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Crisis in the Cordillera.

THE LUMADS OF MINDANAO and the Cordillera people of Northern Luzon are the two main groupings of indigenous people in the Philippines. (Luzon is the largest Philippine island and the one on which Manila is located.)

The Cordillera people consist of more than a dozen ethnic-linguistic groups which inhabit five mountainous provinces in the Cordillera region. Numbering nearly a million, the Cordillera people have a long history of resisting cultural and military encroachment from outside powers. Today, in their efforts to defend their land, protect their rights and lives and maintain their culture, they face a daunting series of challenges.

To meet these challenges, the Cordillera people, who have a tradition of internecine warfare as well as resistance to external forces, have created an extremely impressive series of unifying organizations to promote their interests. The Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (CPA) is an umbrella organization which serves as an informal regional assembly. The Office for Cordillera Peoples' Concerns (OCPC), based in Manila, is the CPA's secretariat.

Father Eddie Balicao, executive director of the OCPC, outlined for Multinational Monitor the main sets of problems he sees facing the Cordillera people.

First, he says, is the issue of corporate and governmental resource extraction and development plans -- what Balicao and other indigenous activists in the Philippines label "development aggression" -- and the Cordillera peoples' demand to control their own lands. A half dozen major mining companies operate in the Cordillera region, including the Benguet Corporation, which runs the second largest mine in the Philippines. These corporate mining operations, especially as they switch to bulk or open-pit mining from underground mining techniques, are increasingly coming into conflict over the issue of land rights with tens of thousands of small-scale indigenous miners who have mined mineral-rich regions of the Cordillera for generations. They are also creating environmental problems; in processing huge amounts of earth, the corporate mines create a correspondingly large amount of waste rock and use an abundance of processing chemicals. Despite clean-up processes, the waste and chemicals inevitably enter and pollute nearby rivers, ruining local water supplies and harming local agriculture.

The region is beset by logging concessions granted by the government to timber companies -- though the number of concessions has fallen in the last decade from 25 to around 16 as the Cordillera has become progressively more deforested.

Balicao is especially wary of a series of hydroelectric dams proposed for the region. In the mid-1980s, the World Bank and Philippine government proposed a massive dam on the Chico River which would have flooded an enormous region and displaced thousands of indigenous people. Balicao fears the new dams may pose similar threats as the Chico Dam, which was abandoned only after the potentially affected communities undertook a protracted resistance campaign that garnered international attention and support.

Yet another manifestation of development aggression are government-promoted, cash-crop, export-oriented agricultural schemes. "Rice paddies are turned into vegetable gardens for export production" in these schemes, Balicao says, depriving local people of the means to feed themselves and creating environmental problems tied to the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers. Cash-crop production is now predominant in Benguet, one of the provinces that makes up the Cordillera region, and is spreading north.

The root of the problem of development aggression, Balicao says, are laws that "have made the Cordillera a resource base of exploitation without even considering what [the affected] people think." A special culprit is a Philippine law which decrees that all land with a slope of 18 degrees or higher is owned by the state; because the Cordillera is so mountainous, this law places most of its territory under state control.

The notion of government ownership of the Cordillera people's land "directly contradicts the Cordillera peoples' views of ancestral domain," Balicao says. Land is central to the Cordillera peoples' complex social-political system, and control of land is carefully divided between different communities. "There are boundaries between each tribe, set up by the peace pact system (known as bodong) long before the government came in," he says. Within a community, three types of ownership prevail: family ownership, clan ownership and tribal ownership of large areas of land, such as forests. The government's assertion of control over territory in the Cordillera ignores the claims the indigenous population has staked to the land and essentially makes them squatters on their ancestral homeland.

A second problem facing the Cordillera peoples, according to Balicao, is the destruction of their social-political systems. The Philippine government has imposed its laws on the population, without regard for the indigenous system of rules and laws and without allowing the indigenous system to evolve and adapt to changing times. "The result is that, with the exception of the peace pact system, there has been no development of tribal law beyond the tribal level, to the municipal and regional level," Balicao explains. Law at the village level is inadequate to deal with multinational corporations, or even inter-village commerce, which has sharply increased in recent years, he notes.

The only time in which the government acknowledges indigenous social systems, Balicao says, is when it "tries to use indigenous structures to coopt indigenous people." The government has tried to create peace-pact associations and Councils of Elders that would be more amenable to its plans for the region, for example.

A third, related problem is social neglect. Illiteracy and poverty are increasing among Cordillera peoples, and communications and health services are lacking. "Infrastructure is being built for corporations or military operations -- not for people to use," Balicao charges. "There is no sign of projects that will uplift the life of the people."

A fourth problem is militarization. Under the Marcos, Aquino and Ramos regimes, the Philippine government has deployed massive numbers of troops in the Cordillera region. Including civil defense forces, more than 10,000 troops now occupy the Cordillera region, Balicao estimates.

While the strong presence of the rebel New People's Army is one reason for the large-scale troop deployment, says Balicao, "the main reason for the military operations is to silence people so that they won't oppose any so-called development projects."

Under the Aquino and Ramos administrations, military operations have become particularly brutal, as the army has launched a "total war" policy. This includes a range of tactics from bombings and utilization of heavy firepower on the ground to counterinsurgency techniques designed to win hearts and minds. The counterinsurgency techniques include propaganda, military-sponsored civic actions (for example, providing dental aid to civilians) and cultivating ties with conservative community members.

Militarization has had a far-reaching impact on the Cordillera people. Fear is pervasive. Thousands have been arrested, harassed, massacred or evacuated from their homes. In the second half of 1992 alone, one of the Philippines' leading human rights organizations, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, documented 59 cases of human rights abuses affecting more than 2,700 people in the Cordillera.

The final major problem identified by Balicao is commercialization of the indigenous culture. The Philippine government and the domestic tourist industry are working to promote the Cordillera as a tourist destination, showcasing the area's natural beauty and the culture of the region's indigenous peoples. In those tourist spots already established, Balicao says, "the Natives come and dance in front of the tourists, and the tourists take pictures.... It is as if the indigenous people are living objects for mausoleum purposes."

The separate and combined effect of these encroachments on the Cordillera is devastating. "We view all five [sets of problems] as forms of ethnocide -- the destruction and dislocation of the identity of indigenous people," Balicao says.

He notes, however, that "the problems in the Cordillera are not far from those of the rest of the country. All the regimes have promised a democratic process, but we don't see a democratic process going on."
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Title Annotation:indigenous tribes' protests against government efforts to control their lands
Author:Weissman, Robert
Publication:Multinational Monitor
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:1291
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