THE SIFFU RIVER CHALLENGE

Penelope B. Lumines (On June 1-3, 2011, NIA-KIMP-IMO facilitated the conduct of a preimplementation meeting with the adversely affected individuals in Tuboy, Banawel, Natonin, as well as a walkthrough of the proposed reservoir and dam which started upstream at Tuboy and Bunag, Banawel following the Siffu River downstream to Bananao, Paracelis. The writer is one of the representatives from Natonin LGU who joined the aforementioned activities not only to respond to call of duty but likewise, as she had graciously admitted to me, to accompany me being the only lady among the group to take this undertaking. True to her word, she is sharing us her personal account of the experience we dubbed as expressed in the title above. – LFD). Flowing for eons, the Siffu River is the main river system traversing Natonin and Southern Paracelis. It also serves as a mute witness to change and the passing of time. Man has only about over two hundred years of history in Natonin while the Siffu existed for millions of years. As the giver of life to both man and beast, the people of Natonin held the Siffu in reverence and spun a rich cache of lore and legend about it. Yet the winds of change have been unleashed leaving no surface of this earth untouched. The Siffu is no exception. It is also subject to change and alteration. A bailey bridge has been recently constructed in Namfetoen, Tufuy connecting Natonin to neighboring Aguinaldo in Ifugao. Two proposed dams are to be built on the Siffu. The HEDCOR has proposed to build a mini-hydro dam in Laken or the upper Sifu within the territorial jurisdiction of Barangay Balangao and the NIA is building an irrigation cum hydo-power dam at the lower Siffu named as the UPPER BUTIGUE SMALL RESERVOIR IRRIGATION PROJECT (UB-SRIP) most likely at the boundary of Paracelis and Natonin. The UB-SRIP will have a dam of thirty-five meters height and a reservoir of six kilometers long upstream the Siffu. It will service Bananao, Butigue, Palitod, Anonat and Muliang, all barangays of Paracelis. When the dam is operational it is expected to turn Paracelis into a main producer of rice. It is also hoped to rake in revenues for Natonin when the hydro-power is installed. The Sifu River has its headwaters in the whole valley of Natonin, Kadaklan, Barlig and Maducayan. The two main tributaries of the Siffu are the Laken River (LaKEN) which has its headwaters at Kadaklan located at western tip of the valley and the Tufuy River which has its headwaters in Maducayan, a barangay of Natonin located north east, near the Kalinga border. The Laken River traverses the southernmost portion of the main valley of Natonin while

the Tufuy River traverses the Tufuy Delta itself, hence the name. All streams and brooks running down the main valley of Natonin converge at Laken. The two rivers converge in Achurawen in Tufuy, and from there, they flow as one river down to Roxas, Isabela. The name Tufuy includes the river, the plains of Achurawen and the surrounding mountains. Though it forms part of the Natonin Valley, Tufuy is in itself a valley, surrounded on all sides by low lying mountains with the plains of Achurawen serving as the basin or floor. It is lower in elevation and warmer than the main valley as the topography starts descending to Paracelis on the northeastern side, Alfonso Lista on the southeastern side and Aguinaldo, Ifugao on the southern side until it finally drops down to the flat lands of Isabela. Years back, the NIA has constructed the Tuboy Communal Irrigation System supposedly to irrigate the wide plains of Tufuy (Achurawen) but unfortunately there is no improved road network that would motivate the farmers to produce rice for market in Natonin Poblacion and Bontoc as well as in Santiago, Isabela; thus, the system though operational with abundant water all year round is not actually fully utilized by the beneficiaries. The Sungsung Dam in Roxas was the first dam to be constructed on the Siffu. Built in the late ‘50s, the Sungsung Dam is largely responsible in turning the Mallig Region into a rice bowl. Achurawen is a delta formed by the convergence of the two rivers. Its fertile soil supported a rich ecosystem; the river, the plains and dipterocarp forests. It hosted a rich diversity of flora and fauna. The Balangaos of Eastern and Central Natonin particularly from Barangays Banawel, Balangao and Butac cultivated the plains of Achurawen for decades. They made patches in the forest called uma using the slash and burn method. They planted rice and vegetables in their uma(s) to augment the rice they produced in their rice paddies back home. The whole delta served as hunting ground for the people of Natonin as it was teeming with wild game like deer, wild pigs, wild carabaos, monkeys, wild dogs, wild chickens and many kinds of birds, reptiles, and insects. Most of these animals are now extinct. The river teemed with different kinds of fish; olecheo (kurilao), kechiw (udingan), ekan, burasi or butyog (carp) and eels called chalet by the locals. The chalet is the salmon of the Siffu. The locals prized the fillet of the chalet above all other fish. Shellfish like aggama (crabs) and agku-u (shrimp) and mollusks called loso and uchilah were also abundant. The most interesting denizen of the Siffu was the LAMAG or crocodile. Its predatory nature, strength and size, made the lamag the undisputed lord of the Siffu. It was feared by both man and beast. Owing to its amphibious nature, the lamag hunted both on the river and the surrounding forest. Yet it

