By ARTHUR L. ALLAD-IW
Northern Dispatch (nordis) Weekly
BOKOD, Benguet – As the developers of Ambuklao dam extend a hand in partnership with the communities affected by their dam, the folk and local officials here urged the developers to address the issues which are traceable – and still un-addressed up to now- to the Ambuclao construction in early 1950s.
The challenge was aired Thursday when the developers, the SN Aboitiz Power (SNAP) Group, inaugurated its newly rehabilitated Ambuklao Hydro Electric Power Plant which was upgraded from 75 MW to produce 105 megawatts (MW) for the Luzon grid.
While welcoming the SN Aboitiz as “a partner” in the next 25 to 50 years, Benguet Rep. Ronald Cosalan pointed out that many promises will do no good if there is no sincerity from the one who issues the promises.
The company must invest also on the people of Ambuklao as host community, Cosalan said in his speech at the inauguration program. He clarified, however, that the entry of SNAP is in relation only to the hydro-power plant, as the rivers, mountains, and everything to do with its resources are still owned by the local indigenous people.
Cosalan traced the history of the Ambuklao dam which had displaced numerous families and caused the siltation of the river area, as well as submerged vast rice fields and agricultural lands of the Ibalois along the Agno River where the Ambuklao dam was constructed.
Cosalan said these issues have also been the basis of the Ibalois along Agno in mounting a vehement opposition to the San Roque Multi-Purpose dam. That opposition, said Cosalan, has been successful at raising their issues to the attention of the national government.
In an interview before the program, Bokod Mayor Mauricio Macay said there were issues that remain unaddressed since the Ambuklao dam was first built.
He listed the issues as, among others, the uncompensated properties submerged by the dam, the non-relocation of those it displaced, and non-compliance to provisions on employing locals in the power plant.
The same sentiments were shared by residents displaced by the dam. They have many stories and sad experiences and they still cry out for justice.
An 80 year old woman shared in an interview how they had been forced to leave in 1950s their homes in areas where the dam is now located. They managed to bring only what they can salvage and carry from their homes to establish new residences upstream of the Agno River in Bokod.
She narrated that their rice fields at the time were abundant with indigenous rice like kintoman and datakan and other agricultural products, which had been enough for their families’ sustenance.
“After years of lobbying, all we got was P75,000 ($1,750) for seven declarations. Others got nothing as they were not able to declare their lands,” the old woman lamented.
On top of the issues raised by local leaders, the Aboitiz company was urged to prioritize the employment of the locals sidelined by the building of the dam.
The Ambuklao dam project was planned during the time of Pres. Manuel Roxas in 1948. It was constructed under Pres. Elpidio Quirino and inaugurated by Pres. Ramon Magsaysay in 1957.
The displacement of the Ibalois, particularly those directly affected in Ambuklao and Tikey villages called their experiences “historical injustice.”
The dam was operated until it was shut down for technical problems and heavy siltation of its reservoir in the wake of the July 1990 earthquake, according to the SN Aboitez.
A joint venture recently between SN Power of Norway, a renewable energy company investing in emerging markets, and Aboitiz Power, a supposed major producer of clean energy in the Philippines, has invested at least $325-million to rehabilitate Ambuklao dam. It has restarted operations June this year. SNAP also owns Binga dam along the Agno River which it upgraded to 120 MW and Magat dam to 360 MW.
Erik Knive, SN Power EVP for Southeast Asia, promised that their investment for Ambuklao would be “transparent.” He said that they are open, they will listen and they want a better future “in partnership with the community.” He added that they will deliver on their promises to help build a long-term relationship. He said their company wants to prove its sincerity through the partnership.
Emmanuel V. Rubio, SNAP-Benguet President and CEO, said they understand the locals’ ill feelings from 50 years ago. “When the project was awarded to us, there was resistance from the community,” he recalled. He said it had not hindered them s they have the long-term view and vision to work together with the (locals).
But as another Ambuklao-born elderly woman said, “a partnership must be based on the correction of historical injustices that they suffered. “The SNAP has to address these issues,” she said.