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Electricity that does not destroy the environment

[SECOND OF TWO PARTS]

A special report by Raymund B. Villanueva

UPPER Katablangan in Conner, Apayao province enjoys 20 years of nearly uninterrupted power supply from the community’s micro-hydro project this year. This remote community located 20 kilometers from its nearest neighboring barangay could be reached with an eight-hour trek up a perilous foot trail when it is rainy or two hours on expertly-driven motorcycles when the road is dry enough. It is one of the first barangays in Abra, Kalinga and Apayao provinces to build a micro-hydro power plant for electricity, a vital service often taken for granted in lowland communities.

READ PART 1: From bodong to electricity (A remote Isneg community enjoys 2 decades of renewable energy)

Building a micro-hydro power project—it took the indigenous Isnegs of Katablangan six long years—is one thing, keeping it dependably running is another however. Maintaining a 7.5kw power plant where destructive typhoons often wreak havoc on lives and property, where replacement parts are hard to purchase and deliver, and where engineers of the Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT, their project partner) usually takes weeks to reach for repairs is hard. When these happen, these are the times that Katablangan reverts to dark nights, save for good old-fashioned kerosene lamps.

Upper Katablangan folk installing upgrade parts at their micro-hydro power station. (Photo by Engr. Jaymart Erasquin/Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya)

SIBAT engineer Jaymart Erasquin said Katablangan was among their partner communities that followed their maintenance recommendations faithfully. “Their dam is cleaned regularly to prevent twigs and leaves from clogging the pipes that supply the water to the power station. If twigs and leaves keep going into the equipment, the blades may be damaged earlier. The station’s location close to the household also allows them to immediately shut the machines down if trouble arises,” Erasquin explained.

“We try our best to keep the equipment in good condition.  The children do not like power outages while we watch our favorite television shows,” village elder Dalmacio “Dalma” Luguyan said laughingly.

The Katablangan mini-power station only had three breakdown and major equipment replacements in its two decades of operation. “Our equipment has an average lifespan of six or seven years,” Dalma explained, adding it usually takes weeks for replacement machines to arrive.

Part of Upper Katablangan’s hand-built public waterworks by the Matalag River. (J. Erasquin/SIBAT)

Each replacement part is usually of newer design and better quality, many of which engineers of SIBAT manufacture in their workshop in the organization’s organic farm in Capas, Tarlac. SIBAT engineers periodically return to install safety equipment such as lightning arresters and voltage regulators to keep power supply stable. Power belts and wiring have to be regularly replaced and upgraded as well. Last April, a bigger voltage regulator was installed at the power station that allows for a more stable 220 volt supply such as when power tools are used by the carpenters.

 ‘Change is difficult’

A large part of northern Cordillera remains among the Philippines’ off grid regions in terms of power connectivity from electric cooperatives. Government energy agencies are also still trying to ascertain specific numbers of households and communities that electricity distribution companies and cooperatives need to have connected to their power lines. Current estimates say 15 million Filipinos still do not have electricity in their homes.

“Electrification is a moving target of sorts because the census (done every five years) presents a bigger number of households that need to be connected to electricity providers,” Isak Jonathan Villanueva, National Electrification Administration (NEA) Renewable Energy Development Division principal engineer, said. He added that the country’s archipelagic nature presents a difficult challenge to put most of the Philippines on grid. “There are many areas that could not be easily connected to the Luzon or Visayas energy grids and have to generate their electricity from fossil fuel power plants.  Consequently, interior communities are the last on the list in electricity connection projects,” Villanueva explained.

He added that the government is currently concentrating in Mindanao—such as in Misamis Occidental and Surigao Sur where there are newly-signed joint venture agreements between power distribution cooperatives and investors—in its effort to “energize” 75,150 households. It is one of the component projects under the Mindanao Development Authority and funded by multilateral groups such as the European Union, Villanueva said. He added that another renewable energy project is in the works in Pampanga province that uses solar power.

