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The Cordillera Experience

Aeta Kid. (.bullish/Flickr)

Aeta Kid. (.bullish/Flickr)

The Cordillera Indigenous Peoples, Their Environment and Human Rights

The Cordillera Region

The Cordillera Region is composed of the central mountain ranges located in Northern Luzon, Philippines. It has a total land area of approximately 1.75 million hectares or 17,500 square kilometers. The provinces comprising the Cordillera region are Abra, Mountain Province, Kalinga, Apayao, Ifugao, Benguet, and the city of Baguio. The present population of the region is approximately 1.3 million.

The headwaters of major river systems in northern Luzon originate in the Cordillera Region such as the Chico river, the Agno river, the Amburayan river, the Abulog and Apayao twin rivers and the Abra river. The Cordillera Region is known for its rich mineral deposits, such as gold and copper found in the mineral belt traversing the entire mountain region. Primary gold reserves is estimated to be 1,964,060 metric tons and primary copper at 960,634,900 metric tons. It is also known for its forest endowment of hard wood and other varieties of trees. Forests occupy approximately 68.57% of the Cordillera’s land area, but this was reduced to 46.28% by 1997. The soils of the Cordillera are generally rich. However, because of its rugged terrain, very steep slopes, and erosive characteristic, there is only a small percentage of land devoted to agriculture of wide area.

The Cordillera Region is the ancestral homeland of the Cordillera indigenous peoples, collectively referred to as the “igorots”, meaning “people of the mountain”. There are seven (7) major ethnolinguistic groups or peoples, namely the Kankanaeys, the Bontocs, the Kalingas, the Ifugaos, the Tingguians, the Apayao or Isneg and Ibaloy. However, these are the popular reference to indigenous groups, but there are more “peoples” as distinct as “ili”. “Ili” is a self identifying group of indigenous people, with their own defined territory as their ancestral land, and their own indigenous socio-cultural systems.

The culture and ways of life of the Cordillera indigenous peoples have common and diverse characteristics. The common features are found in their concept of ancestral land ownership and collective management of the land. The symbiotic relationship between the people and the land and environment is highly developed in the region, such that land is equated with life itself.

The economic system of indigenous peoples is largely subsistence economy. The agricultural cycle from planting to harvesting is collectively performed by the people, and certain rituals and indigenous practices are observed. There are also indigenous practices for the management of communally owned land and resources such as forests and river bodies. Community unity, collective work, mutual cooperation and assistance, selflessness and upholding the common good are the underlying values of villagers and tribes for peaceful co-existence.

Indigenous socio-political systems are widely practiced in the region, such as decision-making by consensus where the opinion of elders is given premium. The cycle of life, from birth to death, is highly regarded by the performance of certain rituals upholding the sanctity of life, and death is seen as a process of joining the spirit world.

Although the indigenous systems are now disintegrating rapidly mainly due to external factors and also internal developments, the indigenous peoples relationship with their land remains relatively strong.

The Cordillera region, although predominantly populated by the Cordillera indigenous peoples, has at present a significant presence of non-indigenous population roughly estimated to be 15-20% of the population, mostly living in the city of Baguio and in the town centers of the Cordillera provinces. There is also a significant number of Cordillera indigenous peoples living at the boundary areas of the Cordillera adjoining other regions of Northern Luzon, namely Ilocos to the west and Cagayan Valley to the east. 

A Brief History

Before the advent of colonialism into what is now known as the Philippine archipelago, the people of the Cordillera Region were communities or villages of tribes and clans. Spanish colonization, from 1521 to 1896, succeeded in subjugating most of the people of the islands which eventually formed the Philippines. However, within the islands effectively colonized by Spain were communities that remained largely free and unconquered.

These communities were the Igorots of Northern Luzon, the Aetas of Central Luzon and the Moros of Mindanao in South Philippines. Throughout the 300 years of Spanish colonization, these communities continued to enjoy independence by being able to practice their own systems and ways of life. From the start, the Spanish colonizers were interested in the gold of the Igorots who were trading this with the lowlanders. The colonizers conducted several expeditions into the Cordillera, but were effectively repulsed by strong Igorot resistance.

The Americans who took over from the Spanish colonizers were, however, able to effectively colonize the Cordillera Region from 1899 to 1945. They opened large-scale mining activities in areas where indigenous peoples used to practice small-scale mining such as in the province of Benguet. They established schools and churches in the different parts of the region. They also introduced the commercial production of vegetables that grows best only in temperate zones. They also established the city of Baguio and within it, Camp John Hay as the rest and recreation area of American miners and soldiers. American colonization started the swift process of the integration of the Cordillera indigenous peoples into the mainstream economic and political systems put in place by colonizers in the Philippines. 

