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ILOCOS NORTE, Philippines – On January 21, Joseph Padama navigated the rugged road for nearly an hour to reach the old Masamuyao settlement in the mountainous borders of Barangays Payac in Bangui, and Agaga in Burgos, Ilocos Norte.
His purpose? To check on the fruit trees planted by his grandfather in the place that once bore their swidden farm before heading to the wake of their former tribal chief in the nearby village of Pasuquin.
However, unlike previous years, he had to halt before the steel gates and guard house of Energy Logics Philippines, Inc. (ELPI) on the old dirt road. The part of their land where he planned to go was within the company’s solar power facility.
Padama said members of the Masamuyao community mainly visit the area for the fruit trees, especially the mangoes that need chemical sprays for it to flower and regular checks once the trees start fruiting.
He was denied access to where their fruit trees stand but was allowed to pass by the road to Pasuquin. The guards told him to refer his concern to their office in Laoag City. Bangui, where Padama lives, is an hour’s drive from Laoag.
“This is one of our problems, the construction of this [solar power facility] without consulting our tribe. We just learned about it when they were already building it,” Padama, the town’s Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative, said in Ilocano on January 21.
The tribe had raised the issue with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in at least three letters to its provincial and regional offices – in March and November 2021 and in March 2023.
According to him, the company’s fencing of the facility and restricting their access aggravated the issue.
“Up to now, no FPIC (free prior and informed consent) has been conducted…. Now, they are limiting our movement inside our ancestral domain,” he lamented.
Padama, one of the leaders of the Masamuyao Isneg Yapayao Tribal Council, said their territory extends to the eastern part of Barangays Cabayo in Vintar, the southern portion of Tadao in Pasuquin, the western section of Agaga, and a large chunk of Payac.
Open to dialogue
In a January 22 interview, ELPI onsite engineer Karl Mark Cariaga said the company was “willing to cooperate and settle the queries of the IPs and NCIP.”
He also clarified that they only restrict entry inside the solar farm to protect their facility and the public from untoward incidents. He added that those going should first coordinate with their office. According to him, they allow those who would just pass by the existing road.
Cariaga explained that the NCIP issued a certificate of non-overlap (CNO), allowing them to secure a Forest Landuse Agreement (FLAg) with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources without undergoing the FPIC process.
A CNO is a document issued by the NCIP confirming that the area for a particular undertaking does not overlap with or affect any ancestral domain.
A FLAg, meanwhile, allows an individual or juridical person to temporarily use and develop public forestland for specific purposes in consideration of a government share. The 25-year contract is renewable for another 25 years.
Rappler obtained a copy of the CNO dated July 24, 2008, for 2,079 hectares in Agaga, Burgos, and Dilavo and Sapat, Pasuquin, from the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office.
Meanwhile, the company’s FLAg covers more than 1,093 hectares of forest land in Payac, Agaga, Tanap, Sapat, and Dilavo, of which about 235 hectares is occupied by the solar farm.
Cariaga said they have connected the facility to the power grid. However, it is still being tested and not in commercial operation.
Show-cause order issued
In an interview, NCIP Ilocos Norte legal officer Jifford Rosqueta said that ELPI was informed as early as March 2019 that part of its facility falls within the Masamuyao ancestral domain. According to him, the company started its project in 2018.
“While it is true that a certificate of non-overlap was issued, that was corrected. It was later discovered that the ELPI construction site is within the ancestral lands of our IPs in Masamuyao,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English on January 22.
“What the office did back then was to call ELPI and require them to submit the necessary requirements for the application regarding their project to initiate the work order for the FPIC,” he added.
However, the company failed to submit all the requirements for their application to proceed.
According to Rosqueta, the company’s last communication with the office was in 2023, when its representative told NCIP that they would reapply for a certification precondition (CP). However, ELPI did not follow up after that.
The NCIP’s en banc issues the CP as proof that the proponent has complied with the FPIC process and the IPs consented to a project on their lands.
Rosqueta said: “We are really against this violation they (ELPI) committed, not observing FPIC. There is already a show-cause order asking them to explain.”
“Although they have already constructed [the facility], they cannot operate. Their units will just stay idle there because they need certification precondition first,” he added.
Rappler has reached out to ELPI regarding the NCIP’s clarification but has yet to receive a response as of posting. – Rappler.com