The expert said that the Department of Energy (DOE) is still in the process of identifying areas that need electrification in its drive to have the entire country connected to electricity distributors. Villanueva said he hopes the process gains momentum after the signing of the Microgrid Systems Law (Republic Act 11646) by former President Rodrigo Duterte last January 21. “The process of asking investors to submit bids for power generation and distribution in un-served and underserved areas follows,” Villanueva said. He revealed that the NEA has finished drafting the guidelines on the Microgrid Systems Act and its new Board under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration is hoped to approve it anytime soon.

He added that among the incentives the newly-minted law offers is a value added tax holiday for the first seven years for renewable energy generators, “in addition to the fact that renewable energy redounds to lower electricity rates compared to coal that has a decreasing supply, particularly from Indonesia where we source a large quantity of it.”

Villanueva said power generation companies still lean towards “dirty fuel” such as coal. In addition, current standards only allow a maximum of 50 megawatts for renewable energy generators, another barrier to the achievement of 35 percent power generation from renewable sources by 2040 in accordance with Renewable Energy Law of 2008 (Republic Act 9513). The DOE reports that about 24 percent of the country’s power output is generated by renewable energy, mostly from hydroelectric dams.

“Change is difficult,” Villanueva admitted.

Nonetheless, the engineer said that independent and micro renewable energy initiatives such as micro hydropower, solar, wind and biomass power generators are slowly getting popular, albeit still regarded as less profitable for power-generators compared to those that use fossil fuels.

Off grid but renewable

Katablangan’s micro-hydro power project is seen as a small but viable alternative to the difficulties in supplying electricity to remote communities in regions such as in the Cordillera. In addition to micro-hydro projects, other communities in the area have hybrid power projects that combine their micro-hydro projects with solar panels and wind turbines offered by both the country’s tropical climate and the region’s elevated topography.

Church groups under the One Faith, One Nation, One Voice (OFONOV)-Cordillera Chapter support such projects it says makes judicious use of the environment as opposed to what it calls development aggression brought by the government’s insistence on constructing massive dams on the entire Chico River system and its major tributaries.  OFONOV is made up of bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, missionaries, seminarians and members of the Roman Catholic Church as well as mainline Protestants under the National Council of the Philippines such as the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and Methodist Church of the Philippines. According to the OFONOV, there are five dams projects in Abra province, six in Apayao province (four of which are pending), and 11 in Kalinga province (two of which are pending).  These are part of the 77 hydroelectric projects in the entire Cordillera Administrative Region, 66 of which have been completed.

Map showing power generating facilities in the entire Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR image)

The coalition however asks on whose benefit are the huge number of hydroelectric dams in the region’s many rivers. Electricity distribution cooperatives in the region, such as the controversial Benguet Electric Cooperative (Beneco), still buy a large portion of electricity they distribute from dirty fuel such as from the Sual coal-fired thermal power plant in Pangasinan province despite the fact that it has two of the country’s biggest hydro-electric dams in the country in the Ambuklao and Binga dams.

It is the Cordillera people’s opposition to hydropower dams that have reenergized their struggles for self determination since the Ferdinand Marcos Sr. dictatorship. Northern Cordillera’s successful opposition to the World Bank-funded first Chico River Dam project has created martyrs and heroes such as Macliing Dulag of the Butbut Tribe in Apayao and Petra Macliing of the Bontoc Tribe. The regional group Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA) is a product of the struggles and is still at it, often to their peril as shown by the reported mauling and abduction of its Tabuk City-based officer Stephen Tauli last August 20. Tauli leads ongoing opposition to more dams in northern Cordillera. CPA said that such projects are accompanied by the deployment of more government troops in the area that inevitably lead to more human rights violations.

READ: Anti-dam activist’s abductors wanted him to turn gov’t spy

Cordillerans largely oppose more hydro-power dams they say often lead to floods, sedimentation and siltation that affect their farmlands, such as the case of the Gened 1 Hydroelectric Power Project (Gened 1 HEPP) they say would negatively impact seven upstream barangays of Kabugao town. “[W]hen sedimentations would be released and the spillway would be opened after torrential rains and typhoons, such would surely instigate downstream flooding that would certainly affect the downstream barangays in the municipalities of Pudtol, Flora, Sta. Marcela and Luna of the province of Apayao. And not only the five municipalities of Apayao but also the downstream four municipalities of the province of Cagayan, namely, Abulug, Pamplona, Ballesteros and Allacapan would also be tormented due to sedimentations and siltation from Gened 1 HEPP,” the OFONOV said in an April 2021 statement.

