In round 2 of Philippine geothermal project, tribes dig in for a greater say

  • Mount Apo National Park on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is home to the country’s highest peak and is also a sacred area for the Manobo Indigenous people.
  • Plans in the 1980s to establish a geothermal power plant there faced fierce resistance at first.
  • But a royalty agreement with Manobo landowners and a long list of environmental and economic commitments by the plant developer has since seen the project become a model of success.
  • Now, tribal leaders say the developer is looking to expand the project onto more ancestral lands, for which the tribes want a greater say in steering governance and development initiatives.

In the 1980s, when the Philippines’ Energy Development Corporation, or EDC, began developing plans for a geothermal energy plant near Mount Apo, a dormant volcano on the southern island of Mindanao, it faced fierce resistance.

Decades later, the geothermal plant is frequently cited as an example of a project that has fulfilled its commitments to traditional landholders, and its permit was renewed without major dissent in 2017. But a bloody struggle preceded the agreement, and as the company seeks to expand, it may again find itself facing opposition from Indigenous peoples.

The geothermal project, and the planned expansion, falls within the ancestral lands of the Obu Monuvu, more widely known as the Manobo, an Indigenous group for whom Mt. Apo is both sacred and a source of food and traditional medicines.

Early opposition

The mountain, the highest in the Philippines, and its surroundings were designated a national park in 1936, and a heritage site by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1984. It’s considered a key biodiversity area by the government, and is home to more than 272 bird species, 111 of which are endemic, including the rare and critically endangered Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the country’s national bird. EDC, owned at the time by the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC), began surface exploration for geothermal energy in Mt. Apo National Park as early as 1983.

Mt. Apo is also known as Apo Sandawa, the great ancestor of the Manobo and other tribes living in the shadow of the volcano. In 1988, together with Catholic Church and environmental organizations, Indigenous groups opposing the development formed Task Force Sandawa. They demanded that the geothermal power plant be built outside Mt. Apo National Park.

“We conducted barricades to stop the project,” says Joel Buntal, an Obu Monuvu tribal leader, or datu, who was on the front line of the opposition. “We feared the proposed geothermal plant would destroy our forests, which would alter our cultural practices and dislocate tribal communities.”

At least nine tribes opposed to the geothermal plant performed a unity or reconciliation ritual, known as dyandi, to drive away PNOC-EDC in 1989 from their ancestral domain on Mt. Apo. The conflict turned deadly. At least two Manobo individuals lost their lives, killed by alleged militias for opposing the geothermal project, says Era España, a former commissioner of the Philippine National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

“I was among those who opposed the geothermal power project due to environmental and cultural concerns,” España says. “There were massive protests back then within and outside the ancestral domain, but the government eventually allowed the venture to proceed.”

After dialogue between proponent and critics, the Philippine government in 1992 declared 701 hectares (1,732 acres) of the national park as a geothermal reservation for the state-owned company’s project. Later that year, the company obtained an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the development of the project.

The following year, in 1993, PNOC-EDC signed an agreement with tribal groups associated with what would be known as the Manobo-Apao Descendants of Ancestral Domain of Mt. Apo (Madadma), recognized as the traditional owners of the land on which the geothermal project would be built.

The peak of Mount Apo, the tallest in the Philippines, towers over a sea of clouds. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

A new deal

Despite its troubled beginning, the deal is now widely regarded as having been a success.

Under the agreement, Madadma gets 1 centavo per kilowatt-hour from the electricity sold by the geothermal plant, giving the tribe a steady income stream. This royalty goes to the Environmental and Tribal Welfare Trust Fund, administered by an NGO, the Mt. Apo Foundation, Inc. PNOC-EDC also provided housing for 68 families relocated for the project, granted scholarships to students from the affected area, and gave tribal members priority for hiring during the construction phase.