The Plunder of the Indigenous Peoples’ Resources and the Resulting Environmental Destruction

Since the formation of the Philippine State after the American colonial period, the Cordillera Region has always been regarded as a resource base for exploitation in the name of “national development”. But this is actually to hide the motive of the ruling elite and foreign capitalists to have access and gain from the plunder of the indigenous peoples resources. Under the legal framework of the State’s ownership of public lands and resources, successive Philippine governments institutionalized the outright denial and non-recognition of indigenous peoples rights over their land and resources through the enactment of several laws, decrees and policies.

Forest areas were leased out to commercial logging companies, especially in the provinces of Apayao and Abra. Logging operations did not only lead to the dispossession of the Agtas and Isnegs, but also resulted to the depletion of forest resources, of wild animals and destruction of watershed areas. Because of the ill treatment of loggers to the Agta people, they were forced to move further in the interior of the forest, or moved to outlying areas where their discrimination has been prevalent. 

Dams and the Displacement of Indigenous Peoples

In the Cordillera, homeland of the Igorots, large dams were constructed along the Agno river, namely the Ambuklao dam built from 1952-56 and the Binga Dam in 1956-60. The two dams submerged a total area of 650 hectares of precious farmlands, and displaced 300 Ibaloi families. To date, the victims of dam construction are not yet fully compensated from the destruction of their land and properties. Ambuklao dam is now un-operational due to siltation problem of 18 kilometers long, but the dam continue to submerge more rice fields and croplands in Bokod, Benguet. Binga is likewise heavily silted, and its partial operation is dependent on the continuing dredging work of the reservoir.

In spite of this, a third dam along the Agno River is currently under construction, namely the San Roque Dam. This new dam, worth US $1.2 billion, will inundate additional ancestral land of the Ibalois and will adversely affect the livelihood sources of around 20,000 people of Itogon, Benguet. Presently, it has already dislocated more than 700 peasant families in Pangasinan.

This project which is being funded by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) under an onerous Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is bound to cause environmental disasters such as massive flooding in the upstream and lower stream of the project site; the creation of a big reservoir containing toxic mine waste; water pollution; and possible destruction of the dam itself should a sufficiently strong earthquake occurs.

Mining and Destruction of the Environment

Patented mining claims were also given to mining companies and individuals. The Cordillera Region is the first area in the country where corporate mining started when the mining company, Benguet Corporation, started operations in 1902, the first decade of American colonial rule. Eventually, twelve other mining companies operated in the province of Benguet. Using underground mining method, they did not rehabilitate the mined-out areas and just abandoned their tailings dams with heavy concentration of toxic waste. Since underground mining also heavily use timber, logging also accompanied mining operations and this has resulted in the further depletion of forest resources in the region. While these mining companies raked in billions of dollars in profit, the province of Benguet remains as one of the 20 poorest province in the country, together with the other provinces of the Cordillera. At present, two mining companies, Lepanto Consolidated Mining Incorporated ( LMCI) and Philex Mining Company continue to operate in Benguet. Lepanto Mining Company which started its commercial operation in the 1930s is now the subject of strong protest of affected communities because of massive environmental destruction.. A large section of the mining town of Mankayan is now declared a disaster area because of ground subsidence, which the people attribute to the tunnels dug by Lepanto in the past under their very houses. In July 1999, a 14 hectare-wide area at the foot of the huge tailings dam of Lepanto Mining suddenly sunk. An entire school building, the Mankayan Elementary School, was swallowed up with one resident buried alive. Other properties like houses, fruit trees and crops were damaged as well. In spite of appeals for compensation, the mining company refused to acknowledge responsibility for this disaster. Meanwhile, other vegetable farming communities in Mankayan believe that the continuing strip-mining of Lepanto is draining their water source. Thus, they have mounted a strong protest against Lepanto’s expansion of its mining operations. There are also complaints of noise pollution, coming from Lepanto’s milling operation. Likewise, the huge tailings dam of Lepanto is causing the pollution of the Abra River with the seepage of toxic waste flowing into the rice fields of the nearby province of Abra. 

Commercial Agriculture

Commercial agriculture of temperate vegetables introduced by the Americans is also becoming a serious environmental concern because of the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. The Cordillera Region is now the biggest market of pesticides in the country. Areas of traditional farming for rice and local crops have been transformed into commercial vegetable gardens. Because of the heavy use of pesticides and commercial fertilizers, the fertility of the soil has been diminished, and health-related accidents and problems are mounting, such as respiratory infections, skin diseases and others. Commercial vegetable production has also led to widespread use of child labor, and unequal pay for women. It has also now become a threat to food security because more and more land previously devoted to rice production are now being converted into vegetable farms.

The Cordillera Mass Movement and the Violation of Human Rights

The outright disregard of the indigenous peoples collective right over their ancestral land and its resources, and the adverse impacts of destructive projects such as those cited above have led affected indigenous people communities to mount protest actions. But instead of addressing their legitimate grievances, the Philippine government has more often than not deployed police and army troopers to meet the people’s protest.

