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Opinion

A Walk with Amy Astoveza of Dumagats

Xiaojun Wang

"A Walk with Amy Astoveza of Dumagats" - Wang Xiaojun, People of Asia for Climate Solutions (PACS)

A bag of rice, probably around 5 kilogrammes, on my head, and a box of 2 dozen eggs in my arms, I was hiking through muddy roads in Sierra Madre. It was almost five o’clock in the afternoon, Aug 17th, 2019, and my destination for that night was Sitio Baycuran, a tiny cluster of less than 200 indigenous Dumagats people. I wanted to get there before it got totally dark.

Sitio is one of the Spanish words left behind in the Filipino language by the colonialists. It means “a site”, not of any particular reason. Just a site. Today, in Tagalog, it means “a unit even smaller than a barangay, or village”. Most sitios are far from everything, even from each other. Many are not marked on Google Map, or any map. I, a Chinese man, was only there because my friend, a Filipino journalist, had told me that Dumagats people in these sitios would be the ones to get most directly impacted by a dam project along the Kaliwa River. I would be interviewing them for a book project.

My friend was smart enough to hire a horse to climb the 15 kilometre muddy road climbing into Sitio Baycuran. I had decided to hike. “Horses are for city folks. Most indigenous people do not have that luxury. I would follow them, step by step.”

A few steps ahead of me was Amy Astoveza, a 50-year-old Dumagats woman. With her blue baseball cap, red T-shirt and purple tights, she looked more like an outdoor activity instructor. Those casual flipflops gave her away. I just barely managed to keep up with her in my expensive hiking boots.

We were not talking. She couldn’t speak any English and I hadn’t yet learned much Tagalog. Even if I had, I probably wouldn’t be able to understand her anyway. For her, a Dumagats person, Tagalog was the lowlanders’ language. Not hers. My Filipino journalist friend was probably already enjoying a nice cup of water in Sitio Baycuran.

Amy and I had met the day before at a local community meeting when over 50 villagers from different indigenous tribes in neighbouring sitios gathered at Daraitan, a small town with a proper chapel to host a meeting for so many people and a market where the villagers could bring their hunts or fish to sell. Their meeting was to plan the next activity to express everyone’s anger with the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), who was working with China Energy Engineering Corp to build a dam near Amy’s house by the Kaliwa River.

“The Kaliwa River is our market. We dive and catch fish for our daily needs,” Amy had told me through my friend earlier that day when we took a break by the river. “We are happy and contented with our current way of life. Our mountains and our forests give us joy.”

The Kaliwa Dam Project, as part of the Philippines government’s ambitious New Centennial Water Source, is meant to provide new water source for the rapidly increasing population in Metro Manila. There are almost 13 million people in the capital city, and almost another million in the regions around who travel into Metro Manila almost on a daily basis.

“The construction of Kaliwa Dam is necessary. We cannot simply rely on existing water sources due to the increasing population in Metro Manila. Its construction would help a lot in addressing water supply in the city,” Councilor Abraham Abe Calamba from Barangay Addition Hills in Metro Manila had told me earlier, while making arrangement to mobilize city fire trucks to deliver water to the 200,000 residents in the barangay.

The concept of the New Centennial Water Source was first brought up in the 1970s during the Marcos regime, but it wasn’t until 2013 when the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) under the Aquino administration gave green lights to the construction of the first part of this giant project: the Kaliwa Dam. In 2017, the contract was awarded to China Energy Engineering Corporation. In Nov. 2018, when China’s president Xi Jinping made a state visit to the Philippines, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and China Energy held a ceremony to sign the Kaliwa Dam agreement. It was considered a win-win deal for the Philippine’s Build-Build-Build programme and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Once built, the Kaliwa Dam would bring an additional 600 million liter-per-day onstream, and secure Manila’s water supply for the next 10 to 15 years. Once construction started, around 300 indigenous Dumagats people like Amy, would be displaced from their ancestral lands, and large parts of villages in Sierra Madre and along the Kaliwa River would be inundated, evicting and relocating about 10,000 more people.

We were getting quite high up and Amy stopped walking all of a sudden and was waiting for me. When I got to her side, she picked up a stick and pointed at the mountains. That was where we had climbed. It was a beautiful sight, the forest looking richer and lusher with the sun almost set. She swayed the stick from left to right and virtually covered all the valleys in front of us.

“So, this will all be gone once the dam is built,” I said, looking at her, and gesturing with my hands. She nodded. We just looked for a while and didn’t speak more. We didn’t speak each other’s languages, but we knew we understood each other at that moment.

Very soon, we made a turn and a few houses, dogs and goats, came into sight. In front of one of the tiny houses, my journalist friend was waiting for me, with a nice hot cup of water. I walked in and put down the rice and eggs. We were going to spend the night there in the house, and the rice and eggs were our payment for the accommodation.

By the time I came out of the house, Amy was already waving goodbye. She had been very impressed that I could walk as fast as she. But she had 10 more kilometres to go down the other side of the mountain before getting to the other side of the Kaliwa River to take a canoe with her husband. Their house is 20 minutes down the river, exactly where the future Kaliwa Dam would be built.

“It was in June 2019 when a group, which included Chinese nationals and a barangay councilor, visited our community. They did the test on rocky parts and left a ‘00+00’ marker,” Amy had said earlier. “However, no one came to explain what they were doing in the area and what the testing was for.”

There was a clear lack of communication between the indigenous people and the government agencies, including the MWSS and even the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP). Naturally, less such confusion and complaint would reach the Chinese stakeholders’ ears.

That was why we produced the book Belt and Road through My Village. Both voices, from Amy and Councilor Abraham, must be heard and addressed properly. One year after I took the walk with Amy, in late October this year, the book was published.

In September this year, in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and most of the Philippines under lockdown, after months of the Dumagats' continued appeals through the NCIP regarding how the MWSS had railroaded the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) process to facilitate the dam's construction, the MWSS has agreed for another round of negotiations for a Memorandum of Agreement with the indigenous peoples in October 2020.