The company also committed to ensuring environmental precautions would be taken, and reforestation carried out. According to a 1997 analysis by company representatives, out of the 701 hectares granted to it by the government, the company was able to limit its footprint to 112 hectares (277 acres), of which 84 hectares (208 acres) were grasslands or land that had previously been deforested for agriculture. Only 28 hectares (69 acres) of forested land were used for the project, generally in cases where drilling in a specific location was required.

To compensate for these 28 hectares of forest that were lost, PNOC-EDC pledged to reforest 50-100 hectares (123-247 acres) per year during the 25-year project operation. The company also supports conservation initiatives, such as the Philippine Eagle Foundation’s efforts to protect the country’s endemic raptors; in 2012 it adopted a Philippine eagle that it named Geothermica.

Philippine eagle
The Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) is critically endangered and has suffered a rapid population decline over the last 60 years, largely due to extensive deforestation. Image by Sinisa Djordje Majetic via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

After the agreement was signed, and with the local governments and NGOs recognizing the firm’s adherence to its environmental and economic commitments, organized resistance to the project dwindled, Buntal says.

Still, the project hasn’t been entirely free of controversy. For example, Buntal says, tribes who hold Mt. Apo sacred but whose recognized ancestral land doesn’t overlap with the geothermal reservation feel left out of the benefits from the deal. In addition, Buntal says, there have been protests and barricades since operation began. However, he says these were linked to internal disputes about royalty sharing among the Madadma members, rather than efforts to block the project altogether.

When the original 25-year agreement expired in 2017, it was renewed through 2044 without major opposition, and with Madadma members holding a samaya ritual asking ancestors to bless the site.

Crystal-clear waters flow from a creek on the ancestral land of the Manobo tribe in the foothills of Mount Apo. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

Expansion plans and biodiversity corridor

Since 2013, the Philippine media has reported that EDC, which was privatized in 2007, has been considering expanding the capacity of the 106-megawatt Mt. Apo geothermal project by another 50 MW. The company, now part of Philippine conglomerate the Lopez Group, did not respond to requests for clarification on its expansion plans.

According to Buntal, the EDC is eyeing 600 hectares (1,483 acres) of land within Manobo ancestral domain for its expansion; the land is recognized as belonging to the Magpet Pusaka Impon Conservation Association (Magpica), a coalition of Manobo tribes chaired by Buntal.

Magpica’s combined ancestral domain claim covers 28,220 hectares (69,733 acres) near, but not overlapping with, the current geothermal reservation.

In an effort to secure additional protections for land that has particular cultural and biological significance, Magpica has declared 5,028 hectares (12,424 acres) of its tribal land as an Indigenous and Community Conserved Area, or ICCA — a designation that isn’t formally recognized by the government.

Manobo children from Magpet township in North Cotabato play against the backdrop of the rolling foothills of Mount Apo. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

Now, Buntal says, the 600 hectares being considered for EDC’s new geothermal project overlaps with land declared as part of the ICCA. In addition to the potential environmental impacts of a new geothermal project, at least six populated hamlets may have to be relocated.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the tribes are entirely opposed to the expansion plan. According to Buntal, one of the tribal communities under Magpica has expressed openness to allocating the 600 hectares for the geothermal reservation. However, Buntal says that because this land falls within Magpica’s self-declared ICCA, the Indigenous peoples within it need to be thoroughly consulted if they are open to give exemptions to allow the project to proceed.

This consultation, he says, should go beyond merely seeking the communities’ free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Instead, Buntal says that Indigenous peoples, under the ICCA concept, should also be given the chance to steer governance and development initiatives within their ancestral domains.

If development projects within ancestral domain are not managed properly and do not properly consult with tribal stakeholders, they often cause division within families and broken relations within the tribe, España says, citing the experience of the pre-production stages of the initial Mt. Apo geothermal project.

Supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights over their ancestral domain is “a means of providing protection to biodiversity over their ancestral lands and their cultural identity,” España says.

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