Science - November 11, 2004

Philippine company steals farmers' water

'Rice farmers on Mindoro Island see their water pits dry up, and they cannot do anything about it. A private water company is stealing their water,' says Janwillem Liebrand. The tropical land use student conducted research on this water conflict in the Philippines, a violent and corrupt country, where also foreigners have to watch their backs.

'The Philippines is well known for its human rights violations; there are many violent groups. When I was there, two police commissioners and a mayor were shot dead,' says Liebrand. He visited the Philippines from the end of March till July this year. It was a particularly violent time as elections were held in May. With 121 people killed, the election campaign was the deadliest in twenty years. But Liebrand, who likes to visit exotic, far away countries – he has travelled to India and Australia –, was in his element in this volatile island nation.

On one of the larger islands, Mindoro Island south of the capital city Manila, the student visited farmer communities and discovered how they are losing their greatest asset: water. The Calapan Waterworks System Development Corporation (CWSDC), a private water company, concentrated for a long time on the urban districts. But through political connections the company has now started digging wells in agricultural areas. For many generations the farmer communities used to divide the free groundwater supply among themselves.

Liebrand: ‘As a result of the private water company’s activities, some of the farmers’ wells have dried up completely. And the water company does not supply water to the rural people, because they are not connected to the waterworks infrastructure.'

During his time on Mindoro Island, Liebrand got close to the farmer community. He stayed with the families of community leaders, who introduced the student to the world of political games and violent conflicts between the various movements. 'Everything in life there is politically coloured. The farmers I stayed with were on the side of the leftwing opposition and I met mountain people who belong to the communist New Peoples Army (NPA).' This terrorist group fights government troops but has also shot tourists. There are also various Islamic separatist groups. Liebrand: 'You do have to be careful; you have to watch out that you do not get too involved. I never took sides and always said that I am independent.'

The student also visited Manila and a Catholic order of Dutch missionaries, that Liebrand’s father had belonged to many year’s ago, but he says his most exciting moment came when visiting the Calapan Waterworks System Development Corporation. 'It was a big challenge to get information from this company about the recent extraction of groundwater in agricultural areas.' Farmers who had tried before him had had a lot of trouble getting this information. 'It was an advantage to be an outsider.' The student concluded that the private water company is certainly aware of the harm it is doing, extracting massive amounts of groundwater, and leaving the poor farmers with almost nothing. /HB

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