In 2020, Jann Alexis Lappas got a call from his parents who told him that they received a sum of P700 pesos to sign documents.
The documents were, according to Lappas’s parents, attendance sheets for a community consultative assembly (CCA) for San Miguel Corporation-owned Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corp.’s Gened dam projects, part of the crucial process to secure free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) permitting big projects in indigenous peoples’ ancestral domains.
This development came as a surprise to Lappas because prior to the incident, as early as 2019, the community had already thumbed down the project’s progression when 300 elders issued their first of many Resolutions of Non-Consent against the dams.
As a response to the developments, Lappas started talking to friends, relatives and community members to get a better grasp on the community’s opinion on the dam projects. However, according to Lappas, majority of the community members he talked to had no idea what was going on.
Lappas and his friends initially started posting about the proceedings on their personal Facebook pages, which led to the matter entering the wider Isnag community’s eye in 2019.
“We made posts on our sentiments about the dam proceedings, and we started getting a lot of messages asking us about what was going on,” Lappas says of the initial reception to the posts.
Lappas recounts that after they started posting about the dam proceedings, they took an inventory of the local community after locals kept asking to be informed of the details of the dam negotiations.
“They were hiding from the community what was going on, so even if you were from there, you would not know about the assemblies,” Lappas said.
The Gened dams
2 dams are proposed by Pan Pacific, both along the Apayao-Abulog River. The 150-megawatt Gened-1 Hydroelectric Power Project (HEPP) and the 250-MW Gened-2 HEPP are planned to be right in Kabugao, the capital of Apayao, while 2 other dams are proposed in Calanasan town, Apayao.
According to a June 2021 FPIC report, if the Gened-1 dam pushes through, will submerge communities in the barangays or villages of Bulu, Magabta, Poblacion, and Waga in Kabugao town, and Lt. Balag in Pudtol town. Some 7,465 out of Kabugao’s 18,782 recorded 2020 population would be affected by this flooding. Another 4,995 in Baliwanan, Kumao,
Lenneng, and Karagawan are projected to be negatively affected by the project.
The dam has extensively been covered by rights groups, non-government organizations, and media, with many irregularities and anomalies reported and documented, but the matter would only start garnering mainstream attention in Kabugao when Lappas and his group of 7 friends used Facebook to get the story out to the locals.
Opposition since has been fierce, in the form of repeated resolutions from the community, declarations of persona non grata for individuals involved in its progress, community assemblies, and even walkouts during consultations.
Taking action online
Lappas and his group of Isnag friends would continue to post updates about the dam negotiations on their personal Facebook pages, but Kabugao Youth would only be formed in December 2020, fresh off of the heels of Typhoon Ulysses.
“The 7 of us did a donation drive online on Facebook for Typhoon Ulysses, which raised P200,000 in only 3 days. Then we started thinking that since there was some anti-dam sentiment from the Magat Dam overflow during Ulysses, we could transition that into the Gened dams,” Lappas said.
Together, the 7 formed the page Kabugao Youth with the intention of making the Kabugao public aware of the Gened dam proceedings in December of 2020.
Initially, the page posted about violations of FPIC guidelines on the page, but public reception showed a more fundamental need for education.
“At first, we were posting about red flags, but we would get so many messages asking why they were red flags. So it became clear that we had to let them know about the proper procedure and why what’s going on is wrong,” Lappas said.
According to Atty. Ryan Solano of RA Cortes Law, one of the lawyers aiding the Isnag community in opposing the dam, their investigations found that the NCIP conducted their FPIC education campaigns and procedures not in the local tongue, leaving the local Isnags who largely speak Isnag severely ill-equipped to participate in the FPIC process.
In order to better capacitate the Isnags, Kabugao Youth transitioned into a more informational role. The page started instead conducting online information and education campaigns (IECs) in Isnag and English on the FPIC process and the NCIP’s guidelines shortly after being established, as early as March of 2021, 3 months after the first posts were made.
“It spread like wildfire. They all got triggered. We called it the Gened pandemic, because it spread that quickly,” says Nitze Laluan, another of the founding members of Kabugao Youth.
According to Laluan, the Isnag community was extremely receptive – and subsequently outraged – spreading from individuals sharing the posts with each other, and family members sharing the posts in their homes to one another.
Social media is a core source of information and connectivity in Kabugao, being comprised of 21 villages and communities, many of which are remote.
