Groups protest ‘risky’ mass gathering for Kaliwa dam project amid pandemic
LUCENA CITY — Tribe leaders and an environmentalist group protested the mass gathering initiated by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in General Nakar town, Quezon province, to expedite the construction of the controversial P12.2 billion Kaliwa Dam in the Sierra Madre mountain ranges.
“The province is under Alert Level 3. The mass gathering of tribesmen could possibly spread COVID-19 and endangers the safety of tribal communities,” Ramcy Astoveza, Agta tribe chieftain, said in a phone interview Thursday (Jan. 27) morning.
Dumagat tribe leader Marcelino Tena echoed the same concern.
“Most tribesmen were still unvaccinated due to anxiety and cultural reasons. Mass gatherings in the lowland are a serious risk for the whole tribe,” Tena said in another phone interview on Wednesday.
Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), an environmental activist group, called for an immediate investigation into the move by the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the NCIP to secure the Kaliwa Dam Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) from the affected communities.
“This last-minute railroading…is a hallmark of the Duterte regime’s pro-China, pro-big business fiesta while we have been suffering the COVID pandemic,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, in a statement.
Astoveza said the NCIP-initiated meeting and consultation from Jan. 26 to 29 are being held in a public school in General Nakar.
“The local government required all attendees to submit to antigen tests. No test, no entry,” Astoveza said.
He said he did not submit himself to the test along with 30 others.
Astoveza argued that the event is not the right forum to discuss the dam project.
“We’re still in the midst of the pandemic. Our main focus should still be the safety of everyone and not in any mass gatherings,” he insisted.
He also expressed fear that some of the attendees might be carriers of the virus once they return home.
“Yes, they tested negative before their entry to the event. But what about after? With this Omicron variant, the lowland is a risky place for us compared to the safety of the Sierra Madre,” Astoveza said.
Astoveza, a former NCIP commissioner, said he had already brought the matter to the attention of the agency officials.
General Nakar Mayor Eliseo Rosul Sr. explained that the compulsory antigen test is required by the national, provincial and local inter-agency task force against COVID-19.
“As a matter of fact, no outsiders can enter our town without a negative antigen test result. We’re just protecting the safety of our community,” Rosul stressed in a phone interview Thursday.
He said out of some 100 tribesmen who underwent antigen tests to attend the event, “one of them tested positive [for COVID-19]”.
“The health authorities immediately brought the patient to our isolation facility. Contact tracing in the tribal community is now ongoing,” the mayor said.
As of Wednesday, General Nakar town has four active COVID-19 cases. One of the patients was placed at the local government isolation facility and the three remain under home quarantine.
Rosul further explained that mass gathering is not prohibited per se under the stringent Alert Level 3.
He said some gatherings are allowed but only up to 50-percent capacity.
“The attendees are divided into two groups. And we are strictly monitoring that all are observing safety protocols – wearing face masks and safe distancing,” he said.
But Astoveza scoffed at the attendees.
“They are not the one directly affected by the dam project. Their communities will not submerge once the dam operates. Their attendance was motivated by other reasons,” he said without elaborating.
Astoveza said their group would remain outside the venue to conduct a peaceful protest.
The MWSS has long been pushing for constructing the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project (NCWS KDP) to address a projected water crisis in Metro Manila.
The project is funded by China’s Official Development Assistance to the Philippines.
Environmental groups, religious, militant groups, and concerned local government officials in northern Quezon have been waging a campaign to stop the dam project.
The tribal communities have yet to issue their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for the project.
Under the law, the government can only start infrastructure projects on ancestral lands if it has secured the FPIC certificate from the title-holders.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.