KIDAPAWAN, MINDANAO, PHILIPPINES Q "How would you feel if we drilled a massive hole through your church, because, say, there was oil underneath?"
That is the rhetorical question asked by indigenous opponents of the Philippine government's Mt. Apo geothermal energy project.
Nearly one half million indigenous people on Mindanao, organized into six ethnic groups and collectively known as Lumads, regard Mt. Apo, at 10,300 feet the highest peak in the Philippines, as sacred. They believe that disfiguring the mountain to drill for energy is blasphemous.
In combination with Philippine and international environmental organizations and human rights groups, the Lumads have waged a high-profile campaign against the geothermal project. But while they have garnered substantial domestic and international publicity and support, they have not been able to stop the government from proceeding with the project.
The government has instead responsed to the Lumads' protests by heavily militarizing the area, creating even more problems for local people. Thousands of troops have been deployed into the Mt. Apo area, and serious human rights abuses have been committed against individual Lumad leaders and entire Lumad communities.
Located in Southeast Mindanao, Mt. Apo is known as the "Pearl of Mindanao." It sits amidst a rich and diverse ecosystem, is the source of 28 rivers and creeks and is the most important watershed in Mindanao. President Manuel Quezon declared the mountain area a national park in 1936; in 1982 the United Nations placed it on its list of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves; and in 1984 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) named it an ASEAN Heritage Site.
It is also a dormant volcano that sits astride a rich source of geothermal energy. in the late-1980s, with the Philippines plagued by a severe energy crisis, the government has eagerly sought to tap the geothermal reserves beneath the mountain.
The Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) began test drilling for energy on Mt. Apo in 1987. It seemed clear that this and other preliminary and exploratory PNOC activities were conducted in clear violation of the area's park status. In 1988, the country's environmental minister declared the PNOC's activities illegal; along with domestic and international opposition, the environmental minister's declaration led to the shelving of the project. And, after lending initial financial support, the World Bank withdrew its backing from the project.
The respite proved to be only temporary, however. In January 1992, then-President Corazon Aquino issued a proclamation designating a 701 hectare area of the Mt. Apo National Park a geothermal reservation and excluding it from the protections afforded national parks. The PNOC plans to operate three modular power plant units of 40 megawatts each. It aims to have the first unit operational by July 1996.
The energy project has inflicted new damage on the precarious Mt. Apo ecosystem, already weakened by illegal logging and forest fires.
To build roads to the project site high in the remote mountain it was necessary to cut trees which has contributed to soil erosion and the weakening of slopes and river siltation, according to Maricel Alave, research coordinator for the Integrated Philippine Project on Natural Resources Management, a non-governmental organization in Kidapawan established to lend support to indigenous people's struggles to maintain their land and protect their rights. Windy Reguerzo, public relations manager of the PNOC Energy Companies, responds that "deforestation has been very limited and very well controlled," noting that only 112 hectares have been cleared. Reguerzo adds, PNOC's commitment is to plant 200 trees for every tree that is cut down; this will require planting in many other parts of the national park, which PNOC is doing." Environmentalists have been critical of this effort, pointing out that the PNOC is planting eucalyptus, a non-native tree which requires an immense amount of water and can dry up underground water sources. A March 1993 fact- finding mission of the Task Force Apo Sandowa, a Philippine- wide non-governmental coalition opposed to the geothermal project, concluded that the PNOC's "tree planting is just for show, [there is] no seriousness, no commitment."
Opponents of the geothermal project have also complained about the use of chemicals in the drilling process and the disposal of dug-up earth and water. Tapping the energy below the mountain requires drilling wells one to two miles deep. The PNOC sometimes uses chemicals to soften the rocks it must drill through, and it then discards the heavy metal- contaminated waste water and rock. Refuerzo says that the PNOC is handling the pollution issue responsibly; in response to a report of high arsenic levels in rivers below the geothermal reservation, the government commissioned two government agency investigations which determined that there was no indication that aresnic came from geothermal drilling and praised the PNOC for establishing drinking water facilities in areas where arsenic is naturally high. The PNOC also claims it is using non-hazardous chemicals and that the waste will be sifted in aeration ponds and disposed of properly. But Task Force Apo Sandowa questions these assertions. It contends that the ponds are poorly constructed and will overflow during heavy rains, contaminating rivers and groundwater supplies.
The main dispute over the geothermal project is not environmental, however, but cultural. "To speak of Mt. Apo is to speak of the Lumad," says Alave.
Mt. Apo is the centerpiece of the Lumads' elaborate system of religious beliefs. The mountain itself is viewed as the Supreme God, the God of all gods. "We consider Mt. Apo the main source of all living creatures on Earth. If not for Mt. Apo, no one on Earth could breathe," explains one Lumad elder who lives on the mountain's foothills. "Before we undertake any activity, we ask permission of Mt. Apo. After the harvest we go to Mt. Apo and give thanks."