While there is Internet connectivity in the larger villages in Kabugao, and each village has a designated spot to access Internet, some communities are so far-flung that treks to reach connectivity take paths through mountainous terrain and can take hours, making information on social media and online news much more valuable to the Isnag locals.
Through Facebook, Kabugao Youth reached out to the community, posting resolutions, documents, and other updates as Pan Pacific’s efforts to push the dam forward, spurring the community into growing opposition.
The page also started documenting the community’s efforts, livestreaming and posting video footage of community assemblies taking place in the town.
As the movement gained traction, the Kabugao Youth network gradually became a frontliner in the struggle to oppose the dam.
However, the members all unanimously refuse to take credit for what they spurred on.
“It’s not possible for us to take credit, because this is and has always been a collaborative effort of the community,” Laluan said.
But despite this, the Isnag community has acknowledged their efforts in bringing the fight to the public.
Madatag village elder Melicia Dicray says of the group: “They were the ones who went to the barangays performing information and education campaigns together with a retired employee from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources… Because of this, people in the barangays understood the effect of the project on their lives and livelihood.”
According to Dicray, due to the Kabugao Youth’s efforts, the elders of the community have entrusted them with the responsibility and right to post updates and inform the community in behalf of the elders.
Despite the FPIC process prescribing guidelines that dictate how it should be conducted, many irregularities have been documented by the Isnag communities of Apayao.
The first CCAs took place years ago in April and September of 2017, then halted without explanation, with guidelines prescribing that inaction for 6 months from the applicant without justifiable reason should be grounds for termination of the FPIC process, but the project suddenly resumed without explanation in 2019.
Affected locals in Pudtol town agreed to the project, but Kabugao issued a Resolution of Non-Consent in February of 2019. But even with this resolution, the NCIP approved Pan Pacific’s motion for reconsideration moving forward, even transporting Kabugao residents to Tuguegarao for a consensus-building session in March of 2019 under the facilitation of Kabugao municipal indigenous peoples mandatory representative (IPMR) John Amid, whereupon the 75 Isnag individuals selected to participate were subjected to a vote for continuation of negotiations that resulted in a majority “yes” to proceed with the process of FPIC.
CCAs are supposed to identify elders to participate in the FPIC process with the input of the community, but not only did the Isnags of Kabugao refuse to select specific representatives to keep the decision-making power in the collective of the community, the Tuguegarao meeting also took place before the NCIP would conduct CCAs in 2021. The meeting would predate even the NCIP’s own acknowledgement of “authorized elders,” issued later in December 2019.
NCIP FPIC guidelines state that no meetings, negotiations, or assemblies related to the FPIC process should be conducted outside of the affected ancestral domain.
At the same time, according to Solano, the NCIP is not supposed to conduct or facilitate activities to directly convince the IP communities of the merits of the projects – the guidelines specifically state that “the ICCs / IPs shall be left alone to agree on their decision-making / consensus building schedules” and “except for NCIP representatives who shall document the proceedings, the applicant and non-members of the IP community are strictly enjoined from participating in the consensus-building activity or interfering in any manner in the decision making process.”
In January 15 of 2021, 300 Kabugao Isnags passed another resolution opposing and banning the proposed hydroelectric power projects, but then-regional director of the NCIP Marlon Bosantog declared the resolution invalid as only 20 of the elders were “authorized” in accordance with a heavily contested December 23, 2019 resolution and proceeded with the issuance of the MOA.
Said December resolution, which named 209 “authorized elders” to negotiate in behalf of the Isnag community, was found by the community, RA Cortes Law, and the NCIP’s own regional review team (RRT), to contain many irregularities including signatures of deceased individuals and duplicated signatures.
In an affidavit executed by 45 Isnag locals with signatures from another 80, they attest to rejecting the dam project in Kabugao thrice, but also that their rejections were not reflected in the FPIC reports.
In April of 2021, the municipality of Kabugao sought a month to review the proposed MOA from Pan Pacific, but according to Lappas, the community never received a MOA before Bosantog and Addog in April 20 of 2021 had the MOA signed between supposed “authorized elders” and Pan Pacific in EKB village, which is not affected by the project.
Many other irregularities have been reported by the elders of Kabugao in their resolutions and legal cases before the Office of the Ombudsman, as well as by Kabugao Youth in their regular postings to the local community.
From online to the ground
Since the Isnag community was not properly equipped to appropriately oppose the dam being pushed by Pan Pacific and the NCIP, Kabugao Youth intensified its IECs.
