Fast-Tracked Destruction of Indigenous Lands and Communities
Ten kilometers from the busy streets of Kathmandu City lies the simple Indigenous Newari Village of Khokana. This village is one of the first, if not the oldest, civilization of Nepal dating back to the Malla Era in the 13th century.
This community has a population of around 15,000 Newar people, much of them depending on agriculture for a living. The villagers also gain income from wood carving, handicrafts, and tourism-related jobs however, subsistence farming is still their primary means of livelihood. Khokana is also known for its traditional production of mustard oil.
This historic village was one of those gravely affected by the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake which led to the destruction of most of the Newar houses, local businesses, and cultural heritage sites. Three years later, the village is still recovering from the devastations brought about by the earthquake with construction materials from adobe bricks to metal poles lying around. Nevertheless, it still remains one of the major cultural tourist attractions in the country.
On top of a hill, a 20-minute walk from the village center, sits the Sikali Temple dedicated to the Goddess Rudrayani. One of the most awaited celebration in the village is the week-long harvest festival called Sikali Jatra. During this time of the year, the community with devotees and tourists come together to feast, dance, and perform various rituals. The whole celebration is put together by the three selected members of the community’s religious and cultural institution, the Ta-Guthi, Sala Guthi, and Jhahu Guthi.
Another remarkable facet of the Sikali Temple is the seven ancient alphabets painted on stones and are believed to be the scripts used by the community when they began writing.
From the hill top, one gets a majestic view of the mountains and rice terraces. And below the hill runs the Bagmati River which serves as the border between the districts of Kathmandu on the west and Lalitpur in the east, where Khokana is located.
Despite the seemingly rich lands and vibrant culture of Khokana, this sacred place is once again under threat – not by an earthquake or any natural disaster – but by the construction of the Kathmandu Fast Track Expressway. The said expressway is planned to run through 58 villages, which includes Khokana, threatening to displace at least 15,000 villagers and destroy agricultural lands and cultural and religious sites, including the Sikali Temple and several other sacred temples and ponds.
The Fast Track infrastructure project has begun construction last May 2017. The Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP), an organization helping the community on the case, said that it has been very hard to negotiate with the Nepali Government and that it seemed that the ultimate compromise might result in re-routing the Fast Track.
The 76-km fast track project, under the management of the Nepali Army, is just one of the many infrastructure projects laid out by the government for Khokana. The government has also drawn up plans for an Outer Ring Road, the Bagmati Corridor, a smart city, and a high voltage transmission line. According to the villagers, these were all decided without community consultations and not even with a comprehensive plan for compensation and livelihood.
The China factor
On a national scale, the Government of Nepal is undertaking numerous road and energy projects in partnership with Chinese Government under the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative. Nepal entered the OBOR scheme, along with its fellow South Asian countries Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in the hopes of creating connectivity with other regions and opening up new economic opportunities for the country thru multi-billion dollar loans and foreign investments.
However, the OBOR scheme has become a ‘debt trap’ for least developed countries incapable of paying back billion-dollar loans as in the case of Sri Lanka who was force to turn over its Hambantota port to China as collateral.
At a micro-level, OBOR projects continuously cause damages to indigenous communities by forcefully displacing them out of their ancestral lands. The OBOR has also high chances of taking its toll on Nepal’s already vulnerable environment. Large-scale construction on the fragile terrain poses a serious threat to the country’s mountain ecosystem. Given the present record of companies always failing to conduct Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), it is most likely that the country’s environment and its peoples will pay the extra price for these projects in the long run.
The concept of development has been watered down by governments and international financial institutions to mere infrastructure building and road expansions that will supposedly “ease traffic jams”. Those who proclaim this kind of development fail to see that genuine development is one that is people-centered. Development is not merely measured by the abstract changes in percentages of a country’s GDP but by how the ordinary people live, or attempt to get by, day by day.
These profit-driven ventures guised as development projects have shown to always put profit before the peoples’ welfare and thus, it cannot be expected that they will carry out the process of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) that is fair and in favor to the rights of the people. Studies from other parts of Asia reported that the FPIC processes has been repeatedly manipulated, circumvented or intently bypassed by multinational and transnational corporations and other private entities, while the government either remains toothless or complicit towards land-grabbers.
International Financial Institutions (IFI) are just as involved in these projects as Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded the feasibility study for the Fast Track project in Khokana. The ADB is not entirely reputable with Indigenous Peoples in the country either. Road expansion projects funded by the ADB and the World Bank (WB) have blatantly violated not only international standards and national policies, but also their own human rights policies.
The negative implications of forced displacement, systemic land-grabbing, and cultural and environment plunder is not concerns the indigenous peoples but consequently jeopardizes the entire community’s welfare and human rights. Last March, three people were arrested as state police forces violently dispersed protestors calling out the destruction of heritage sites and displacement of Indigenous communities in Kathmandu.
A challenge to recognize the Indigenous Peoples and put an end to all forms of attacks against them and all IP and human rights defenders in Nepal is posed by the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL).
