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Trying to Balance Indigenous Rights and Growth

Written by Matthew Fehse
April 22, 2014

In energy production, much of the Western world has a bevy of options before them which has allowed a growing trend towards renewable energy.  In the Philippines, however, non-renewable sources like coal are significant.  Providing 27% of the nation's energy production, coal is the cheapest source of power available and is an essential component to the nation's development as most structures here are built of reinforced concrete.  20% of the country's coal supply was purchased by the concrete industry.

With the benefits of being an inexpensive resource helping an emerging nation blossom, it also carries tremendous costs.  Coal is devastating to the environment and the mines destroy mountain ranges and threaten water sources which are indispensable to rural communities that are largely agricultural.  Of the overall development plans of the government to increase mining production of the various resources the Philippines has to offer, coal is expected to lead the growth. 

This isn't without debate as there's a strong push from within the government and civil society, particularly churches, for renewable energy development.  Heherson Alvarez, who heads the Philippine Climate Change Commission, has long warned about the potentially adverse effects of the continued reliance on fossil fuels which unfairly receive market advantages through subsidies provided by the government.  While attending the 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit in New Delhi, India, he said, “technology and financial barriers to access alternative energy resources could be overcome through sustained efforts, with appropriate incentives, and with determined policy changes towards low carbon strategies in power generation.”

While this comes off as sound policy, it largely ignores the people historically neglected and most immediately affected by environmental policy: the indigenous people residing in rural communities throughout the Philippines.  Initiatives pushing for renewable energy development have the unintended consequence of harming these communities.  Taking a recent trip up north to Sagada in Mountain Province, I met with a friend of mine doing research on the opposition to renewable energies in these communities who share the largest potential of being affected by their development.

In her research, she revealed community concerns about the development of wind farms atop mountain ridges.  These ridges surround crops below and these wind farms increase the risk of landslides, vibrations scaring cattle affecting pastures, and causing erosion on terrace plots.  One of the larger projects involves a geothermal power plant, but again there's speculation about how this would affect the watershed.  If any adverse effects damaged this watershed, it would cripple the agriculture industry, which is the second largest industry just below tourism in the area.  Other threats to the environment include the threat of illegal logging as access roads that are laid to construct these projects will allow outsiders into areas within the land without supervision. 

Beyond these threats to the environment from renewable sources, there's also a threat to the liberty of these communities in self-determination of how their society is developed.  The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples is responsible in overseeing that any project development that occurs in ancestral domains of the tribes in the Philippines follows the guidelines stipulated in a process called FPIC: Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.  The FPIC requires that firms looking to establish a project must have all costs and benefits revealed to the community, members to be allowed to vote on approving or refusing the project, and that this process be followed in a manner free of coercion.

Seldom can something be pursued without potential consequences.  While there exist very fair and reasonable law within the country, its implementation is often poor.  Indigenous people and their lands, who have suffered historically with under-representation, often pay the price for the standards of living in metropolises in-country and abroad.  While well-intentioned, advocating and investing in sources of energy which are conventionally safer for the environment must be accompanied with speculation of ulterior effects: both on the health of the environment and the rights of the community.

Special thanks to Jenna Pollock for information regarding communities in Sagada, Mt. Province.

Matthew Fehse serves as a Global Mission Intern with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.

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