was also hunted for food because the folks here say that the flesh of the lamag is tasty with a fishy flavor. Unfortunately, the lamag is now extinct. The locals of Natonin gave names to portions of the river running through their localities. The northernmost portion is Laken to the Balangaos. The portion passing the warmer part of the valley within Barangay Banawel is called Tufuy or Tuboy. THE TREK A long time friend, Engr. Leticia Faed-Dacawe came to Natonin last year and mentioned to me that the NIA plans to build a dam in the Tufoy area. Letty and I met in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya where I was teaching in a private school and she was an agricultural engineering student at the Nueva Vizcaya State University. She was hired by the NIA upon passing the board exams. Letty e-mailed me about the pre-implementation activities for the UB-SRIP which included a meeting with stakeholders, affected land owners and a walk through the proposed dam site. When the NIA Team arrived on May 31, they paid a courtesy call to Mayor Mateo Chiyawan to inform him that the proposed activities will push through. The NIA Team was composed of seven members: Engr. Samuel Bahiwag, Team Leader, Engr. Leticia Dacawe, Irrigation and Development Officer, Leoncio Vicente, Abraham Bangaan, and Ferdie Estrada. They required representatives from the Mayor’s and the Assessor’s Offices and the Project Focal Person to join the activity. Bernard Foryasen, our MPDC was the designated Focal Person for the project while Ansel Abuac was designated as Assessor’s representative. I volunteered as Mayor’s Representative. My proposal was met with knowing smiles from the men in the LGU. They didn’t believe I could make it. They thought I was too fat to hike or I was not sturdy enough. As the mayor’s executive assistant, I am occasionally invited to represent my boss in project inspections. I joined the Makamasang Tugon Team in some of their inspection rounds. We climbed a steep mountain side to inspect an intake tank. The terrain was so steep and the vegetation dense making it necessary to do a Tarzan in some parts of the way which could not be negotiated by foot. I accompanied the RN-HEALS nurses in some of their vaccination rounds in the barangays. Thus, I believed I had sufficient credentials to join the Siffu trek. The pre-implementation activities were scheduled from June 1-3. We would travel to Bunag by motor vehicle where we will meet the affected land owners and barangay officials of Banawel. After the meeting we will hike to Lakayen located downstream where we will camp for the night. The next day we will continue to trek downstream to the proposed dam site in Mabullog. The finish