In addition, the genuine implementation of the FPIC process with respect to the new federal constitution the Government of Nepal, especially the concerned ministries, is yet to be realized. As the Government prides itself for having an inclusive provisions on the rights of Indigenous Peoples in writing, it is time to hold it true in practice. FPIC must not merely offer a certain amount of compensation or a relocation site to the villagers. Rather, it is the people’s legitimate right to accept or reject the project based on their collective decision as a community.
The Nepal Constitution states in the section on state policies relating to social justice and inclusion that “indigenous nationalities are to participate in decisions concerning that community… to ensure the right of these nationalities to live with dignity, along with their identity, and protect and promote traditional knowledge, skill, culture, social tradition and experience of the indigenous nationalities and local communities.” Moreover, earlier this year, a landmark decision by the Nepal Supreme Court supports the importance of the affected community’s participation in decision making.
Our Rivers, Our Lives: The Ayta of Pampanga and Tarlac and their Struggle against Quarries and Destructive Dams
By Angelica Campo and photos by Myra Dela Cruz
In line with the commemoration of International Day of Action for Rivers on 14 March 2018, the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (TFIP) presents two emerging success stories of Ayta communities struggling to defend their rights in Pampanga and Tarlac.
Left with no choice
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” What Heraclitus said eons ago, holds true for Ilog Pasig in Sitio Pidpid, Barangay Sapang Uwak, Porac, Pampanga.
On 30 January 2018, the Magantsi and Magindi tribes of the Ayta indigenous peoples bravely put a stoppage on the operation of three companies namely Clarete Vibro Sand Processing Company, T.A.G. Mineral Resources Incorporated, and Powerzun Quarrying and Trading Incorporated (now known as SANDGLO). Ayta men and women have blocked the trucks that were taking away sand and stones from their ancestral domain. They eventually set up a barricade to ensure that no quarry personnel or equipment could get in and out of the premises while the operation is on hold.
The Ayta community was motivated by the deliberate disrespect of their collective rights as indigenous peoples and the growing number of water-related sickness among their children. They observed that due to massive excavation, the river got deeper, with less water flow, and is unsafe for them to drink. They have reported incidents of smelling diesel in the water they got from the existing springs. They believe that chemicals from the trucks and heavy equipment are being disposed indiscriminately on the surface and thus flow to the underground water systems.
The Ayta leaders explained that the environment is an integral part of their history, culture, and identity. They take pride in being able to share their lands and natural resources with others but the companies went beyond the areas designated for quarrying. The water systems were rerouted and as a result, they are now having trouble producing crops on their upland farms and the usual drinking water is contaminated.
Just recently, members of the Abelling tribe operating the excavation equipment in the Balog-Balog multi-purpose dam site staged a protest concerning their lack of job contract. Despite working for Guangzhi Contractor for eight months now, they do not receive mandatory government benefits like SSS, Pag-ibig, Philhealth. The project supervisor also deducts a P150 kickback from their meager salary. They complain of not being able to secure their post as the Chinese contractor is free to randomly fire employees anytime. This has come to the attention of indigenous peoples’ support groups and the local media. However, when CLTV36, together with peoples’ organizations and advocates, tried to do visit and conduct interviews, they were refused entry to the dam site.
After failed negotiations with the Chinese engineers who were onsite, project engineer Eduardo Corsiga explained that they need a copy of the request letter approved by the provincial and municipal unit. He confirmed that everything, from FPIC process, human resource management, construction of the dam and relocation site for affected residents, disaster risk management, capacity-building and livelihood trainings, and several other processes are under the supervision of National Irrigation Administration (NIA).
Discussions with affected non-IP community members revealed that the tenants who live and work in the supposed relocation site are being forced to leave without any relocation. There were problems with the actual payment of damages. The memorandum of agreement stated that the families would be given P300, 000 as reparation for the residential lot but none of them were ever paid in full at the time of the visit. There were also issues with how the farm lots are compensated. Most residents do not know that they are entitled to series of payment schemes depending on the size and classification of their lands, whether pastureland, irrigated, or upland farm. Some were even advised that they will only receive a fixed amount since they do not have land titles.
It was observed that the presence of the third mechanized brigade of the military had forced some IP community members to sign the documents granting NIA access to their ancestral domain. Despite the rejection by some Abelling families, they were persuaded to inhabit the houses that were admittedly unsafe, without water source, and have defective drainage system. After a week or so, they returned to their original dwellings.
The tribe members residing on the other side of the mountain fear that they would also be dislocated if the affected communities insist on living upland with them. There are no forests that they could go back to or share since a large portion of their ancestral land is already bulldozed. Together with tenant farmers, the Ayta of Tarlac are resisting the community displacement and the completion of the Balog-Balog mega dam project.
Even with the adoption of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and enactment of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), indigenous peoples in the Philippines continuously experience historical discrimination, massive land grabbing, and food insecurity due to worsening climate change impact. IP communities are being constantly threatened with mining activities, energy projects, and construction of large infrastructures that do not directly benefit the people. This situation pushes the Ayta and other indigenous peoples to resist. Together, they stand with a call clear as their rivers: “These resources are ours. We should protect them.”