By Ramon Dacawi Benchwarmer
Sunstar Baguio, 2008/07
REGION 1 is now worried over the dwindling river flow from these uplands that is the life-blood of its lowland agriculture economy. It 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.
They reiterated the obvious: Less water flow, less food production. And the less obvious, or what has been ignored for quite sometime: Watershed preservation is a collaborative task.
For so long now, 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. Or when the lowlands get flooded, perceived to have been triggered by deforestation or siltation from the dams or mines up here.
It’s more than spilt milk that the Cordillera lost and sacrificed 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.
With its message, Region 1 (together with Regions 2 and 3, which also benefit from the law of gravity) can now help us square the account of national development. Perhaps at the roundtable, they can help us address the following suggested resolution to our national development planners and decision-makers in imperial Metro Manila:
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 kwh 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, it can’t avail of the fund as it does not fall within that myopic definition of a “host community” provided for by the Epira’s 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.
2. Urging the Office of the President, the Congress, the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, the National Power Corp., the NIA 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 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 their watershed preservation practices, which are the original models of community-based resource management, are starting to be recognized by government.
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 down to recharge the water table underground. 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 — 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 into the river that flow into the dams 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 all fires are under the Bureau of Fire Protection that concentrates on structural 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 DENR.
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.
It’s a good thing that the NIA up here under regional director Abe Akilit is already including provisions for sustainability of water sources in its 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 which is the source of that energy.
The two dams built up here in the 50s — the Binga and Ambuclao — are now on their death throes, 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 its local government units seek grants for the building of mini-hydros to be owned and managed by them for a resource base-friendly system.