Just energy: Fighting development aggression in the small community of Pakil, Laguna
I remember my first morning in Pakil. After our host fed us a generous breakfast of oats, bacon, tocino, eggs, and sinangag, our group set off to interview different residents in the area. At first glance, Pakil seemed like an idyllic town. With winding alleyways, old Spanish buildings, and freshwater running through the many canals, Pakil was unlike any other municipality I’ve been to.
One of the canals in Pakil where fish breed and spawn
One of the places we visited was the St. Peter of Alcantara Parish Church, also known as the Diocesan Shrine of the Our Lady of Turumba. Like many other parishes, a collage of paintings blankets over the ceilings of Pakil’s first Roman Catholic Church; however, unlike the others, the paintings there cannot be found anywhere else. In an interview with a local artist, he says, “The paintings contain the story of Pakil, the story of the church, the miracles of Our Lady of Turumba, and the story of Ping-as.”
St. Peter of Alcantara Parish Church
Ping-as refers to Mt. Ping-as, part of the Sierra Madre mountain range and situated in the municipality of Pakil. The locals consider the mountain to be a blessing as it provides them water for irrigation and for their daily needs. Pakil locals and outsiders alike collect gallons of water from this water source. Moreover, the municipality established a public swimming pool from the free-flowing mountain water. Aside from this, several other springs are directed to specific places in town. I remember seeing residents gather water outside their houses and wash their laundry by a canal that cuts through Pakil. I found it particularly amazing that the canal that leads to their rice fields has a lot of large fish, mostly tilapia. Fishing in this canal is prohibited as it is a spawning ground for the fish, but when these fish escape to the rice fields or to the lake, they can be caught freely. Our host family disclosed that the fish we ate that morning was from the lake. With rising food and water prices here in the metro, I deem them lucky to have free-flowing water and sources of fish all year round.
Besides its importance to their daily lives, the mountain also plays a big part in the town’s history and culture. Atop the mountain sits the Cross of Pakil, which was erected by the locals in the 17th century to honor the sacrifices of Fr. Francisco Solier, a Franciscan priest who observed penance by hiking up the same mountain with a heavy wooden cross. On the last Saturday of May every year, participants climb Mt. Ping-as to attend mass and witness the Santacruzan. After their ascent, the locals would then bathe and drink water from the pools, as they believe that the water would cure ailments and disease. This tradition is called Ahunan sa Ping-as, or the ascents. Thinking about it now, I find it ironic that a proposed hydropower plant would be named after a tradition it will hinder once it’s built.
Ahunan Pumped Storage Hydropower Project
The Ahunan Pumped Storage Hydropower Project in Pakil, Laguna is a project that is currently being developed by Ahunan Power Inc., a joint venture between Prime Metro Power Holdings Corp. and JBD Water Power Inc. The project intends to generate a gross capacity of 1,400 MW and will cover 299.40 hectares of land in the municipality of Pakil, directly affecting the barangays of Baño, Burgos, Rizal, and Taft. According to the project’s primer, water will be taken from Laguna Lake and transported up to the reservoir that will be built in the mountains of Pakil. Afterwards, the water will be returned to the lake to generate electricity. Due to its topography and accessibility to Laguna Lake, the Municipality of Pakil was selected as the project location.
Plot of Ahunan Dam on map
(taken from Ahunan Dam Project Description for Scoping by Apercu Consultants)
It was only back in 2020 when the residents found out about this project. Since then, the proponents seemed to have been more aggressive in pushing through the dam. While the Office of the Sangguniang Bayan issued a Certificate of No Objection back in September 2021, no public hearing was conducted prior to this and there was a lack of consultation with the project’s various stakeholders. We have received reports of deceitful “consent acquisition” by gathering signatures written in pencil. Despite resounding opposition from the residents, the mayor has consistently been the spokesperson and defender of the dam project. This has caused tension among the municipality especially when talking about the dam project. There was a mix of pro- and anti-dam residents among those we talked to and it was obvious that those against the dam were very cautious in voicing their opposition.
Effects of the project on local community
Opinions about the project are divided. Some of the farmers and business owners we interviewed are against the hydropower plant because they believe that it will displace communities and cause landslides as well as flash floods in their respective barangays. One local engineer tells us, “The possibility of landslides is very high because our mountain is very steep. Once the trees are cut and the roads are built, those of us who live at the base of the mountain will be among the first who will be affected.” Additionally, the plant is to be built along four active fault lines that have been said to have moderate to high seismicity. Given that Laguna is an earthquake prone area, this project could spell a disaster for the entire municipality.
Besides the possible destruction that the project would bring about, even the livelihood and culture of the local community would be affected. The cutting of trees would affect the livelihood of local craftsmen and the disruption of the water supply would affect people from all walks of life.
Fisherman in Laguna Lake
Local officials argue that the dam would improve tourism and provide job opportunities for the community, but members of Mamamayan Nagmamahal sa Pakil (MANAPAK) maintain that the project would bring more harm than good. In an interview with Lina Naldo, one of the members, she says “They say that a lot of people would be employed–2,000–but that’s just during the construction phase, after that they would be unemployed again. The proponents say that the project would improve tourism in the area, but how could commercial establishments open if they are not allowed to let anyone in when the dam is built?”
Another resident adds that the dam would not benefit the community at all. “The people of Pakil don’t need electricity because there is a source in Lumban. Why is the dam necessary? Who will benefit from it? It’s not the people of Pakil but the residents of Manila. We don’t know where the electricity will go. Like the hydropower plant in Kalayaan. Did the people of Kalayaan get rich? No. Is this going to make us rich? No”, he says.
In addition to the threats coming from the project itself, residents of Pakil have also received threats from their fellow people in relation to this project. In June of this year, Daisy Macapanpan, a 69-year-old environmental defender, was forcibly taken from her home and arrested due to her participation in the campaign to prevent the construction of the hydropower plant. Although she has since been released on bail, threats against environmentalists who rally against the hydropower plant never stopped. Jo Tolibas, spokesperson for Network Opposed to Ahunan Dam, received threats between September and October of this year. One set of messages read, “We know where you are from. We are watching you. Do not return to Pakil. If you come back, we will not stop.”
In August 2022, the locals said that police presence increased around the project area, which was justified by the nearing start of the Ahunan festival in September. However, they couldn’t help but worry that this would hamper their freedom of expression and right to protest against the dam.
“Free Daisy Macapanpan” poster in Pakil, Laguna
I was able to appreciate the richness and interconnection of our country’s natural wealth and culture during my visit to Pakil. It was lovely to see an entire community live off the natural resources that are readily available. It is simply horrible that all of it is in peril because of Ahunan Dam.
“No to Dam” poster on a house balcony
The situation here is very similar to most of the previous energy projects in the country during their preparation and development phases. The residents near the Ahunan Dam project area will bear the biggest brunt of the project in the name of “development”. Despite being a renewable energy project, it must not come at the expense of the people’s welfare and should entail minimal environmental disruption.
Nonetheless, I am still hopeful due to the people fiercely fighting for their culture and environment. I am in awe of how the locals united and staunchly defended their small municipality in the face of dirty politics and money. By doing this, they are not only defending their lives but also the future generations. Hence, I think it is imperative, for a truly just and sustainable energy sector, that everyone should support them in this cause, even those who, like me, are far from them.