Cordillera People’s Alliance mapping of military deployment in relation to dams and mining operations in the region. (CPA image)

The coalition added that the project’s second phase, the Gened 2 Hydroelectric Power Project (Gened 2 HEPP) would similarly affect 12 more barangays with a combined population of 7,100 individuals according to the 2016 national census. Three more hydropower dams by the DOE are in pipeline in the towns of Calanasan and Conner, the Calanasan GenEd 2, Nabuangan dam and Cupis dam that are part of the $3 billion loan from the Chinese government by proponents Pan Pacific Renewable Power Philippines Corporation (PPRPC) as well as Strategic Power of San Miguel Corporation. Another dam project in Calanasan, the Apayao 7 MW project is being planned by Aboitiz Power.

The coalition added that 105 plant species, 51 bird species, 22 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 19 mammal species still abundant in Apayao are in danger from the hydropower projects.

“There is strong opposition of the Isnag indigenous people due to fact that their national minority rights to life, their ancestral lands and indigenous socio-political systems have been violated by acts of national oppression shown particularly in the non-compliance of the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) processes by the DoE, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples-Cordillera Administrative Region (NCIP-CAR) and the PPRPC management,” OFONOV said.

The group said it draws lessons from the sad experience of the Ibaloi tribe in Benguet province who were displaced by the Ambuklao and Binga dams in Benguet province and the San Roque Dam in nearby Pangasinan province. They said that the Isnegs strongly resist the construction of more dams in their ancestral domain as “these would totally dislocate and entirely separate them from their ancestral territories, rich resources and livelihood.”

(Infographic by Jek Alcaraz/Kodao)

“They do not want the dam projects as these would lead their communities to misery and suffering,” OFONOV said.

Two decades of renewable energy

Unlike the electricity projects of the government, foreign entities and corporations however, Katablangan’s micro-hydro power project has only enjoyed support and gratitude from its residents.

While Katablangan’s remoteness has deprived it of free broadcast television, all of its houses sport satellite dishes on their roofs that offer them more channels to watch. While no mobile phone service reaches the community, all of its households have several radio sets they use for such things as ordering items such as vinegar from the village stores or chatting with village mates. The power station also houses a rice and corn mill, liberating the residents from the backbreaking task and affording them more free time for other activities.

“Here in Conner, we have the unique phenomenon of lowlanders making the eight-hour trek up to our village to have their mobile phones, flashlights, radio sets, batteries and other gadgets recharged after strong typhoons have damaged their [on grid] power supply lines. Why is that? Because what we have here is a more reliable power supply that is cheaper and cleaner,” village chief Benito Lugayan said.

SIBAT executive director Estrella Catarata said that from the initial 42 households, the Katablangan micro-hydro electricity project has since expanded to Sitio Battong three kilometres away, increasing the number of serviced households to more than 60. They have also since revised their original billing of P50/month per household to P10 kwh in order to save funds for independent maintenance and upgrades. Catarata also reported that the new refrigerator and freezer at Katablangan’s stores are doing brisk business with new items such as ice, ice cream, ice candies, ice-cold soft drinks and frozen food items.

Residents of Sitio Lower Katablangan are currently digging canals for two micro-hydro power projects of their own following the two-decade success of the renewable energy project in Upper Katablangan. (J. Erasquin/SIBAT)

Because of Upper Katablangan’s success with its renewable energy project, people of Lower Katablangan have recently started digging for dams and canals for two micro-hydro power plants of its own. Catarata said that there are no guaranteed financial grants from foreign humanitarian organizations yet but the people have started digging for the dams and canals anyway.

