Mary Therese Catapang

Published: November 24, 2023

Topic: #NextGen

In our transition to renewable energy, where do the Indigenous Peoples stand?

ORIENTAL MINDORO, Philippines — At the foot of Mount Halcon resides one of the seven communities of the Alangan Mangyan who continue to have limited or no access to electricity despite the five years of operation of the Catuiran hydroelectric power plant built on their ancestral land.

“Mangyan” is the collective term for the indigenous peoples of the island of Mindoro, consisting of eight groups, including the Alangan. Most of the Alangan in Oriental Mindoro live in Naujan, where the plant was constructed.

The transition to renewable energy in the Philippines has long been advocated under the Renewable Energy Act of 2008. This is in response to the worsening climate change, with the use of fossil fuels being a contributing factor. The government aims for 50% of the country’s energy mix to be renewable by 2050.

However, as these kinds of projects enter ancestral lands, it remains unclear to the Alangan what benefits they bring to their community.

According to Prince Turtogo, national coordinator of the Panaghiusa Philippine Network to Uphold Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, “it is important to distinguish that not every renewable energy initiative aligns with or embodies the principles of a just transition.”

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation states that a just transition aims to ensure that individuals, groups, and communities, including indigenous peoples directly affected by energy production, carbon-intensive industries, and the climate crisis, receive the benefits of this transformation.

Electricity cost

The 8MW Catuiran Hydroelectric Power Plant Project completed construction in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, in January 2018.

As promised by Sta. Clara Corp., the original proponent of the project before it was transferred to Catuiran Hydropower Corp., the affected barangays are entitled to a lower cost of electricity. The Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001 was cited as the basis for this, but the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) did not specify how this would be achieved. Although the law includes various subsidies, it does not specify which groups are privileged to receive lower electricity prices.

Robin* (not his real name), an Alangan, expressed, “Even if this promise was fulfilled, electricity is still expensive for us.”

Many Alangans lack access to electricity due to its expensive cost in the financial context of their community. Farming is a primary livelihood for the Alangan, but many also work in town as farming alone is not enough to sustain their needs.

Many families can only afford to pay for two light bulbs, costing around forty pesos (Php 40) per month. Other families pay between two hundred to eight hundred pesos (Php 200-800) when they use electric fans and televisions.

There are also instances when they cannot afford to pay the bill, leading to the disconnection of their electricity. Lara* (not her real name), an Alangan, is one such case, who is supporting a large family.

Lack of benefits in exchange for the plant

Despite this, Lara mentioned that they can still survive without access to electricity. “We used to live without electricity as long as there’s [livelihood],” she said.

However, as they surrendered a portion of their land to build the plant, impacting their farming livelihood, they hope to receive benefits—especially since not all the promised benefits and projects outlined in the MOA have been implemented.

Although some benefits have been given, such as carabaos and roofing materials, some unfulfilled projects include a hanging bridge for easy crossing during floods, scholarships for the Alangan youth, and job opportunities.

Currently, the government has many plans to build more renewable energy projects in Oriental Mindoro in the hope of addressing worsening power outages and climate change. Even before, proponents of the said plant promised that it will resolve power outages in the province, but residents still see it as a problem.

Forester Emily Aguilon, Chief of Conservation and Development at the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) Socorro, stated that it is not unlikely for such projects to still enter ancestral lands because these plants are often constructed in remote areas.

Before the plant was even established, the Sta. Clara Corp. had already faced numerous controversies, including the process of obtaining free prior and informed consent (FPIC) from indigenous peoples and the benefits they should have received in return.

Despite several attempts to obtain a statement from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, they did not respond to the requests.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Reyes, president of the Philippine ICCA Consortium, said, “If the project is with consent and after thorough assessments done through free and participatory processes, utilizing the people’s own decision-making process, this means the government and company must show clearly genuine benefit sharing and policies that reconcile energy transition goals with human rights obligations.”

Thus, the Alangans are hoping that the several benefits they should have received years ago will be provided, including affordable electricity, especially because the plant is situated on their ancestral land.

“We, indigenous peoples, should not be left behind. We talked person to person, and we hope they will too because ‘Mangyan’ means ‘human,’ after all,” said Lara.

This story is part of our #NextGen Climate Bootcamp in collaboration with the US Embassy in Manila.