In May of 2021, Kabugao Youth published the MOA signed by Pan Pacific and the selected elders of the NCIP. This post would end up opening the discussion of the Gened dams and Kabugao’s fight for their ancestral domains to a much wider audience, drawing the attention of rights groups and non-government organizations (NGOs) outside Kabugao, and even outside the country.
The MOA would also generate much more opposition as the Isnag community was exposed to the exact terms of the dam and what they stood to lose, with individuals from the community claiming that they had their signatures and identities forged on the documents.
“Every day after we posted the MOA, there were people coming to our house, asking, ‘Sir, how do we prove that we didn’t sign (the MOA), what can we do, what do we sign?’” Lappas recounts.
After posting the MOA, Kabugao Youth would end up partnering with international NGOs Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI) and Right Energy Partnership With Indigenous Peoples (REPWIP), and local organizations such as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), being invited to represent Kabugao in international conferences on indigenous peoples’ rights as speakers, and in turn received grants to help fund their activities and IECs.
The Kabugao Youth page would also manage to reach out to Kabugao’s Isnags who had moved to other provinces and abroad. Anti-dam overseas Isnags would send donations to support the cause.
In order to better reach the locals, Kabugao Youth started conducting in-person IECs funded out of pocket and the grants received from the NGOs, going on trips to the far-flung communities with copies of official documents and speaking to the locals in person.
“We tried to do it all ourselves, but there are many resources required to reach the farther villages,” says Jillie Basan, another of the initial 7 Kabugao Youth members. More members would eventually join the group, taking part in the IECs and the organization’s efforts on the ground.
While conducting more IECs, the Kabugao Youth became liaisons between the elders and the NCIP, providing assistance in formulating the resolutions of the community, offering administrative assistance, and handling other technical matters that the community of elders are not equipped to handle on their own.
“After 3 years of doing this, in Kabugao, they approach me if there are legal concerns,” Basan says.
Lappas meanwhile has been officially recognized by the Isnag community and assigned as the representative of the youth community of Kabugao.
More tellingly, Kabugao Youth have been allowed to take direct part in community assemblies and speak on behalf of the Isnag community, a space typically dominated by and open only to the older community.
“It is only in Kabugao that the youth are taking the lead,” Basan said.
In order to protect its ancestral domain, the Isnag communities of Kabugao through Kabugao Youth linked up with multiple law offices including RA Cortes Law, Molintas and Partners Law, Donaal and Partners Law, Lidua, Daping and Partners Law, BMW Law, Comafay Law, and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).
Kabugao Youth first connected with Baguio-based RA Cortes Law, their primary legal assistance, through a group chat on Facebook in 2022, says Basan. RA Cortes Law accepted the responsibility of representing the Isnags in court after traveling to Kabugao to speak with the locals first-hand and learn of the opposition and the community.
The various law offices have filed criminal and administrative cases against both the IPMR Amid and NCIP officials including Addog and Bosantog. Charged in these cases were NCIP Cordillera personnel Engr. Benito Bangao, Engr. Kenny Pulog, Fritzie D. Depdepen, Karla Dazzle Marie Mallillin, Agnes Gabuat, Atty. Geoffry Calderon, Genaro Failoga, Jezryl Inopia, and Carter Ayabo.
On August 23 of 2021, the community filed a Motion for Reconsideration (MR) before the NCIP Commission en Banc, asking for the revocation of Pan Pacific’s CP.
In December of 2022, the community filed before the Office of the Ombudsman to charge the respondents with 105 counts each of estafa through falsification of documents, falsification of documents, and use of falsified documents under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines with regard to the forged signatures used to push through with the MOA with Pan Pacific.
On January 16, 2023, the Isnags through RA Cortes Law, filed before the Office of the Ombudsman to administratively charge the respondents Amid, Addog, Bosantog and the other NCIP personnel for violations of Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), the NCIP Administrative Order 3 Series of 2012 which prescribes FPIC guidelines, and acts under the Anti Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, with a prayer for preventive suspension of the respondents.
At the same time, also in January, the community through its legal channels filed for another 54 counts each of estafa, falsification of documents, and use of falsified documents under the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines.
On May 18, RA Cortes Law also filed an electoral protest in behalf of the Isnag community and Isnag elder Roland Apilit to nullify the election of Amid as IPMR for Kabugao, Apayao citing irregularities in the IPMR selection and the approval of IPMR selection guidelines without the approval and knowledge of the Isnag communities.
