(First of two parts)
MANILA, Philippines – Until a decade ago, nights in Sitio Manggahan – a highland settlement of the Dumagat-Remontado, indigenous peoples (IP) rooted in Tanay, Rizal Province since the Spanish era – were restricted to students like Margie Amuin to do their homework by glowing gasoline lamps.
Then slowly, house by house, solar energy technology began to transform the Sierra Madre community: tribal leaders bought panels from Manila, then private organizations donated more. It was as if “a light switch had been turned on all over Manggahan,” recalls Amuin, now a 34-year-old teacher, on a certain night in 2014.
Almost all of the 150 houses in the Sitio are now solar-powered, first to banish the darkness and operate ordinary household appliances, and later to improve their disaster risk management and facilitate online learning for the children.
For environmental advocates, the shift shows, albeit on a small scale, how a basic solution can enable people facing common challenges to “plan their own energy futures”.
Off-grid for decades
The Dumagat Remontado consider a 24,000 acre portion of the Tanay Mountains to be their ancestral land. A 2020 census found that around 40,000 of them live in the villages of Daraitan, Laiban, and Sampaloc near the Agos River, where they maintain a semi-sedentary lifestyle, mainly supported by fishing and agriculture. (Few have ventured into the trade; when the pandemic struck last year, some local women turned to selling potted plants and embroidered face masks.)
But for generations the Dumagat households, especially in Daraitan and Laiban, have stayed off the grid, according to Octavio Pranada, a farmer who serves as a “Papu” or tribal leader.
A datasheet from the Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Management Bureau (DOE) states that it can be difficult to get power distribution companies to expand rural electrification programs to such locations “because of its relative unprofitable and unprofitable nature.”
For example, it can be difficult to connect a few households that are spread across miles of mountain roads.
The residents have been reliant on petrol lamps and battery-operated flashlights for years, recalls Imelda Bandilla, 35.
“It was impossible to keep the houses lit on windy nights, and then of course gasoline prices would go up too. And you couldn't make out a single soul outside, ”she said.
Fear of dislocation
Plans to build dams for hydropower in the area – such as the Laiban Dam proposed and later discontinued by President Benigno Aquino IIII, and now the smaller Kaliwa Dam project, which broke ground in June – are viewed by the Dumagat as a threat leading to their displacement and their land and livelihood underwater, said Arturo Tahup from the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC).
“That's why the government there never took social services seriously because the original plan was to submerge these communities.” [with the construction of the dam]“Said Tahup, ICSC director for community resilience.
It wasn't until this year that the Barangay governments started a survey asking residents of three Sitios if they wanted electricity from the grid, Pranada said. Many showed interest but were still concerned about the installation costs and monthly billing.
In 2014, Pranada said he learned about solar panels while listening to a radio broadcast. He went to Raon, a street in Quiapo, Manila known for its electronics and home appliance stores, and bought a 1,000 watt solar panel for 6,000 pesos and a battery for 7,000 pesos.
The setup could power 10 lightbulbs, a portable TV, and a radio for at least three days before it needs to be charged.
Expensive trips to town
The farmer learned from the Raon dealers himself how to set up everything from roof installations to portable generators.
The Dumagat families recently interviewed by the Inquirer gratefully named Pranada as bringing solar energy to their sites. At his urging, his neighbors started buying their own records.
“In the past, our paths that led down into the plain were pitch black at night. We had to go into town to charge our devices. That's P50 for the fare and P30 to 40 for the loading fee, ”recalled Bandilla.
In just five years, she observed, a new generation of Dumagat children will grow up without many of the hardships their parents endured.
While the up-front cost of installing the Dumagat is still high, “once you've invested in it and can protect it from damage, you can use it for years,” said Shirley Bello, 58, also of Sitio Manggahan. Her 50-watt panel and 58-volt battery, as well as a device technician's fee, cost her around 10,000 pesos in 2016.
Environmentalists cite the Dumagat experience as an example of how progress can be made in the campaign to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the CO2 emissions of which are a major contributor to climate change, without government initiative or commercial cost-benefit analyzes.
According to DOE data from 2019, 67.24 percent of the country's energy mix is still obtained from coal-fired power plants and only 32.76 percent from renewable energy sources (solar, wind and water).
As a signatory to the Paris Agreement or the 2015 Pact pledging to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Philippines are committed to promoting the use of renewable energy, said EU Commissioner Rachel Herrera of the Climate Change Commission (CCC).
“A more sustainable, climate-resilient development must necessarily include a path through renewable energies,” said Herrera. “This can be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that leaves no sector behind – by incorporating traditional and indigenous knowledge into policy-making, empowering indigenous communities, supporting research and development, and a just transition to a resource-efficient and sustainable source of energy. “
The Dumagat is a “good model … to stimulate the provision of support to other off-grid communities in rural areas to gain access to renewable and sustainable energy while helping to improve the government's electrification goals,” she said.
As the news of Dumagat's renewable energy history spread among stakeholders and donor groups, more solar panels and related equipment than donations entered the settlements.
Rodel Rotaquio, for example, received a 25-watt panel from the Catholic organization Regina Regis last January, enough for a lightbulb and a sound system.
“We finally got rid of the gas lamps that were a fire hazard in our nipa-paneled house,” he said.
The only school in the community, Magata-Manggahan Elementary School, received solar panels from the private group Jeepney Club in 2019. Since then, the teachers have been using the 1,000 watt power of the system for their laptops, electric fans and radios.
When in-person tuition was suspended due to the pandemic, the school basically served as a communal charging station for students' tablets and phones.
“[Solar energy] has become even more important to us now that the children have to study at home, ”said Amuin, the teacher. “Most of the parents here farm in the mountains during the day, so that they can only really observe the children's learning progress at night.”
In January, two more environmental groups – ICSC and 350.org – came to the villages to formally train residents on the technology and teach them how to adjust or maintain their facilities for optimal use.
ICSC and 350.org crowned the training with a donation of portable solar power generators. Two “Tekpaks,” as the sponsors called them, were stationed in the Barangay Hall and the Health Center, and a third was entrusted to a tribal leader.
The donations came with a background story: The generators were installed by “Solar Scholars” or people trained by 350.org in areas affected by natural disasters.
For example, one of the tekpaks was compiled by survivors of the 2013 super typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), said Chuck Baclagon, a regional activist with 350.org.
Thus, with solar energy, the Dumagat have achieved a level of resilience that other vulnerable communities generally lack.
So they are constantly exposed to extreme weather events caused by climate change, said Herrera of the CCC, and their situation is made worse by deforestation in the Sierra Madre and the upcoming construction of the Kaliwa Dam in General Nakar, Quezon.
These threats have not escaped the notice of the Dumagat, who consider themselves stewards of nature and who guard against anything that might destroy their ancient ties to the land.
“I've always reminded our people of these things because our tribe loves Mother Nature,” said Pranada. “We, the elders, admit that we lacked foresight and took the mountains for granted because we didn't think that a day would come when they would be threatened.”
“That's why we promised to plan ahead from now on,” he said, “so that the next generations don't inherit these problems.”
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(This story is supported by the Asian Center for Journalism's Climate Change Reporting Fellowship Program and Internews’s Earth Journalism Network.)
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