line is Bananao, Paracelis in the house of Punong Barangay Marciano Lappao, Jr. We will hike 18 kilometers from Bunag to Bananao following the river. Letty purchased provisions for the activity. She and the rest of the NIA team looked for a vehicle that would bring us to Bunag. They finally settled for Cheng Amsia’s elf truck. Without much haggling, Cheng agreed to bring us to Bunag. It is about fifteen kilometers to Bunag from the Natonin Poblacion. A road is cut through the Tufuy Valley to Ifugao in 1994. The road is the shortest route to Santiago City as it connects the town directly to Aguinaldo, Ifugao skirting the circuitous Paracelis route. We started at 9:00 A.M. We loaded our provisions on the truck. Letty and I took the front seat. The men occupied the cargo hold. The truck was filled when we started. People going to Tufoy hitched as it would take them two or three hours to reach the place on foot. As we passed the abaca forests of Pangtor and Manornor, Letty remarked that the patupat makers of Bontoc buy banana leaves for their patupat while banana leaves are abundant here. Abaca or fuwi in the local dialect are endemic to the mountains of Natonin. They are also called farat hen tokag (monkey’s banana). The Local Government Unit of Natonin hopes to develop the abaca industry as the main industry of the town. Letty knows this place better than I do as she had been here several times due to her job. It took us more than an hour to reach Bunag. Cheng expertly negotiated the rough road. He was not only a good driver but a good tour guide as well. He pointed to us the names of places we passed and taught us how to tell an abaca (fuwi) from a banana tree. According to Cheng, the leaves of the banana tree tend to bend toward the ground while the leaves of the fuwi point up straight to the sky. It’s harvest time in Tufoy. The rice planted in the paddies in Khanay and Chumilang were already being harvested. (Khanay and Chumilang are part of the service areas of Tuboy CIS). The robustness of the rice plants tell that indeed the soil in Tufoy is very fertile. We came to Namfetoen, the largest settlement in the valley of Tufuy. There were about thirty houses (that could be seen along the road, others are hidden in the thick forest), a barangay health station a church and a concrete drying pavement. About two hundred meters from the settlement, we came to the newly completed bailey bridge. Before the bridge was constructed, people and motor vehicles were stranded on both sides when the river swelled especially during rainy season. Only a few intrepid souls dared cross when the water is high. Some lost their lives in doing so. The bridge is a dream come true. It hastened mobility and saved lives as people no longer fear being carried away or drowning while crossing the river.

We stopped at the house of Kagawad Michael Fangonon in Bunag. The men cooked lunch. We ate buko picked from the kagawad’s coconut trees. While lunch was being cooked, Artemio Lamong, our guide called me to a portion of the road and pointed to me a visible portion of the river called Fuyfuy. “That’s our destination”, he said. The emerald pool seemed quite close. I surmised it would take less than a half hour’s walk from where we were. After lunch of pork, vegetables and rice, we had the meeting. Letty, assisted by Sam facilitated the meeting. All parties aired their sides. There was no real adverse opposition to the project. Violent reactions are not expected as there are neither villages nor farms to be submerged. The main concern of the affected landowners was whether or not the government would pay them right. Leoncio and I took down notes. The meeting adjourned at 2:30pm. We started the trek down to Fuyfuy after the meeting. The men carried our provisions. As they walked faster, Letty and I were left behind. We followed the road until we came to the one room school house of Bunag. The men were nowhere in sight. They had gone far ahead. Julio Lamong, Artemio’s uncle waited for us in the school ground. This is where the path to Fuyfuy starts. Julio kept pace with us as we might get lost. The path was cut through the forest. What I thought to be a short walk almost took an eternity. Our shirts stuck to our bodies as it is hotter in these parts. The path was downhill and winding. We exchanged only a few words for we needed to conserve our energy for the trek. As we walked, Letty mentioned to me that Engr. Apil himself, the NIA Boss visited this area and walked this path. The irrigation executive must have been impelled by devotion to his job or a sheer sense of adventure to leave the comforts of his office to come to the outback. We passed a few uma(s). Life has not changed much since the time of our forebears. Up to this day, people still homesteaded in Tufoy using the same system of farming. Women carry their produce on their heads and the men on their atofang, balancing two baskets suspended on a wooden pole on their shoulders. They walk three hours to the Poblacion to sell their products for only a pittance. Yet they don’t complain, they took life as it came and patiently go through the grind of daily life hoping that things will get better. They see the construction of the road and the bridge as signs that that there is hope for economic advancement in the Tufoy area. The proposed dam is projected as another herald of hope for Tufoy. It is expected to bring in jobs, more livelihood opportunities and serviceable roads. I feared encountering a cobra or a python as we came to portions of the path where the foliage and vegetation was thick but I kept my fears to myself. These reptiles are the hardiest among the wild denizens of Tufoy. They adapted well

