MalMar

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The small unassumingĀ thingĀ in the middle of it all.

I remember as an kid waking up to the morning news on AM Radio that often mentioned the Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project.

I never really understood the issue, being caught up in the quirkiness of the name and of other childish matters. All I know was that the project, whatever it was, was built far away. To a child, everywhere else that’s unfamiliar is far away; every mile a chance at a new adventure.

I later learned that at the heart of the project is an irrigation dam deep in the town of Carmen, built to supply the rice fields of North Cotabato and Maguindanao. I also learned that it is built in the heart of the stomping grounds of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, who have been waging a decades long struggle for autonomy and secession. I won’t elaborate on the convoluted history of the Moro struggle here, but that fact alone meant going there for a leisurely sightseeing stroll was unlikely. Any mention of “I wanna go there and see the place for myself” would have most likely been met with quips along the line of “Are you crazy/serious? You’ll get shot!” And indeed there was a degree of reason behind the incredulity of us outsiders, as the place was a hotbed of conflict then. It wasn’t along the highway, and roads in those areas back then were iffy, to say the least.

Against this backdrop, you can imagine my excitement when I got the chance to pop round for a quick visit a while back. We were doing a field visit to one of the NGO’s partner communities in Carmen when we happened to mention the place over a hot cup of their home-brewed coffee and some tasty Kumukunsi, a local delicacy. Our host, who was a local barangay councilor, casually offered to take us there. It turned out to be only a couple of kilometers away from the village. We, of course, were immediately game and starting up the car. The place was now far more peaceful, it now had good roads and electricity, and there was a palpable air of stability in the area.

Let me digress for a moment: As an outsider travelling through a Bangsa Moro area, to have a relatively good indicator of the peace and order situation in an area, look at the local houses, specifically what they’re made of. The Bangsa Moro, being unfortunate victims of conflict and subsequently being constantly displaced, would not bother to use anything other than light materials like wood and thatch to build a house in a conflict-ridden area. They might end up leaving anyway so what’s the point of spending on a house? Any village that has a proliferation of houses that have concrete is surely more peaceful and stable, as the people know that it’s already good to invest in more permanent materials.

Let’s go back to the dam itself. As is the case with most agricultural projects, it’s not much to look at in terms of aesthetics or grandeur. The main road runs over the top of the dam, so it serves the dual purpose of dam and bridge, and aside from a permanent military camp located next to the dam and a few houses around it, the place is still decidedly rural. Around the dam is a patchwork of cornfields, lots planted with bananas, and unused farms given over to Cogon grass. For the photo, we had to go through somebody’s home lot to get this vantage point. To my chagrin, my camera’s batteries were already low after a day of taking photos on half-charge (basic mistake, I know) so I didn’t waste that much time taking quick pans. I resigned myself to spending the rest of our visit there enjoying the view and taking in the details.

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Here’s a view of the area as seen from space, taken from 3 separate Landsat images in false color rendering. The middle image (1994) shows the blue dot in the middle of the 2 river bends where the dam is at present.

As unassuming as it is, the dam dominates the location. When we went there, all the sluice gates were closed, and the water level was high. Weeks of rain upstream have swollen the river, and filled it with driftwood of various sizes, which were all tangled on the sluice gates under the dam’s top roadway. The roar of the water overtopping the dam’s spillway (which is the bit of white water to the right of the photo) drowns out everything else in the vicinity, including passing motorcycles, sounds coming from the houses, and children playing and selling fish caught in the river itself: Mudfish with their toothy gapes, silvery Paitan, and the ubiquitous foreigner that is Tilapia. As unassuming as it is, the dam’s presence is always felt not just in the area, but to the rice fields it supplies with water. If the huge river-like irrigation canals were to run dry, farmers far away would surely notice.

Aside from its location, what was the most well-known (or notorious) feature about the dam, though, was the fact that given its small scale (though to be fair they had to divert part of the river and dig up an artificial reservoir), it took 4 presidencies and a couple of decades for it to finally get finished. There’s a dearth of hard facts online about the project, but for sure, lives were lost during the course of its construction, if not to accidents then surely to conflict which flared up around it. It’s also safe to say that corruption would have had its effects as well. To an outsider, I have to say though that given the mystery that has been with me ever since those early morning news items, I had a bit of an “oh, so this is what all the fuss was about” moment as I stared at the murky waters of the dam’s reservoir. We bought the fish being sold there, which we would later give to our impromptu guide as a thank you gift, started the car, and headed back out, heading through a decidedly Bangsa Moro landscape of friendly but stern looking men, graceful Arabic script on small household mosques (yes, every fifth house or so has its own mosque), and women and girls wearing their multicolored Tandung (their name for the headscarf) that stand out well against the dull light of an overcast afternoon.

In hindsight, the dam becomes a symbol of the Bangsa Moro issue. It’s long history plagued with conflict and corruption is analogous to the struggle of the Bangsa Moro not only to overcome the stigma of confict and achieve self-determination, but to wrest free of the chronic neglect & stigmatization foisted upon them not only by the distant capital, but by the rest of Mindanao as well. And like the Bangsa Moro issue, the dam’s history is aslo still an unfolding process. The dam itself constitutes the long-winded first phase of a much larger project, and Phase 2 is finally well underway. For the Bangsa Moro, likewise, the unfolding of their collective history continues.

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