“It’s not about whether they want the dam or not and they don’t. There is a process and there are irregularities in how they did it, to the disadvantage of the IPs that they are supposed to protect,” Solano said.
Throughout 2021 and 2022, Kabugao Youth also conducted both an online and offline signature campaign to show that the opposition to the Gened dams are legitimate. The online campaign gathered some 2,500 signatures, while the offline signature campaign saw some 7,000 signatures gathered out of Kabugao’s population of roughly 18,000.
The signatures were sent in letters and petitions asking for support opposing the dam to members of the Senate and the Office of the President during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s term in 2022, but according to Lappas, only one senator responded and the Office of the President did not respond.
Controlling the conversation online
Basan, who in addition to serving as legal liaison also utilizes her experience as a former public relations agent prior to returning to the country to join the fight for Kabugao, cited the page’s approach to the narrative as instrumental in the success that the page has achieved over the past three years in directing the conversation about the dams.
“The framing has been important. We started by showing them the red flags, and the reaction has been the reciprocation of what we were pushing, which is the ‘no to dam’ sentiment,” Basan said.
Lappas admits that the community is not unanimously anti-dam. A small portion of the community is pro-dam, and initially, were running a similar Facebook page called Abante Apayao apparently with the purpose of swaying the locals into accepting the project, but said page is no longer active.
But Kabugao Youth’s strategy took advantage of pro-dam sentiment. “We only moderate away comments that are offensive like red-tagging, but comments that are pro-dam, we do not remove them. This made other members of the community see the comments, engage with them in discussions, and drive up engagement for the page,” Lappas said.
The page also utilized both English and Isnag in its posts to ensure that posts were understandable by the local community, but still accessible for the outside public that the page drew in, especially starting in 2021.
“At that time, the issue was isolated to Kabugao only. We tried to bring out the issue to the wider public, and in 2021, the traffic started coming in, the outside eyes came in, the media and other organizations started showing attention to the issue and started reaching out to us and the community to cover,” Basan said.
As a result of the Kabugao Youth’s efforts in the social media sphere, the online conversation on Facebook and the coverage of search engines for the dams are largely on the opposition’s side.
However, the NCIP Cordillera continues to push forward with the project.
According to the NCIP on multiple occasions, the FPIC has been provided, allowing for the issuance of a certification precondition (CP), thus allowing Pan Pacific to continue with the project even through opposition.
As for the opposition of the Isnag community, the NCIP claims opposition is part of the agenda of the communist left.
On multiple occasions, the NCIP issued statements downplaying the opposition to the project as activity of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army – National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).
One such occasion was in August of 2021, where an NCIP statement said “some front organizations of the communist terrorist groups, the CPP-NPA-NDF” were intervening in the FPIC process. The CPP-NPA-NDF were the cause of the opposition, according to the statement. Said statement, entitled “The Truth about Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corporation, was published on the NCIP’s Facebook page.
“They testified how they were intimidated and threatened by some sectors and how their voices are being stifled by some front organizations of the Communist Terrorist Groups (CTGs), the CPP-NPA-NDF. They affirmed in the open the authority of their elders to negotiate for and in behalf of their AD (ancestral domain),” the August statement reads, citing some unnamed elders of the Isnag community that were supposedly given authority to negotiate in behalf of the community, though the document that gives said authority has been found to be rife with irregularities, even by the NCIP’s own review teams.
Half a year later, the NCIP in February of 2022 issued another statement on both its Facebook page and the official NCIP website, again downplaying the opposition to the Gened dam project, stating that only authorized elders were present during the consensus building and decision-making, during which only three of the elders named in the contested 2019 resolution voted against the project. Said statement was also published on the Baguio Chronicle website as a paid release.
NCIP Chairman Allen Capuyan is the executive director of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), while NCIP Regional Director Marlon Bosantog is the former spokesperson.
“That was not the first time those opposing the dam project were red-tagged,” said Lappas. “We just laugh about it now because it’s happened so much. But the community knows us, they know we are not communists, and our lifestyles are so different from that.”
Solano of RA Cortes Law affirms that accusations of links with the communist left are common for the opposition of the project.
“We are being called lawyers for the NPA,” Solano said.
The NCIP has also constantly continued to push for the dam despite reported irregularities, multiple resolutions from the community opposing the project, protests, and legal cases.