to change and human encroachment on their environment and survived. We finally reached the homestead of Lewaleo Chumawin by the river bank. We were in Fuyfuy at last. The men were waiting for us. This is the fechangan or crossing point. The fechangan is the shallow portion of the river which can be crossed on foot. It was not as close as I thought, because I calculated the distance in air miles. After a few minutes rest, they gave the go signal to cross. The men stripped down to their briefs. They have to keep their clothes and backpacks dry. It was more convenient to cross with less clothes on. As they crossed, they held their backpacks over their heads. Watching them, I could tell that the current must be strong at the middle. Artemio came back for Letty and me. He already brought over our bags to the opposite bank. I went first. I held his hand as we crossed. The water was chest high and the current was very strong at the middle even during summer. The strength of the current tested my confidence. I learned to swim as a child yet I still feared being carried away. When we reached the opposite bank, Artemio made one last trip across for Letty. Like me, she held on to Artemio’s hand. Having grown up in more urban Bontoc, she didn’t have much experience with rivers. She sort of panicked and both shrieked and laughed while crossing. Later she admitted to us that her prime concern was not being carried away but she was afraid her dentures might fall into the water. We swam for a few minutes on the shallower and more placid parts. Letty and Sam took turns taking pictures. The walk through is a onetime activity. When the dam is constructed, all the landmarks will be submerged thus there is a need to preserve them at least in photos before they go underwater forever. After resting, we proceeded to Moses Lamong’s homestead in Lakayen. Moses is the father of Artemio. Again we were left behind as the men walked faster ahead. We reached a fork in the path where the men put a marker pointing to our destination. Moses Lamong’s homestead was only a few minutes away from the fork. The homestead consisted of two houses, a granary, some mango trees and rice paddies. We sipped barako while the men prepared to cook in a makeshift outdoor kitchen. Uncle Moses and his wife Aunt Long-ay were harvesting rice when we arrived. They stopped working when we arrived to attend to us. They brought home two large pineapples. We will never forget those pineapples. They were so juicy and sweet. While the rice was cooking, Ferdie Estrada gleefully opened a sando bag revealing seven pieces of large white mushrooms. At first glance they looked like the edible type called kad-ar. But they had yellowish rings on the crown. Most were doubtful if they were edible until Ferdie was finally persuaded to throw them away.

We took turns bathing in the brook which is quite pristine. The brook is named Afichong. When it was Letty’s and my turn to bath, we found Manong Abe already bathing in the brook. He bade us to go upstream. As we went up and we told him, “pagdigos mo ti kabkab mi (you bath with grime from our bodies).” He said, “it is alright because water purifies itself.” Letty and I enjoyed the water. The temperature was just right. The water was clear and we could see some aggama crawling on the floor of the stream and kechiw (fish) swimming. After supper of pork, wild ampalaya and pako which are abundant in the river bank, we had an informal meeting. Uncle Moses was wistful. A man in his seventies, he worked for two decades in the mines to support his family. Now retired from mining, he opted to settle in Lakayen as the soil here is more fertile than in his native Balangao. “This is the only piece of land I inherited from my father. It has fed my family for many years. I would not exchange it for a sack of money. What will I do with money; I could spend it in an hour while I could pass this land on to my grandchildren.” Letty and the rest of the group tried their best to win him over. They offered to buy the land. They proposed fish cage operation further explaining that this would rake in more money than subsistence farming. We were not sure if we convinced the old man, but in the end he said, “haan tayo nga maabak ti gobyerno nu ipilit da nga aramiden ti dam ngem ti dawatek ket kaasian na kami kuma met nga malmes ti daga na (We can’t beat the government if it is bent on building the dam. But it should at least be kind to us whose lands will be submerged.)” Letty and the rest of the group assured him that his land will be paid but normal government processes should be observed and that the dam is for the good of the greater majority as many of the beneficiaries downstream trace their origins from Natonin and that it would spell out economic progress. It would bring in employment opportunities and alternative livelihood like fish cage operation. Most of those present were hesitant at first but after a few sips of gin, they mustered the guts to ask questions. Some issues which did not crop up in the Bunag meeting were brought out in the open. Before retiring for the night, Uncle Moses told us that he and a companion spotted a lamag in Borobor, a portion of the river downstream. He wore a serious countenance but I had the inkling that he made up the story to scare Letty and me. We slept on the floor of the main house. The men slept in the empty house. Only the two of us had blankets and a mat. After breakfast, the next morning Punong Barangay Roberto Malwagay bade us goodbye. He came with us as his presence was required being the punong barangay of Banawel where the project site is located. He and Pedro Bananao have to go back to Natonin proper. We proceeded to make a sample parcellary