“The Katablangan project is a story of the Cordillera’s abundant source of renewable energy that is harnessed by culturally-sensitive and appropriate technology for the benefit of its people. Its benefits only serve small and remote communities for now but there are many communities in need of electricity. The beauty in this is that it does no harm to the environment that the indigenous peoples still regard as sacred,” Catarata said. #

(This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)

Upper Katablangan has completely transitioned to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs in recent months. (Raymund Villanueva/Kodao)

[This two-part special report is dedicated to the memory of Randy Felix P. Malayao—brave, true and loyal son of the North. This report’s final draft was finished on what would have been Randy’s 53rd birth anniversary last August 29.]

From bodong to electricity

A remote Isneg community enjoys 2 decades of renewable energy

[FIRST OF TWO PARTS]

A special report by Raymund B. Villanueva

BARANGAY Katablangan had just been vacated by government soldiers after months of occupation sometime in 1988. For months before they abandoned their community, the Isneg (alternately called Isnag) residents had been witness to intense and numerous firefights between government soldiers and New People’s Army guerillas after peace negotiations between the Corazon Aquino government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines collapsed. When the fighting became too intense, too frequent and dangerously close to the community, and the soldiers decided to use them as shields by encamping right in their midst, they were forced to evacuate their village.

Katablangan women carrying stones and gravel for community enhancement projects. (Photo by Engr. Jaymart Erasquin/SIBAT)

The residents returned after six months and found only desolation and ruin. The crops they left behind when they hurriedly evacuated have all withered away while their animals have either been butchered by the soldiers or have gone feral. All their houses needed repairs. The barrio, once idyllic albeit poor, was at lowest point in the residents’ collective memory.

It took nearly seven years for Katablangan to fully recover. It took the community that long for them to repair their houses, take up farming again and try to live the normal lives they once had. Livelihood however remained difficult, forcing then 33-year old Dalmacio “Dalma” Lugayan to seek employment as Department of Environment and Natural Resources reforestation employee in Mindoro and Palawan. But as among leaders of the community, he eventually had to return and lead its recovery. He was elected chairperson of the Katablangan Upper Farmers’ Organization the community organized upon its formation.

When normalcy returned, Katablangan’s pangat (tribal leaders) thought it was time to renew their bodong (peace pact) with fellow Isnegs in nearby communities. In 1995, Dalma was among those who trekked across a mountain range to Barangay Dulao in neighboring Malibcong, Abra. Peace among the Isnegs must be preserved and strengthened to allow them to continue their recovery, they thought. With him was his elder brother Benito (Beni), currently Katablangan’s barangay chairperson.

Katablangan village elder Dalmacio Lugayan (Photo by R. Villanueva/Kodao)

At Dulao, they were amazed at the electric light bulbs at each of houses in the village. Their hosts then showed them one of the earliest micro-hydropower projects for electricity generation in northern Cordillera. When they returned to Katablangan, they were carrying home with them a new pagta (budong agreement) and a Barangay Dulao resolution addressed to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tabuk endorsing the construction of a similar project in Katablangan.

 “We were so envious of Dulao’s micro-hydro power plant that we were only thinking of how to build one of our own,” Dalma said.

Remote, beautiful

The barangay’s main sitio called Upper Katablangan is about 20 kilometers from Conner town proper in Apayao through a steep, narrow and dangerous dirt road that runs parallel and repeatedly crosses Matalag River. The river is a major tributary of the Chico River that is a tributary of the mighty Cagayan River itself, the country’s longest and biggest. Fed by forest streams on parts of the Cordillera yet undamaged by logging and mining companies, Matalag’s cold waters run swift and strong, burbling its winding way down to the Chico. Swidden farms have been hacked out of the forests where the topography allows, but Matalag’s banks are mostly steep on which precariously perch the narrow and muddy road that leads to Katablangan, often broken by brooks created by dozens of waterfalls along the way.

The Matalag River behind Upper Katablangan’s micro-hydro power station. (R.Villanueva/Kodao)

Katablangan lies at the end of that road, on a narrow bowl-shaped valley carved from the mountains by the river. Because of its elevation, fog greets Katablangan most mornings while low-lying clouds usher evenings earlier. Summer heat is tempered by the shade the mountains blanket the community with. At the edge of a village runs Matalag’s headwaters that feed the people with freshwater delights such as wild river crabs and the northern favorite igat (river eel). Pako (fern) and other edible plants still grow abundant that residents pick on their way home from a refreshing dip to go along with meat from wild boars and deer that remain abundant in the surrounding forests.

