Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 2, Number 26              August 4-10,  2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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Dam To Bury Pangasinan’s ‘Little Paradise’ This August

Pangasinan villagers and Ibaloi communities brace for the day when water impounding starts at the controversial San Roque Dam project in remote and bucolic San Manuel, Pangasinan. Bolangit, among other villages, will be buried under water this month but bigger catastrophes loom as the project is being rushed on government orders.

By Audrey Mary Beltran


BAGUIO CITY - Sitio Bolangit used to be Pangasinan province’s “little paradise” in the town of San Manuel north of Manila. It was inhabited by some 84 families who farmed the sub-village’s verdant and fertile valley while panning for gold along the historic Agno River.

Before this month ends, Bolangit will just be a memory.

This August, the water impounding of the controversial San Roque Multi-Purpose Dam Project (SRMPDP) will take place. This engineering activity is supposed to pave the way for the operation of the dam which, on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s orders, will begin next year. The impounding will submerge the whole of Bolangit and nearby villages.  

Already last July 30, the remaining 10 houses in Bolangit were demolished and burned by personnel of the AB Garcia Construction Company on orders of the National Power Corporation (NPC). The demolition was secured by Armed Forces soldiers armed with M-16s and M-203s, latest reports said.

In the demolition, 20 individuals from four families were evicted. Two families self-relocated, one of them going as far away as Nueva Vizcaya. The other household decided to stay "to defend their right to gold-panning" - one of the main livelihood sources in the village. They built a shack that will temporarily shelter them from strong rains and other elements.

Meanwhile, men in the village have defied the ban against gold panning in the area and continue to pan for gold in the Agno. 

Floodwaters in Bolangit were knee-deep when the July 30 demolition was conducted. The flooding was caused by water diversion from the Agno River courtesy of the cofferdam built to block the river flow from the construction site.

The July 30 demolition climaxed the NPC’s plan to force the villagers out of Bolangit and other sitios. Last Dec. 2, accounts said, two houses were burned and another last Feb. 1. Five troughs (gold panning equipment) were also burned to prevent gold panning.


In a visit to the area last March 21-22, members of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), the Tignayan ti Mannalon a Mangwayawaya ti Agno (TIMMAWA - Peasant Alliance to Free the Agno) along with Japanese anti-dam advocates saw the denuded state of Bolangit due to the clearing operations.  Tree stumps and dried branches remained what used to be full-grown trees.

Bolangit and other neighboring sitios comprise the main site of the 1,600- hectare San Roque Dam reservoir which extends to the southern foothills of Benguet province. When inundated by the dam’s operation, the villages along with their ricefields and gold-panning areas are expected to store some 850 million cubic meters for power generation, irrigation and flood control.  Some 530 million cubic meters are reserved for active storage and flood control purposes.  The dead storage volume totals 320 million cubic meters.  According to an SMPDP information kit, the total storage volume of the reservoir is nearly one billion cubic meters.

Bolangit used to be home to tenant farmers who grew three crops of rice a year and harvested 30-50 cavans per household every cropping season.  They gave 1/2 to 2/3 of their produce to their landlords depending on who shouldered the cost of production inputs. 

With no surplus rice to sell, the people turned to gold panning along the Agno River for cash.  During dry season, gold production ranged from 2.0 to 3.0 grams per day.  When rains fell, production increased to 7.0 grams per panner each day. One gram fetched P240- P280 in the market. 

Gold panning enabled the villagers to buy some of their basic needs, send their children to school and access basic health services. 

Life was hard but at least the people of Bolangit and other villages could eat three meals a day.  SMPDP changed all that.

Dam project

Two years ago, NPC officials had residents of Bolangit and other villages relocated to the Lagpan resettlement site.  Small sub-standard houses that were hastily built showed cracks on the walls on the first days of their relocation, villagers said. To entice them to stay, those who resettled were initially paid part of the compensation package promised by the NPC.

But other villagers defied the NPC orders and the ban on gold-panning especially after learning that life was harsh at the resettlement site.

Such grievance would be heard from Juanita Carolino of Muging, a neighboring sitio of Bolangit. She told members of a fact-finding mission last October 2000: "We've had a hard life. But it was better when we lived on the riverside.  Whenever we ran out of rice, all we had to do was pan the river's waters for gold.  Here, we have to rely on odd jobs for cash."

Villagers told the mission that NPC officials failed to deliver promises made to the people in exchange for their relocation. Left with no more land to till and banned from gold-panning, the villagers have no livelihood projects in order to make ends meet.

Officials promised employment but only a handful of those relocated were hired by the San Roque Power Corporation (SRPC). It also took long for the people to be compensated for the land and homes they had lost. 

Today, the displaced villagers particularly the gold panners continue to demand for livelihood and compensation.  Based on the “Summary of Presentations and Demands of Affected Communities of the San Roque Dam Project,” compensation should also take the form of an agricultural land of the same size and regular employment should be given to those who have lost their source of livelihood.

In the June 22 dialogue, gold panners from the area reminded SRPC officials and Renato Diaz, presidential assistant for Northern Luzon, that their demands for compensation have not been met.  Each gold panner asked P171, 000 for income lost for the three years (1999-2001) that they were banned from gold panning.  They also demanded that the ban on gold panning be scrapped.

Meanwhile, the completion of the dam and other structures is being rushed for the project’s operation next year. The operation of the dam will definitely push through despite a recent report by Finance Secretary Isidro Camacho indicating that the project contract is onerous.

And there are dire predictions that the dam could bring an untold holocaust to the villagers and nearby towns in Benguet and Pangasinan. In order to meet Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo’s deadline, the completion of the project has to be rushed prompting its engineers and contractors to revise the design that could lead to untold catastrophes.

The struggle rages

The call to stop the SRMPDP continues and the immediate measures being asked of government and of its private contractors is to stop the water impounding this month. But government has made sure all plans won’t meet any more resistance by deploying, according to reports, a battalion of troops in the area.

The dam project, said CPA chair Joan Carling recently, will lead to the loss of livelihood not just of the gold panners of Bolangit but of thousands of other peasants and other people who are bound to lose their land and other property with the “destructive environmental effects foreseen in the technical studies conducted in the past." 

Once the San Roque dam reservoir starts to be filled up with more silt than water, Carling warned, its gates will have to be opened every time torrential rains occur. Citing technical studies, probable maximum flood rate is 12,800 cubic meters per second, she said. 

“At least 1,250 square kilometers of land in Central Luzon will be inundated,” the CPA chair added. “More than a million people will suffer."

Instead of flood control, the dam will heighten the risk of "catastrophic flood events," Carling said. Mismanagement of the dam's gates during emergency, seismic activities and a major breach in the dam's structure may result in the flooding of the entire Agno drainage area. The area includes more than half of Pangasinan as well as parts of Tarlac and Nueva Ecija.

In the upstream, the threat of siltation and flooding also looms. The technical studies also reveal that waters of the dam reservoir will engulf not only gold panning and fishing sites, pastures, orchards and ricefields but also the lands and other livelihood resources of about 2,000 Ibaloy peasant families when sediment-control check dams begin operating at several points along the Agno and its tributaries.

Issues of  food security and debt payment have also been raised.  Food security will be brought to dangerous levels in Central Luzon due to the land loss and floods.  Debt payment, on the other hand, will further burden the people due to the reportedly onerous Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) between the NPC and SRPC signed last 1997. In a statement, the Alyansa Dagiti Pesante iti taeng-Kordilyera  (Apit-Tako or Alliance of Peasants in the Cordillera Homeland), said  the agreement will increase electricity rates once the San Roque Dam is commissioned.  Bulatlat.com

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