survey of Ignacio Yangag’s lot to show the others how the NIA will inventory their properties for payment. After conducting the survey, we were again on our way. We walked through the forest until we reached a portion of the river called Chumpela. Artemio explained that we skirted a pool named Tayeo by passing through the forest. The pool is named after the Tayeo River, a tributary of the Siffu originating from Aguinaldo, Ifugao. We continued clambering along the pakidped. We crossed the river and this time the current was not as strong as it was in Fuyfuy but the stones on the floor were slippery so we used canes in crossing. Engr. Lorenzo Pakinkin, Jr. a.k.a Manong Ruben jokingly told the group that he would not hold the hands of the ladies because he is a widower and it is panyew or taboo. Engr. Pakinkin is the UB-SRIP Focal Person for Paracelis. An Electrical Engineer by profession, he was employed for more than a decade as member of the maintenance team for the Ambuklao Dam. He is a handsome man of a gentle nature. He lost his wife to cancer a few years back. The path wound into the jungle again where lianas hang from the trees. It’s like being in the Amazon sans the jaguars, anacondas and other exotic animals. But only a tiny patch of primeval forest is left in Tufoy. Most are secondary growth as most of the original forests were cleared for kaingin before. As we walked we passed several chain saw hewn lumbers. Some of them were narra. There is unrelenting narra poaching in the area as narra lumber commands a handsome price in the black market. The introduction of the chain saw greatly diminished the forest as it could fell down a large tree in minutes. The water is low as it is summer, we could see the water marks. If one is to see the river in its might and splendor, one must come here during rainy season or in the aftermath of a typhoon. The water would cascade in torrents literally thundering its way down to Isabela. Bits of plastic bags, plastic casings and other trappings of modernity were visible. These were from the villages upstream. Soap and chemicals and other pollutants introduced into the lives of the locals destroyed the rivers. The fish and the animals didn’t all die from hunting. The destruction of their habitat, exposure to chemicals all contributed to their extinction. There are no more large trees for the araw to nest, no more food for the lamag and the naga. The forest is silent, only bird sounds are audible. There are no more monkeys on the trees. Even the population of the powerful ferat the only predator remaining has dwindled to the point of extinction. The huge ones no longer exist. The few hatchlings that survive do not grow into adulthood as they are killed by people who encounter them because ferat meat is also a delicacy to many people here. At about eleven we reached Wekasan, the homestead of the Basbasans. Again the men cooked lunch with essentially the same fare of rice, pako and pork.

The homestead is abandoned. My thoughts were on my grand aunt Faustina and her husband Apo Esteban Basbasan who worked this forest to send their four children to school. Their efforts paid off; today they have two teachers, a policeman and Cirilo, an LGU employee who is part of the group to represent his family’s interest in the project. After lunch we continued the trek to Mapantar. We were already at the riverbank when Artemio shouted that we go back for we took the wrong path. He explained that it is better to take the path through the forest as the pakidped in this area is slippery. As we walked, Leoncio, one of the two tasked to do the survey said they would camp on the houses when they survey in Wekasan. Manong Ruben dished him a good piece of advice. He warned him to check every nook and cranny before settling down for the place is abandoned making it a perfect hiding place for pythons and other reptiles. We came to a point where we have to cross the river again. The water is placid here. There is no strong current. This time, Letty conquered her fear of the water and crossed the river like a pro. When we reached the opposite bank, we have to take the pakidped again. The pakidped is now craggy and slippery we have to walk carefully. We reached Mapantar, the homestead of the Lapasen’s. The terrain is benign. I was at the head of the file with Efren Nagyasan and Julio Lamong ahead. Letty was at the rear taking pictures. They were fast hikers and I kept up with their pace. We left the rest behind. We could see the water marks along the path including fine sand. When the water swells, it could rise thirty feet higher than its current level. There were several fruit trees like mangoes and santol in the homestead but it is abandoned. Efren broke away to gather mangoes. He said it would be our reward when we reach Bananao. When we reached Mabullog, I felt my stamina give out. I had no energy I wanted to lay down and sleep but my companions encouraged me to go on. We could not camp here. We have to reach Bananao before nightfall. We took short rests along the way. We came to an extremely rocky portion which was rather difficult to negotiate. Artemio remarked that this portion used to be the home of the lamags. Decades back, lamags sunned themselves atop these rocks. We came to a cave where hunters camped and found rice, blankets, pots and soap. The owners were elsewhere in the forest. We took pictures in the cave. We went on with me trudging along. We came to a pool called Abfot Araw (hornbill’s nest). It’s a long pool about a kilometer long. It was past one o’clock and the sun shone directly on the pool. We were all exhausted and thirsty. The water looked so tempting. Everyone resisted the urge to jump into the pool. Doing so would mean death for we were exhausted and exposed to the sun for several hours. The banks used to be a crocodile hatchery. Crocodiles nested along the banks for the warmer temperature was perfect for

