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Philippines: Caught in the current – how nationalist development narratives threaten the future of Dumagat people

20 June 2023

The indigenous peoples of the Philippines experience systemic discrimination and human rights abuses perpetrated by local and national governments and multinational corporations. These abuses have become more visible due to government-led development programmes, especially mega-dam construction, which have further pushed indigenous peoples into the margins of society by excluding them from every stage of the policy and project-making processes. The government has used the nationalist discourse of ‘development’ to legitimize projects encroaching on indigenous lands. On top of this, indigenous activists who have openly opposed and resisted hydropower projects have been threatened, punished and killed by the Philippine government and their allies.  

Over the last 40 years, fear of displacement has constantly threatened the existence and identity of the Dumagat, a semi-nomadic indigenous people whose lives are intertwined with the Sierra Madre mountain range and the Agos River encompassing the provinces of Rizal and Quezon in the island of Luzon. Previous administrations have made numerous attempts to relocate Dumagat to build reservoirs or hydropower dams, citing the alarming population rise in Metro Manila and the need for more water for agriculture as primary reasons. According to a Dumagat resident of Barangay Manggahan, Tanay, ‘The contractors told us that Manila’s water needs were far more important than our needs here in the mountains. Don’t we have the same rights?’

On 7 March 2021, the Philippine national police and the Philippine army conducted a series of operations in Southern Tagalog, which led to the assassination of nine civilians. Four of the nine victims were Dumagat activists and environmentalists accused of supporting the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. These operations, later called ‘Bloody Sunday’, were part of a series of killings, harassment and police brutality perpetrated by the government of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

Good health is defined not merely as the absence of diseases, but it also depends on the well-being of ancestral lands and waters.

‘Bloody Sunday’ is just one of the numerous incidents of violence against indigenous activists who have fought for their right to their ancestral lands in the Philippines. Kakay Tolentino, the National Coordinator of the Bai Indigenous Women Network in the Philippines and Steering Committee member for the Network of Indigenous Women of Asia, says that since Ferdinand Marcos Senior first came to power in the mid-1960s, threats of displacement and harassment have clouded the lives of indigenous women, as the construction of megadams, time and time again, has driven Dumagat into situations of increasing precarity. One of the most iconic examples of indigenous resistance in Philippines, the legacy of which is palpable in present-day environmental activism in the region, is the case of Macli-ing Dulag, a pangat (leader) of the Butbut tribe of Kalinga province in the Philippines. Macli-ing Dulag is known internationally as one of the leaders of the opposition to the Chico River Dam Project, which led to his assassination by armed forces under the command of Ferdinand Marcos Senior. The image and words of Macli-ing Dulag, as well as his legacy as an icon of indigenous activism in Philippines and beyond, has been mobilized repeatedly and effectively by present-day Dumagat activists resisting hydropower-related displacement.

For several decades now, Macli-ing Dulag’s legacy and memory have motivated the Dumagat resistance campaign against the Laiban Dam project. This project would have inundated 28,000 hectares of indigenous land, covering seven to eight villages in the provinces of Rizal and Quezon, with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) spearheading the project. The collective resistance and fightback by Dumagat activists were portrayed in international media and human rights documentaries, including my own film Dam Nation (2019). The media campaign effort has had an important effect on public opinion and is partly why the Laiban Dam Project was eventually shelved.

Sierra Madre forests at risk of massive flooding by the Kaliwa Dam. Credit: Keith Anthony S. Fabro for Mongabay.

According to Tolentino, Dumagat have depended on the interconnected cycles and relationalities between the water systems and the Sierra Madre mountain range. The Sierra Madre mountain range, located at the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, is the largest protected area in the Philippines and sustains numerous endangered species of flora and fauna. The high elevation also weakens the strong winds and torrential rains brought by typhoons that enter the country, thus serving as the region’s first line of defence.  

Military forces have often been mobilized in indigenous lands where development projects are implemented to threaten and harass protesters, who are considered obstacles to progress and economic growth. The Dumagat ancestral domain is no exception. Tolentino stresses that, following construction of the hydroelectric dam, waterways which serve as the community’s main transportation route would be destroyed. This would have significant consequences for the Dumagat’s freedom of movement, overall well-being and access to emergency medical care. In addition, it will result in the inundation of their cultural spaces, including sacred burial grounds. Tolentino adds that good health is defined not merely as the absence of diseases, but it also depends on the well-being of ancestral lands and waters. Dumagat people view their lands as extensions of themselves and oppose ownership, control and exploitation.

Members of the Dumagat-Remontados indigenous group gather each April at a spring along the Tinipak River for their annual ritual. Credit: Keith Anthony S. Fabro for Mongabay.

Although the Philippines was one of the first countries in the Asia-Pacific region to pass a law protecting indigenous peoples’ rights and subsequently adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this has yet to translate into meaningful indigenous autonomy. The Philippine government’s use of a nationalist development discourse implies forceful pressure on Dumagat communities to acculturate and assimilate with the rest of the country, thereby putting their cultural identity and future at risk. However, as Tolentino argues, despite the government’s persistent neglect and violation of indigenous land and water rights, their determination to oppose the dam construction only grew stronger. This was evident in the recent nine-day peace march from 15 to 24 February 2023, where 300 Dumagat residents from Quezon and three other communities from Rizal marched from General Nakar, Quezon, to the presidential palace in Malacañang to denounce the commencement of dam operations and the government’s blatant disregard of any proper free, prior and informed consent process. 

Dumagat express their resistance in various ways, including street mobilizations and the use of media to rally support for their cause, enabling them to control the narrative surrounding their struggle. In the same vein, this case study acknowledges that the current anti-indigenous climate is not location-specific and that solidarity in support of indigenous struggles must happen for all, in all homelands and places. Tolentino concludes: ‘If we don’t do anything, then we will have dug our own graves. For as long as we are alive, we will continue to fight for our future and future generations.’

We are grateful to members of BAI-Indigenous Women Network for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: The Tinipak River, in danger of being submerged by the Kaliwa Dam. Credit: Keith Anthony S. Fabro for Mongabay.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Grace Simbulan

Kakay Tolentino