The Isnegs of Katablangan are farmers who plant rice and corn, crops they bring downstream to sell to traders after each harvest. They are also skilled wood and rattan-workers, spurred by lumber judiciously harvested from the surrounding mountains. Their basi (sugarcane wine) have also become famous outside of Conner.

Still, the Katablanganons wanted electricity, just like their fellow Isnegs in Dulao.

Six years of building

In 1996, Katablangan finally sent delegations to talk to the Catholic parish priests of Conner as well as Kabugao and Tabuk in now separate Kalinga province to learn more about renewable energy projects such as in Dulao. They learned other communities in Kalinga and Abra have started their own micro-hydro projects and became more determined to have their own. They were told to contact the group Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya (SIBAT) that provided technical assistance for the construction of the Dulao micro-hydro project.

Sibol ng Agham at Teknolohiya [SIBAT] engineer Jaymart Erasquin [standing] with Isneg micro-hydro project operators in Apayao Province. (R. Villanueva/Kodao)

That same year, SIBAT engineer Cris Alfonso and Catholic missionary Bro. Aloi Goldberger visited Katablangan twice to conduct feasibility studies. After their second visit, the two experts instructed the community on how to begin preliminary works after concluding that Katablangan is ideally suited for a micro-hydro electricity project.

“We were so excited that hardly did the two rounded the bend out of our village that we started building our mini-dam and digging the canal to where we would eventually construct our power station,” Dalma said.

Dalma and Beni then travelled to Baguio City the next year to attend a SIBAT seminar on renewable energy and micro-hydro electricity projects. On their way home to Conner, they already had HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) pipes that men folk had to carry on their shoulders up to Katablangan for two days.

It took the community four years to construct the dam and the canal towards the power station. Aside from their labor, the community cut trees for lumber as their contribution to the project. They built a cement platform for the machinery and a small building for the power station. The community’s remoteness prevented them from bringing motorized machines to help them; everything had to be done by hand. An elder who insisted on doing his share even suffered a heart attack while digging and died. A doubting barangay councilor even vowed to have one of his ears cut off if the project would materialize.

Residents carrying HDPE pipes to Katablangan that help channel water from their dam to the generators. (J. Erasquin/SIBAT)

By 1999, the dam, canal and power house were finally finished and passed inspection. Tall wooden posts on which wires would bring electricity to the houses were put up. SIBAT, led by engineer Pol Tabiolo, then arrived with a turbine, dynamo and wires. They installed the machinery that was designed for 7.5 kilowatts, enough to provide the basic and initial electricity needs of Katablangan.

It took almost a year from there to connect the wires from the power station to the individual houses and attach electricity meters in each of the 42 households in Upper Katablangan at the time. The entire community also underwent a series of workshops and meetings to appoint and train those responsible in clearing the dam of flotsam and jetsam that may clog up the pipes and destroy the generator. A power station manager was appointed, responsible for overseeing the equipment. They also appointed a bill collector for the P50 a month per household with electricity connection.

A week before the project went online, the doubting councilor saw that Katablangan’s micro-hydro electric project would really materialize. He butchered pigs to feed the workforce, asking only that his promise to have his ear cut off was never mentioned again. Dalma said it got mentioned during drinking sessions nonetheless.

A Katablangan home is retrofitted with newer wires and an electricity meter as part of a maintenance activity. (J. Erasquin/SIBAT)

The entire community was excited the day the generator went online and electricity was supplied to the houses for the first time. “The children ran from the power house to their homes, wanting to be the ones to switch on the lights,” Dalma said. “That night, they played in the barangay clearing way past their usual bedtime while their elders played the gongs that echoed around the mountains throughout the night,” Beni recalled. #

[NEXT] PART 2: ELECTRICITY THAT DOES NOT DESTROY THE ENVIRONMENT

(This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)