- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

SAN MANUEL, Philippines — Towering over Luzon island about 125 miles north of Manila, a huge dam run by U.S. and Japanese companies began commercial operation three weeks ago despite purported law infractions and vehement opposition from residents of the area, indigenous peoples and environmentalists.

As the San Roque Dam on the lower Agno River in Pangasinan province began generating electricity, its foes vented anger and frustration, saying the project had ruined people’s lives and the local environment.

“Stop the San Roque Dam and let the Agno River flow,” said Jose “Apo” Doton, leader of the Peasant Alliance to Free the Agno, whose members say they were not informed or consulted about the $1.19 billion project.

The earth- and rock-fill dam, about 3,600 feet long and 650 feet high, can generate 345 megawatts. It is operated by the San Roque Power Corp. (SRPC), a private consortium including New York-based Sithe Energies Inc. and two Japanese companies — Marubeni, a major trading house, and Kansai Electric Co. Another U.S. firm, Raytheon Corp., also won a $700 million subcontract in 1998.

The National Power Corp. (NPC), a Philippine state-run entity, has agreed to pay the SRPC $7 million to $10 million per month for about 85 megawatts of electricity in the first 12 years. In addition, it paid $400 million in construction costs, an NPC official said.

Critics say the cost is hugely inflated. Wayne C. White of Acton, Mass.-based Foresight Associates, who reviewed the Power Purchase Agreement for the project, said the NPC has to pay even when power is not generated. But the NPC official denied this.

“SRPC has everything to gain and nothing to lose,” said Joan Carling, chairman of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), a federation of indigenous peoples’ organizations in northern Luzon.

Asked about criticism of the contract, an SRPC official who is not Filipino said: “I would have to tell them, ‘That’s none of your business at all’” because the parties concerned had agreed on it.

Critics say it is their business because the Philippine public will be footing the bill. Foreign debt payments ate up 37.7 percent of the country’s 2002 national budget.

“This agreement is a clear example of how foreign investors in the Philippines are assured of megaprofits, while the Filipino people are burdened with the economic, social and environmental costs,” Mrs. Carling said.

The SRPC official said the new electricity-generating dam also can contribute to irrigation systems, improve water quality and prevent or moderate flooding in the region.

“Considering possible losses caused by major floods, [the dam] is not that expensive at all,” he said before its May 29 inauguration.

That also was the day the region experienced typhoon-fed flooding — the worst in living memory in some areas, residents say.

When the Ambuclao and the Binga Dams were constructed upstream on the Agno in 1956 and 1960, respectively, indigenous Ibaloy people living in the region were told the structures could protect their communities from floods. However, the Binga Dam could not hold the water during the rainy season and released it, washing away thousands of acres of rice fields and homes.

About 4,400 people were uprooted from their homes during construction of the San Roque Dam. Most were tenants, who had no choice when landowners gave them eviction orders, say opponents of the dam. NPC officials told the residents to sign the documents written in English, which they couldn’t read, “for your own good,” the critics said.

NPC officials pledged that displaced residents would get free land, water, electricity and housing, and offered 2,000 jobs, but the promises were not fulfilled, the opponents say.

Moreover, they say, the villagers used to fish and pan for gold on the Agno, earning about $20 per day, but with the dam finished, their income has dwindled to less than $2 a day.

The NPC and the SRPC are supposed to offer displaced residents job-training programs, but these have been ineffective, the opposition says.

Some poor residents were so desperate that they would sneak into the dam-construction compound to steal scrap metal, worth $3 per pound. One was fatally shot by a security guard.

“Our life here is much worse,” says Carmen Borja, a displaced resident. In the past, “we could survive on the Agno alone.” Mrs. Borja, whose husband died early last month, has been relocated several times since the start of the project, and now six of her family live in a decrepit hut near the dam.

Critics of the dam said the project has violated the country’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, which requires the free and informed consent of native people for projects that affect their ancestral domains. It also has infringed on the Local Government Code, they added.

Despite the rural struggle, the dam is now in operation. Many blame the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), which funded the project despite unresolved problems and the purported violation of its own environmental guidelines. JBIC insists its guidelines were not violated.

“The project would not have gone ahead without JBIC’s support. But when the project is built, they walk away saying, ‘It’s not our problem anymore,’” said Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network (IRN), an advocacy group.

“JBIC has no mechanism for independently monitoring this or any other project, and just accepts what the Philippine government, NPC and SRPC tell them,” she said. “This is simply unacceptable, given JBIC’s role in funding destructive projects around the world.”

The San Roque Dam is one of several disputed JBIC-funded projects, says “Development Disasters,” a document published by Rivers Watch East and Southeast Asia, Friends of the Earth Japan and IRN. It says that “JBIC funding destroys people’s life and environment.”

The San Roque project faced strong resistance as early as the 1970s and was shelved for years. It was revived under President Fidel V. Ramos, who served from 1992 to 1998, and was undertaken formally in 1997 at the end of his term. He is from the Pangasinan province, where the dam was built.

Mrs. Carling said that President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo conceded in a meeting with her that the San Roque Dam was not a good project, but added that she couldn’t withdraw it because it had been signed by the previous administration.

Critics of the dam, meanwhile, say they have been called “terrorists” and “rebels” by local officials. They also say military and police officials have tried to pressure the opposition. Some leaders against the dam said their houses were encircled by the military on several occasions. Also, in July, some residents were evicted and their houses were burned by “agents of the SRPC and NPC,” the critics said.

Raymond Cunningham, senior vice president of the SRPC, and JBIC have denied any knowledge of the incident. Critics say such harassment had been covered by reporters, but that the companies had failed to investigate.

Asked why they think the JBIC-funded project has generated so much opposition, a JBIC official responded: “To be honest, we don’t know,” though they say JBIC has sought to understand its critics through a series of dialogues.

But Mr. Cunningham ascribes the opposition to bad memories about the two older dams on the upper Agno and “extremely well-funded” groups such as IRN and Friends of the Earth that, he said, pump “tons of money” to generate opposition.

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