"Our laws, traditional practices and culture is still intact because of Mt. Apo," adds a second elder. "Because of Mt. Apo, we [the Lumads] are considered as one, we are like brothers; we know each other and have one ancestor."
Thus, for the Lumad, the PNOC's project is despoiling the world's most sacred place.
Refuerzo, however, argues that the Lumads "consider Mt. Apo sacred but not inviolable."
Embittered by the government's determination to forge ahead with the geothermal project, in 1989 more than 20 Lumad leaders formed the first dyandi, [blood pact] entered into since the thirteenth century, in which they pledged to lay down their lives to protect Mt. Apo and to oppose to the geothermal project. Their resolve was strengthened in 19_____ by the displacement of dozens of families from the geothermal site.
The indigenous opposition to the geothermal project has attracted the support not only of civilian non-governmental organizations but of the rebel New People's Army (NPA) as well.
As a result of the combination of widespread, vociferous indigenous opposition to the project and the NPA's promise to prevent it from going forward, the government has brought hundreds of army troops and civilian paramilitary forces known as Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs) into the region. Young men with big guns seem to blanket the mountain area.
The troops commit atrocities against the Lumads on a relatively regular basis, burning villages, evacuating thousands of people from their homes to centralized hamlets, and generally intimidating the local population. Two vocal Lumad opponents of the geothermal project were gunned down, reportedly by a CAFGU member, in August 1992.
The experience of the small Kalingahon community is representative of the abuses experienced by many indigenous communities in the Mt. Apo area. According to community leaders, more than 30 Kalingahon families evacuated their homes in early June 1993, fearing they might be hit in cross- fire after a large military detachment began carrying out operations against NPA forces in the area. When individual Kalingahon residents returned to their village to check on their temporarily abandoned homes, they found their crops largely destroyed, some houses demolished and their livestock and belongings missing Q all of which they attribute to military and CAFGU forces. The families lost almost all of their posessions as well as the fields and crops which provide them their food. "They destroyed our crops, destroyed some houses and our pots and chickens were 'lost,'" says one leader of the Association of Awakened Bagobos (the Bagobos are one of the Lumad constituent groups).
Within weeks of the evacuation, the community leaders report, children were suffering from hunger and falling ill. An even deeper tragedy was averted when the displaced families required relief supplies channeled to them through the Integrated Philippine Project on Natural Resources Management.
According to the leader of the Association of Awakened Bagobos, the Kalingahon families will not return to their homes and land. Instead, he says, they will try to clear new land and reestablish their community in a new area an hour and a half hike from their old homes.
As the PNOC has gone ahead with the geothermal project, and actively sought to defuse its opposition, the united Lumad front has splintered.
After the killings of the two Lumad leaders, the PNOC, which had previously provided only heavily guarded tents for the displaced Lumad families, established a more substantial relocation site, with bank housing. Refuerzo reports that all of the displaced families "were persuaded to either go back to their lowland residences or to a nearby relocation area. Only 21 families opted to join the relocation site with all of the communal amenities [including] free houses, water and electricity plus livelihood opportunities in upland farming and reforestation projects. All other took the compensation, returned to their former homes and accepted employment in PNOC civil works jobs. wehave not received any complaints from the relocatees since then."
The PNOC also sought to soften the Lumads' cultural concerns. In response to the dyandi, says Refuerzo, "PNOC held the pamaas ritual to appease the gods. PNOC also avoided sacred sites by using directional drilling techniques."
A significant number of Lumads have been bribed and drafted into a group originally known as the Mindanao Defenders and now transformed into regular CAFGUs.
And the military claims to have changed its approach. In compulsory community meetings, CAFGU leaders emphasizes conciliation over confrontation. In an effort to establish better relations with civilians, the military brings representatives from government agencies to the region, to teach the Lumads about herbal medicines, demonstrate new farming techniques or share other useful information. These meetings seem to have blunted some of the opposition to both the military presence and the geothermal project. Happy to receive useful information, longing for peace after years of fighting and intimidated by the show of force all at the same time, many Lumads are eager to reach a peaceful understanding with the military. For example, after attending a compulsory meeting with the military, a resident of the Tudaya community recalled the military looting and burning Tudayan houses and forcing residents into centralized hamlets in the 1980s, but said that he "now hoped and believed that the military was serious about its reconciliation campaign."
Since 1992, some non-indigenous Philippine activists had concluded that the Philippine government's desparate search for new sources of energy had given the Mt. Apo geothermal project a momentum that could not be stopped. The weakening of the indigenous opposition to the project may well remove the last hope for stopping it.