hatching the eggs. In the forest above, hornbills bore holes in the trees where they laid their eggs, hence the name Abfot Araw. Seeing me worn out, my companions kidded that our destination, the dam site, was still five kilometers away. We finally reached the dam site at Mabullog. This is where the water will be impounded. The wall of the river is a solid rock formation up to the peak. NIA engineers have been here before. They did drilling jobs. They took rock and soil samples. The boundary to Paracelis was close about a kilometer away, a part called Borobor. I was told we have to clamber over huge boulders. Finally Artemio bade us to pass through a grassy hill called Nansakernan for he and the rest of the men were apprehensive that the two females of the group could not negotiate the boulders. We began the climb from the river. The hill was about a thousand feet high. We passed bamboo groves which gave way to grasses when we reached the middle. The grass grew in clumps leaving spaces in between. We walked between the grass clumps. I walked like an old woman leaning on a cane. The men took turns kidding me. They said they could see nothing but regret on my face for joining the trek. I didn’t regret joining, I simply was too tired. Artemio carried my backpack. When we reached the peak, I plopped down in exhaustion, there was no breeze. Leoncio fanned me with his hat. The view from the top was panoramic. We could see the cornfields and the rolling hills of Bananao. From that point, one could see that the river meandered following the contour of the hill we were standing on. We only took a short cut. We will cross the river again when we descend to the base. We started the descent down the other side. Smoke rose from the corn fields. The stalks were being burned in preparation for the next planting. We eventually reached Valdez Lapasen’s homestead. From this place it is only an hour’s hike to Bananao. We rested and started again. Across the cornfield is the ogee dam. It was built years ago to irrigate the rice farms of Butigue. However, vast acres of potential rice lands remain unirrigated, hence the necessity for the construction of the UB-SRIP. We crossed the cornfield to the dike of the ogee. We have to cross the river by going down the dike and crossing the crest. There were only about 3 footholds and weariness had drained my guts. I was afraid to go down the dike. I needed assistance. The men helped me to the edge of the crest. We held on the hands of the men because the crest was submerged under water and was quite slippery. We clambered up to the embankment and went down again to the irrigation canal. Letty said “napintasen ti dalan ta diretso ken patad daytoy inggana Bananao.” We walked on the concrete cover of the irrigation canal. Letty is right. We

were already in the plains. No more rivers to cross or hills to climb. The sky is now overcast. We could hear the distant peal of thunder. We have to hurry. We must reach Bananao before the rain started falling. We were in the open field where we might be hit by lightning. We walked on until we reached a bend where the Bananao bridge was visible. I felt elated. Home at last! The bridge looked so close but weariness made me feel it would take forever to reach it. Finally we reached the national road. Kapitan Lappao’s house was just a few meters away. As we approached the gate we were greeted by laughter from the men sitting on the kiosk across the road. They were supposed to be part of the group but they detoured to Paracelis. Our haggard exhausted looks made us perfect laughing stocks. The worse thing, I walked on a cane. The Kapitan has a neat commodious compound. He built a kiosk close to the main house where he entertained guests. The gracious kapitana ordered refreshment for us. We held the Exit Conference after the refreshment. Manong Ruben congratulated both Letty and me for holding on. We knew we slowed down the men but they were patient with us. We didn’t want to unnecessarily burden them. They carried our provisions and did all the cooking. Perhaps they were grateful that we didn’t ask to be carried. The next day, the NIA group headed south to Santiago City on their pick up while Hon. Lappao himself drove us to Poblacion Paracelis where we took the PUJ back to Natonin. -o-

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