Macliing Dulag, a tribal leader of the Kalingas, was killed by elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on April 24, 1980, because of leading the successful opposition to the Chico dams project in the late seventies to early eighties. Truckloads of protesting Kalingas were also arrested and detained in Manila, but were eventually released because no case could be filed against them.

The World Bank funded Chico dams project in the late 70s to early 80s would have flooded the rice fields and villagers of around 100,000 Kalingas and Bontocs. Thus, the affected villagers united and waged a struggle in all forms and avenues, including armed resistance. This struggle gained national and international attention and support. The same happened with the commercial logging activities of the Cellophil Resource Corporation in the province of Abra during the same period. 

Birth of a Mass Movement

Out of these life-and-death struggles, a call for a people’s movement for the defense of their ancestral land was raised in the early 80’s and this reverberated throughout the region. There was an enthusiastic response among the various tribes, despite the continuing militarization of the area. Several consultations and conferences were held involving tribal leaders and elders, workers, peasants, the womenfolk, church people, students and professionals, even as pocket resistance continued. In 1984 a region-wide multisectoral organization was established - the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance or CPA. Thus was an Igorot mass movement born.

CPA lost no time in launching region-wide campaigns for the recognition of indigenous peoples rights. As a result, its membership and influence grew. Aside from the CPA which is made up of peoples organizations, the indigenous peoples also put up non-government organizations (NGOs) and human rights institutions to address their need for people-oriented development and the protection of their civil and political rights. This was also received warmly by the people.

This grassroots people empowerment should have been welcomed by the Aquino government recently installed then into power by a popular revolt in 1986. It could have harnessed the indigenous people’s organized strength to address their legitimate grievances against vested interests. Instead, it was alarmed by this growing strength and influence of the Igorot mass movement, and started targeting it for political isolation through black propaganda, red-baiting, and eventually the gross violation of their civil and political rights. 

Political Assassination

In October 1987, Ama Daniel Ngayaan, a leader of CPA was killed by elements of the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army, a splinter group of the NPA, which decided to cooperate with the Aquino administration. This was followed by the killing of Romy Gardo, a CPA organizer in Abra, in December 1988 by the same group. Likewise, two staff members of the Development Agency for Tribes in the Cordillera (DATC) were killed by AFP troopers in Bontoc in 1988. Chris Batan, a human rights worker was also killed by elements of the Civilian Auxiliary Force Geographical Unit, a paramilitary unit of the AFP in February 1990.

These political assassinations were related to their strong advocacy for the defense of the indigenous peoples collective rights and human rights. Likewise, scores of NGO workers, local leaders, CPA volunteers, organizers , members and leaders in the villages were subjected to harassment and intimidation by the military. 

Military Campaigns

It was during this period that Aquino government declared a Total War Policy against insurgents, and the Cordillera Region was identified as a focus area for intensive, wide-scale military operations to flush out the rebels who were then believed to have a strong presence in the region. The implementation of this policy from 1990-1992 has been by far the most vicious and intensive militarization of the Cordillera countryside, with more than 10,000 regular army troopers deployed in the Cordillera.

This military campaign resulted in a reign of terror characterized by massive human rights violations. Aerial bombings and massive artillery shelling led to the evacuation of more than 30,000 village residents. The village of Daga in Conner, Apayao comprising of 16 houses were all burnt to the ground by military forces, while the houses of residents of Puguin, Conner, Apayao were ransacked and their animals butchered by army troopers in 1991.

Scores of village leaders were illegally arrested and detained for interrogation. Certain areas were temporarily declared as no man’s land, such as the Marag Valley in Apayao. Food blockades and checkpoints were set up and illegal searches were conducted. Civilians were used as human shields in search operations. Recruitment of paramilitary forces under the CAGFU was massive, reaching a peak of more than 2,000 recruits at one time.

This militarization is clearly an assault on the Cordillera indigenous peoples territories and peaceful existence. It disrupted the peoples’ daily activities and even led to the disrespect of the peoples culture, as they were prevented from doing certain rituals. It also weakened community cohesion and unity, because of psywar, red-baiting and other divide and rule tactics employed by the military. Sexual harassment of women by soldiers, including cases of rape had been reported. The forced recruitment of paramilitary forces amongst villagers had been a major source of clan and tribal disputes and is a subversion of the indigenous peoples own system of security, cooperation and brotherhood.

The people’s continuing opposition to destructive projects were suppressed and unjust actions were taken by the government against the people. More than 200 residents of Loakan, Itogon, Benguet were arrested, detained and were charged for obstruction of operation in July 1994. They were holding a barricade to stop the entry of heavy equipments in their territories to prevent the expansion of the open pit mining activities of Benguet Corporation. Another eleven residents of the mining town of Mankayan were also charged of the same offense when they tried to prevent the drilling activities of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Incorporated in 1998 and 1999. In another incident, the picket lines of striking agricultural workers in Vital Farm were violently dispersed by the police in Atok, Benguet. Their houses within the agricultural farm compound were demolished.