months of 2020, from which the villages are only beginning to recover.

"Many in our community lost their homes, crops, and supplies as they were destroyed during typhoon Ulysses," Reyes added.

In another Dumagat-Remontado community in Quezon, children are facing challenges in continuing their education. The remote location of the villages makes it difficult for teachers to visit these areas and for families to have access to digital tools and online sources of information. Many adults have also not attended formal schooling, which limits their ability to help their children with answering their modules.

"What about us indigenous peoples who are not proficient in using laptops and cellphones?" said Marcelino Tena, president of Samahan ng mga Katutubong Agta, Dumagat, Remontado na Binabaka at Pinagtatanggol ang Lupaing Ninuno (Sagibin-LN).

These issues are also being experienced by Reyes's village. She notes that while some teachers live near their area, the technology and information divide results in modules being left unanswered.

"I hope that teachers can visit our children at home and explain how to answers their modules because not all parents went to school," she said.

Reyes also expressed support for reopening schools in their area to allow the pupils to continue their education, stating that "we are willing to go to school, practice social distancing, and wear face masks."

The pandemic has also contributed to a sense of mistrust among these groups towards hospitals and health care systems in nearby towns, causing their reliance on indigenous practices to keep the coronavirus from directly affecting them. In Quezon, Tena remarked that they "use herbs and other means of traditional medicine, as we do not trust hospitals for now."

In Rizal, Reyes said "the elderly men in our tribe perform a ritual to protect us from any threats that could enter our village," which she credits for keeping their barangay Covid-free.

Issues with the proposed Kaliwa Dam

From Tena's perspective, the pandemic-induced lockdown was expected to put a stop to the construction of the Kaliwa Dam. The project, considered a flagship project of the "Build, Build, Build" program of President Rodrigo Duterte, is intended to strengthen water security in Metro Manila. But the Dumagat-Remontados and other groups have voiced their opposition to this project, as it falls within a protected area and could cause irreversible environmental damage, threaten endemic biodiversity, and displace indigenous peoples.

Instead of a halt, Tena observed that the Chinese are allowed to continue inspections and drilling on the site while lockdown restrictions are enforced on the indigenous peoples.

"When you are a foreigner in this country, there is no lockdown. But in your own barangay, you are subjected to a lockdown and you have to follow the rules or you'll be arrested by the police," he said.

Reyes also observed this discrimination in their area not just with the lockdown enforcement, but also in government assistance.

"There should be a fair and equal treatment, indigenous peoples or not, powerful or not," she said.

Both Dumagat-Remontado leaders also note the division arising among indigenous communities on consent for the Kaliwa Dam project. As the proposed dam is situated within their ancestral domain, contractors are required to obtain a certificate of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) from the indigenous tribes.

Reyes stated that she has observed the access road to the planned site is already being built even without the FPIC, while Tena claimed that project proponents are trying to convince the communities to give their consent. These have resulted in a loss of trust in the process by their groups.

"We doubt that they will deliver with the promise of development for us," Tena said.

Even with the problems due to the dam construction and the pandemic, among others, the message is clear for the Dumagat-Remontados: to continue to fight for their home.

"We love our environment because this is where we and our ancestors live, this is our way of life," Reyes said.

Amid potential red-tagging and death threats, Tena coordinates with the local military personnel regarding his activities related to the opposition to the Kaliwa Dam project. Setting an example for his group, he also encourages them to not hide and voice out their stand.

"I make it clear to my community to not be afraid," he said.


John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He has been a citizen journalist, writing on climate and environment issues since 2016.