With their calloused feet testifying to a lifetime of traversing rock-strewn mountain paths, Corita and Jesus Fortunato are familiar with every corner of a lush valley straddling the river Kaliwa, in the Philippines’ Sierra Madre mountain range, where they have lived since they were born – although they don’t exactly know when that happened.
Their best guess is that they are both older than 80 and have probably been married for over 60 years. What they do know for certain is that they belong to the Dumagat, an indigenous Filipino ethnic group that holds the ancestral rights to the lands they have inhabited for centuries.
But they do not know if they will hold the rights for much longer.
The threat of displacement now hangs over their heads due to plans to build the Kaliwa Dam, one of the pet projects of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration financed by China, his main political and economic ally.
“I’m angry, sad and worried for future generations. We are already old, but our descendants won’t inherit these lands to which we Dumagat are anchored,” says Corita – who lives in a wood cabin with her husband, four children and four grandchildren.
Pagsangahan, the small village in which the family lives, devotes most of its economy to extracting wood from the climbing palm known as rattan, which grows abundantly in these mountains and is used to make furniture.
Every day, Corita and Jesus walk for at least 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) across the mountains, which they say are much more than that. “They are our supermarket and our hospital,” Corita explains, in reference to the medicinal value of the plants that have cured her ancestors’ illnesses since time immemorial.
“If they send us somewhere else, we won’t know what to do. Here is where we know how to survive,” adds her husband, to whom she was wed following the traditional Dumagat rite in which the bride and groom eat a betel nut previously chewed by their respective father-in-law.
Their land is sacred and of incalculable value. While they remain unnoticed by foreigners, the couple can easily identify all the mystical sites along the river and mountains, where they go to pray to their ancestors for good health and fortune.
They are worried because their family home is high in the mountains, in the area where the dam’s reservoir will be built. They have heard they will be relocated, but they have yet to receive official word from the authorities on this front.
What the government has said is that the dam will guarantee a stable water supply for the overpopulated capital, Manila – which currently suffers from periodic water cut-offs – by providing the megacity with 600 million liters (158.5 million gallons) a day.
The project, whose construction is set to start in June and expected to be finished by 2023, will have an estimated cost of 12.2 billion pesos (some $232.5 million), 85 percent of which is financed by Exim Bank, one of China’s many state banks that extend countless loans across the planet.
What the official narrative leaves out – but many in the Philippines fear – are the loan’s terms and conditions. The indigenous rights coalition Katribo says the deal’s small print allows China to take control over the area – which is rich in natural and mineral resources – if the Philippines is unable to keep up with the payment plan’s deadlines.
But the text of the agreement, signed last November during a trip to Manila by Chinese President Xi Jinping, “has not been made public, which goes against the law,” Katribo’s campaign coordinator, Joan Jaime, tells EFE.
Jaime, however, has been able to access the documents.
“The project is being sped up so that it’s up and running before the end of Duterte’s term. They are skipping the necessary legal steps,” she says.
The activist warns that the plan has not received the environmental certificate the law requires, nor the indigenous peoples’ consent, as the dam affects their ancestral domains.
Some talks have been held under the auspices of the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples, but most of the locals feel left out of the decision-making process.
“I don’t trust the Chinese. I don’t think the dam is the only thing that has brought them here. They want to exploit the resources of these lands that are rightfully ours. We’ve inherited them for generation after generation,” says 59-year-old Bernie Corral, the leader of one of the Dumagat communities directly affected by the dam.
The area is not solely inhabited by indigenous groups: there are also some farming communities who have settled there. About 300 families live on the lands that will become flooded when the dam is built, and over 2,000 families live along the Kaliwa river. They will always face the risk of being engulfed by water.
The government insists only 46 families will be affected.
“We, the Dumagat, will not allow either the Chinese or any other foreign government to control our land. We will fight tooth and nail. It’s not our fault if the government doesn’t pay,” Corral fiercely declares.
While some Dumagat have been summoned to take part in consultations about the dam’s construction on June 22, Corral says this is a “sham,” as bulldozers and other construction equipment have already been transported to the area.
He went to one of the meetings with the official certificate of ancestral land ownership in hand, but a government official told him the document was worthless if the president’s will was to build the dam.
Duterte is constantly touting an ambitious infrastructure plan he has dubbed "Build, Build, Build," through which he seeks to boost the country’s economy and create jobs.
The controversial president has forged a close partnership with China, and the Asian giant has promised him a generous amount of investment and loans while it develops its new Belt and Road Initiative that aims to shower much of the world with Chinese capital.
Pushed by a lack of land in other parts of Luzon island, thousands of non-indigenous farming families – known as Tagalogs – settled decades ago in the Sierra Madre, where they have lived in peace and harmony alongside the Dumagat.
They will also suffer the consequences of the dam’s construction, but they feel ignored by authorities. They were never asked about the issue nor are they a part of any relocation plans.
“The dam will be built with money from Filipino taxpayers – that is, our money – and I am mad about that. They say it’s for the progress of the country, but how are we going to progress?” says Dora Abordo, a 59-year-old Tagalog who was born in these lands.
Abordo left the valley for the nearby city of Infanta to pursue her secondary studies – a privilege few of her peers have access to – but returned to get married and start a family because, she says, it is the place where she belongs.
Some 4 kilometers downstream from Abordo’s home lies a community of 30 families who found out about the dam project only a few months ago.
“One day, contractors from a local company arrived here. We heard from them that construction was imminent and that we could get relocated,” says Milicio Sabiduria, a 60-year-old farmer with eight children and 20 grandchildren. “But no one in the local or regional governments has come to talk to us about the project or our future.”
All of the affected communities scattered across the fertile Sierra Madre belong to the municipality of General Nakar, which forms part of the province of Quezon. The local government has refused to make any moves to protect them.
“The mayor is pro-dam,” Sabiduria says.
He acknowledges that he is scared for his future. “I’m afraid of having a dam this close. If it breaks, if there’s an accident or simply if it loses some water, our surroundings will be flooded and these lands will become unfarmable. This is a danger to our way of life,” Sabiduria adds.
The area’s inhabitants practice a subsistence economy: they mostly grow rice and vegetables on a small scale, some breed a few chickens. Just enough to feed the family.
“There has been talk about the dam for years, but it seemed like something unlikely to me. Now it seems to be a reality,” says Josie Buendicho, a 48-year-old Dumagat woman who married a non-indigenous farmer and lives off the cultivation of rattan.
The dam project is not new. It was the brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos who first came up with the idea over three decades ago. All administrations that followed tried to revive the project, but failed due to local opposition until Duterte’s arrival, who seems hell-bent on carrying it out.
“I don’t want to leave this place. But if we cannot do anything to prevent it, I hope that at least they will relocate us to a place with a dignified home, a school for our kids and access to health care. And where we can continue farming the land,” Buendicho says.
Everyone there lives like a big family, but Sabiduria and Buendicho share even closer ties: his daughter and her son are married and, after 10 years trying, have become parents for the first time following the birth of Aliyah, who was born on the same day that the EFE team visited the community.
The baby girl was born large, they say, because her mother, Lorreline Conchada, drank very cold soda pop while pregnant, following a local superstition.
“I’m very happy to be a mother after such a long wait,” says the 26-year-old Conchada, who finally became pregnant after the village’s midwife gave her a traditional hilot massage to realign her uterus.
“I’m worried about the dam because of my daughter. I’m afraid they’ll expel us while she’s still small. I want her to grow strong and stress-free,” Conchada says while a constant trickle of well-wishing visitors passes through her house to greet the newest member of the community.
It is a community threatened with disappearing, devoured by the waters of Kaliwa.