September 23, 2020

The discourse around large-dams continues to fuel the word-war between proponents and opponents. The issue isn’t merely a topic of construction, but it has touched on economic, socio-cultural, and environmental subjects. Proponents have hailed large dams and dam projects as saviors of the economy while opponents decry its environmental impact. In the end, it’s the communities who suffer, and it’s their voices that need to be heard.

They presented two case studies in Myanmar and the Philippines in the webinar “Breaking the Barriers: A Webinar on the Impacts of Large-Scale Dams in Asia” last August 11, 2020.  The Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED), together with the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN), the International Indigenous People’s Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) organized the said webinar to highlight the stories of rural and Indigenous Peoples (IP) communities affected dam and dam projects.


Saw Tha Phoe of Environment and Social Action Network (KESAN) discussed the effects of large dams in the Karen Ethnic Territory in Myanmar, where several dams and dam projects are in line. According to his discussion, three (3) dams are already complete; two (2) dams are now having a memorandum of understanding (MoU) and pre-feasibility study, while four (4) more dams are proposed from 2016 until now. 

He also delved into the militarization of the Karen Ethnic territory. For 70 years, Karen territory conflicts with the Myanmar military that bred conflict and displacement among hundreds of Karen people. In 2010, Myanmar changed the form of government from military to civilian government. After the ceasefire in 2012, 2013 is a year of aggressive rural development. Ten (10) dams are proposed in the territory, and they are mostly Chinese and Thai investments.

The displaced Karen peoples face a lot of adversities. The refugee settlements are in dire and inhumane conditions while affected peoples have been poorly compensated at $3 per household. There is also no work or livelihood in the area, which exacerbates hunger and poverty among refugees. The experiences lead to grave mental health conditions among the refugees; they have reported feelings of depression and loneliness.


Kakay Tolentino of BAI Indigenous Women Network shared the stories of resistance from the hills of Sierra Madre in the Philippines. The proposed Kaliwa dam stands as a significant threat to Indigenous communities in three provinces that lie at the foot of the Sierra Madre, including a Dumagat Ancestral domain. The Sierra Madre is a 690-kilometer mountain range running from northern to southern Luzon in the Philippines. 

Kaliwa dam is part of the centennial water source project in Agos river, the Dumagat Indigenous people’s lifeblood in Southern Luzon, Philippines. The project is supposed to augment the source of freshwater in Metro Manila. The project was first hatched during the time of then-President Marcos during the 1980s. They shelved it during the Aquino Administration because of protests. The project’s revival followed through and continues until the present Duterte administration in 2017 the flagship “build, build, build” program. The Kaliwa dam is reportedly financed by China Energy Scheme Engineering Corporation, covering 85% of the total cost. 

The dam is foreseen to IPs from their territory and will submerge seven (7) villages, one of which has 720 families. The dam construction will also destroy Sierra Madre’s rich biodiversity with a total of two (2) Ecoregions, three (3) national parks, and 13 protected areas. Some of these areas are the sources of food and livelihood among the Dumagats and their culture and identity. 

Mega dams pose a significant threat to indigenous communities in Myanmar and the Philippines. It will endanger the already endangered biodiversities. It will aggravate hunger and poverty, and it will further marginalize the already marginalized indigenous population with the impending death and destruction brought by large dams and dam projects. It is only apt and justified that IPs, together with affected sectors, continue their militant assertion for their fundamental freedoms, rights, and welfare.