In December 2019, a resolution was recognized by the NCIP naming 209 individuals as “authorized elders” of Kabugao, authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Kabugao Isnag communities with regards to the proposed damming project of San Miguel Corp.-owned and controlled Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corp.
However, when shown the resolution with their signatures, community elders denied having any knowledge of signing such a document.
According to Kabugao elders Angelo Umingli and Warling Maludon, Kabugao Youth, and the lawyers aiding the Isnags, the resolution never went through the community and was instead attached with the signatures taken from other documents.
Solano said that the document, which became the basis for a memorandum of agreement (MOA) and CP, which indicates the provision of FPIC required for Pan Pacific to proceed with its damming projects, was rife with irregularities.
The resolution itself includes “signatures” that are simple initials, repeat entries, and signatures of the dead.
“We suspected that the documents were forged, and we confirmed it in fieldwork. We went back to the locals, and asked them, and 40, 50 of them that supposedly signed said they never saw the document,” Solano said.
The NCIP’s own Regional Review Team (RRT), similar to Solano and Kabugao Youth’s findings, also found that the December 2019 resolution was fraught with irregularities, but the RRT members were subsequently reassigned to other posts and the document continued to be the basis of an issued CP.
In order to proceed with the issuance of the MOA and the CP, NCIP higher-ups including Regional Director Atanacio Addog held efforts to advance the damming process using the forged documents with the individuals named as authorized elders in the December 2019 resolution instead of redoing the process amid staunch opposition from the local Isnag communities in Kabugao.
“Evidently, the FPIC team headed by NCIP Apayao Provincial Legal Officer Geoffrey Calderon and the subsequent FPIC Team headed by Atty. Atanacio Addog did not really review the documents, and were trying to downplay the falsified Community Resolutions,” the joint affidavit cum complaint of the Isnag community against the NCIP reads.
“They certified all documents for their FPIC reports to be true and correct, when they knew and were very much aware that the Community Resolutions dated December 23, 2019 were all falsified,” it adds.
Over 30 elders from Kabugao executed affidavits confirming that they did not sign the documents, even as falsified signatures bearing their names are present in the document.
The NCIP’s efforts to push for the dam have only continued since, with the commission striking down resolution after resolution of the Isnag community seeking to stop the dam.
As recently as June 5, in a recent development in the matter, NCIP Commissioners Allen Capuyan and Gaspar Cayat, who the community through Basan filed a motion to inhibit against in the appeal to revoke CP, refused to inhibit.
Addog is persona non grata in Kabugao for his involvement in the progression of the Gened dams.
No choice, no pause
While Lappas admits that being active in the fight to protect the Isnag ancestral domains takes a toll, especially against the seemingly unstoppable machine of the NCIP and Pan Pacific, he says they have no choice but to keep going.
Kabugao elders share the sentiment, writing their desire to keep the waters clean: “(We) would rather let the Apayao River flow freely and the same be inherited by the youth and those Isnag of Apayao yet unborn rather for their enjoyment and appreciation, rather to pass on an ancestral domain buried beneath a reservoir coupled with kilometers-stretched on filth brought by siltation and sedimentation.”
The seven legal groups aiding the Isnags have in a similar fashion declared their willingness to keep fighting.
In a joint statement, they wrote: “We are ready and will not hesitate to exercise necessary legal actions to stop such appalling and tactless moves to curtail the rule of law. We challenge these despicable people to walk the talk and file the case, if any. We are more than willing to face you in the proper forum. Bring it on!”
For Kabugao Youth, the fight will not stop. As a central member of the Isnag community opposing the Gened dams, they do not have the luxury of giving up.
“When we post on our personal pages about being exhausted and giving up, the community messages us, asks us what’s going on. They look to us to keep the fight going,” Lappas said.
“Pan Pacific has 8 projects in the pipeline. Once you allow one, they will come one after the other. We have no choice,” Basan said.
According to Lappas, the next generation of Isnags has to be part of the fight against the project.
“We saw the need to capacitate the community, because this is not the last matter like this that they will face. What will happen when Kabugao Youth is gone? Someone has to take over,” he said.
Even against the constant advance of NCIP and Pan Pacific despite the community’s best efforts, the community will not yield.
“We had a Zoom call when the MOA was first released. We just started crying on Zoom, and then we said, ‘let’s go fight’,” Lappas said.
This article was written as part of the 2023 Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship under Rappler.