Confident about ‘confidential’ deal?

Ahead of contract, San Miguel starts
to court Laiban residents

SAN ANDRES, Tanay, Rizal – We were wondering why Sofia de la Rosa seemed a little agitated with our presence. After all, it’s not every day that visitors bother to come to this remote barangay nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre range.

In the course of our conversation, the barangay captain of San Andres also kept telling us that her people will not leave this village unless they are paid proper compensation by San Miguel.

Then it hit us. Kapitana Sofia, we said, we are not from San Miguel. Media po kami.

Ay, akala ko San Miguel kayo, she apologized, and the room seemed to brighten just a little bit more.

The kapitana’s apparent hostility toward a name we normally associate with malted barley and hops and happy hour stems from the fact that San Miguel Bulk Water Company, a subsidiary of food-beverage giant San Miguel Corporation, has submitted an unsolicited bid to undertake a joint-venture project with the Metropolitan Waterworks Sewerage System (MWSS) to build the Laiban dam here in Tanay, Rizal.

The Arroyo government recently revived plans to build the 113 meter-high dam at the fork where the Limutan and Lenatin rivers merge into the Kaliwa River, which then merges with the Kanan River before roaring off to the Pacific. That means that after almost three decades of having their fates on hold, residents of San Andres and seven other barangays in Tanay and Quezon are again faced with the prospect of eviction.

The dam was conceptualized in the late ’70s to provide Metro Manila with an additional 1.9 billion liters of water a day and generate some 25 megawatts of electricity. But according to opponents of the dam project, some 10,000 residents will be displaced when the proposed dam submerges the barangays of Laiban, San Andres, Sto. Nino, Sta. Ines, Mamuyao, Tinucan, and Cayabo in Tanay, and Barangay Limutan in Quezon.

Many of these residents are members of the indigenous Dumagat and Remontado, who consider this watershed as part of their ancestral lands and have lived in these parts for centuries. In fact, the kapitana herself is half Remontado, but that may not keep her safe from eviction. According to the kapitana, village chiefs of the affected barangays have already been meeting with representatives of San Miguel Bulk Water.

Last week, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism revealed how unusual secrecy and haste mark the MWSS’s tender for the P52-billion project.

Rival bidders were given only five days to submit counter-offers to San Miguel Bulk Water’s bid. But San Miguel already seems so unusually far ahead in the race to win the dam bid.

It is not clear how far the talks with officials of affected barangays have progressed. At the same time, even before any potential rival in the bid could buy bid documents, San Miguel also seems to have been already dealing directly with the residents.

A staffmember of a division of San Miguel Bulk Water confirmed this to PCIJ recently. The staffer, who asked not to be named, said that representatives from the company have been engaged in talks with the affected residents this year. In fact, the staffer said, the talks may have begun as early as last year. The staffer, however, refused to reveal what was on the table for discussion or how far the talks have gone.

The MWSS, meanwhile, has taken a more low-key role. The kapitana said that MWSS representatives are afraid to come to their barangays for fear that angry residents would take things into their own hands.

And coming to these remote barangays is no easy feat – not for visitors, not even for residents. To get to the more accessible barangays like San Andres, one has to drive down steep, slippery roads that probably disappear with the first hint of rain. The community sprawls out from the barangay center, marked by a large multipurpose hall and an elementary school building. The rest of the structures in the barangay look like they just grew out of the ground.

The Lematin River forms the western arm of the proposed Laiban Dam watershed and reservoir. This river supports seven of the eight barangays that will be submerged when the dam project finally pushes through.

And that’s San Andres, the barangay that’s easy to reach. The most populated barangay is Laiban, with at least 2,000 residents. To reach it, one has to ride a monster jeepney that crams people inside and on the roof, before lumbering gingerly down a slide of a mountainside and navigating through rivers and creeks like a water buffalo.

That one monster jeepney plies the route to the Tanay town proper only three times a week. The rest of the week one is stuck in or out of Laiban. It’s that kind of a barangay.

Opposition to the dam has apparently been pretty effective, at least up to this point. After almost three decades in the making, the dam project has left behind a trail of false starts. A set of massive water diversion tunnels has already been built from Barangay Laiban to nearby Barangay Daraitan. Also, some of the original residents have already been given compensation in the 1980s, according to Tanay Development Officer Adorable Sunga.

The problem, Sunga said, is that when the project was shelved, many of those who accepted the money did not leave the area, and instead grew deeper roots and created even larger families. Also, new families have settled in the watershed area in the last 30 years or so. The government expected to resettle 4,000 people in the 1980s; today, that figure has climbed to 10,000, all of whom now have to be paid and resettled.

The kapitana admitted that many residents had already been paid, some with 40 percent, others with 100 percent. No one seems to know just how much money people here were given by previous administrations. But the kapitana said this project with San Miguel will be a new deal altogether, with a new generation of claimants to consider. She didn’t say exactly how much the residents are asking in total, but said that the figure would run up to the billions.

Compensation certainly appears to be a prime concern in this barangay, at least among the local barangay officials. The kapitana said the village chiefs have already passed a resolution pegging compensation for displaced families at P3 million to P5 million each.

Village officials have also been rather loudly asking that they be given additional money by the project proponents for their troubles in reaching out and informing people about the revived dam project. Making like a walking calculator, the kapitana said that perhaps another P200,000 per barangay would do.

But then she mentioned that there are residents, especially the older ones, who would rather be buried here than be moved out. Ancestral roots are deep, and while some roots can be dug out for the right amount, other roots would rather die in place.

Curiously, part of the reason why the watershed area is so undeveloped may also have to do with the fact that the project has been perpetually in suspended animation.

Sunga noted that the dam project has hung over these eight barangays like a sword of Damocles for close to two generations. Since local businessmen and politicians know that these barangays may end up going underwater if government insists on pushing the dam project, no one is willing to pour much money into developing these areas. Schools built for children may just end up being inhabited by schools of fish.

The kapitana herself said that she was only 12 years old when residents of San Andres were told they were being moved out to make way for the dam. There was a lot of bitterness at that time among the local residents and the tribes, but it was bitterness tempered by the reality that the government would get its way in the end.

Now 42, the kapitana said that she would have no problem moving out, even though her father is a Remontado; she has another house in the upper portions of Tanay, where she can resettle.

But resettlement for the thousands of other residents may be a big headache that no one has yet factored into the equation.

When the project was conceived in the late ‘70s, the government went as far as to identify a resettlement site in San Ysiro, Antipolo. Sunga, however, pointed out that it’s been so long since the project was conceived that the resettlement site for the Laiban Dam evacuees has already been filled up with people from other communities.

In other words, the dam has a ready home, but the people it will displace do not. – PCIJ, July 2009