China-funded Hydropower Dam In South Pulangi: Hold Duterte Administration Accountable For Indigenous Rights Abuses

Being the latest in a series of connections between Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, the construction of a China-funded hydropower dam in South Pulangi threatens 20 indigenous communities in Southern Mindanao. Located about three hours north of Davao city, the proposed 250-megawatt power plant will mean the construction of a 143-meter dam and a reservoir that will flood about 7,000 acres of indigenous land in four villages, documents from Al Jazeera have confirmed. The Pulangi Hydro Power Corporation (PHPC)’s 2018 project plan has also verified that the construction will affect approximately 30,000 people who live in the area.

Flowing through the Pantaron range of central Mindanao, the Pulangi river is a life source for the indigenous Manobo people, who depend on growing food and medicinal plants in the sacred mountains for a living. The project will forcefully evict them from the Bukidnon province’s tranquil river-basin.

Nick Aspinwall from Al Jazeera, along with environmental advocates and community leaders, have criticized the project’s failure to obtain the necessary government authorization to begin construction. David Padua Aclan, a priest of the Philippine Independent Church in Kibawe, accused the government of working “in concert with investors and local government officials to avoid these requirements.” “They collaborated with each other in favour of this project without prior notice.” In addition to this, China Energy and PHPC have failed to provide figures on how many homes will be relocated.

Militarization and martial law in Southern Pulangi have thwarted the indigenous communities’ opposition to the project. Although martial law in Mindanao was lifted on January 1, the armed forces’ strong presence on the island, with military units regularly monitoring infrastructure sites and “red-tagging” outspoken activists who are against such projects, the area still remains as on of the world’s “deadliest places for environmental defenders.” Especially regarding the project’s repercussions on the community, news has not been able to spread. Fear of militarization has also silenced the community – “if [the community] reacts, the military may come here,” Aclan stated. Leon Dulce, chairman of the Manila-based environmental network “Kalikasan,” said that the environmental groups that follow the project are targeted by the government in a “full-scale militarization.”

“Not everyone wants to hear it, but the message needs to be spread. In the Philippines, they are shooting the messengers,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the indigenous leader of the Kankanaey Igorot people, wrote on 2018 after the Duterte administration targeted her as a terrorist in retaliation for speaking out on rights abuses against the Lumad. “The killings make news, but hidden behind these headlines is something even more insidious: the silencing of entire communities.”

As UN Special Rapporteurs Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Cecilia Jimez-Damary appealed in their 2017 statement, “forcing indigenous peoples to leave their homes has an incalculable impact on their very lives and way of living – on that risks erasing their culture and existence from the heritage of the Philippines, eventually forever.”

We must collectively condemn the fact that institutions who are destroying the planet under the banner of capitalism and development smear the label of “terrorist” or “anti-development” on those who defend the land and utilize its resources in a sustainable way. Indigenous peoples must not be labelled illegal occupiers or evicted from their own lands simply because they do not hold deeds or titles to them. Especially amidst today’s climate crisis, indigenous peoples’ ancestral knowledge and esteem for the environment must be valued, not silenced. The unaccounted criminalization and genocide must stop immediately – awareness must be spread to ensure that the government answers for state-sanctioned abuses.