(For the International Conference on Indigenous Peoples Rights, Alternatives and Solutions to the Climate Crisis, Ridgewood Residence Hotel, Baguio City, Philippines, November 5-8, 2010)

Joanna K. Cariño

Cordillera People’s Alliance

It is an honor and privilege to be able to address this International Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Alternatives and Solutions to the Climate Crisis. I will speak specifically on the theme of self-determination and liberation as we seek to address the global crises. I propose to do so from the concrete experience of the militant mass movement in this region and my organization, the Cordillera People’s Alliance, and relate this to some theorizing on these themes.


The significant events, which sparked off the militant mass movement in this region in defense of indigenous peoples’ rights, were the Kalinga and Bontok people’s struggles against the World Bank funded Chico mega-dams, followed soon after by Tinggian opposition to the huge Cellophil logging and paper-pulp concession in Abra.  Chico and Cellophil were so-called priority “development projects” of the US-Marcos dictatorship throughout the dark years of martial law during the 70’s and 80’s.

These indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, long considered as among the most neglected and powerless sectors of Philippine society were able to stop development aggression against fearsome odds, by asserting their collective human rights to ancestral land and self-determination.  Their steadfast and uncompromising defense of their life, land, livelihood and resources earned the respect and support not only of the other indigenous peoples in the region, but also other progressive forces both here in the Philippines and abroad.  When they finally resorted to armed resistance after peaceful methods to seek redress of grievances had proved futile in the face of unbridled militarization, many were convinced that this was but a logical step for these warrior societies in the defense of their collective human rights.

The Chico and Cellophil struggles gave a deeper dimension to human rights, going beyond the narrow definition of individual civil and political rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the collective human rights of indigenous peoples.  The Chico and Cellophil struggles were waged in uncompromising defense of ancestral land and the assertion of the right to self –determination, to freely determine our continued existence as distinct peoples, and our economic, political and socio-cultural development, at a pace, which we ourselves define.

Chico and Cellophil led to an increased self- awareness among the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera and paved the way for the formation of a Cordillera-wide indigenous peoples mass movement, as it marked the shift from spontaneous localized reaction to more conscious and concerted unified action.  As the different Igorot tribes and sectors were increasingly exposed to each other in mass meetings, inter-tribal activities and peacepact (bodong) conferences, there was the opportunity for dialogue and mutual sharing and learning.  From here, the different groups realized that beyond their diversity, they shared a common history of national oppression; a common geography and territory – the Cordillera mountain range; a common persistence of their indigenous lifeways in the face of various threats, albeit in varying degrees; common problems and common enemies.

Chico and Cellophil brought to the fore the fact that the present-day problems of tribal peoples and indigenous communities are much bigger and more complicated than any faced in earlier historical periods.  More concretely, Chico and Cellophil showed the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera that their problems cannot be taken in isolation from the wider Philippine realities, and the incursions of imperialist globalization.

The indigenist romanticized view of tribal society as a static autonomous entity which should be preserved in its pure form shattered, as Igorots united with as broad an alliance as possible for the defense of indigenous peoples rights alongside the wider defense of human rights.  Although the Chico resistance at the start was the spontaneous tribal response to outside threat, it soon positioned itself firmly within the mainstream of the national democratic struggle in the Philippines.

Towards Defining the Substance and Features of Self-Determination

We organized the Cordillera Peoples Alliance for the Defense of the Ancestral Domain and for Self-Determination in 1984.  At that time, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations was still in its infancy and the international process was just starting, unlike today when we already have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Thus we had to stump our brains Towards Defining the Substance and Features of Self-Determination in the Cordillera.

After the Marcos dictatorship was toppled through a people power revolution in 1986, the CPA successfully lobbied the new government for the recognition of ancestral land rights and regional autonomy, which were included in the new Constitution.

The process defined in the Constitution towards setting up the Cordillera Autonomous Region is for Congress, with the help of a Cordillera Regional Consultative Commission, to draft an Organic Act to establish the autonomous region.  The Organic Act is to be submitted to the people for ratification in a plebiscite called for the purpose.

In 1990, RA 6766, the Organic Act to create the Cordillera Autonomous Region was submitted to the people in a plebiscite but was rejected by the voting population.  Again, in 1997, a new Organic Act, RA 8438 was the subject of a plebiscite, and again it was resoundingly rejected.

On both occasions, the militant mass movement campaigned for its rejection; notwithstanding that, it was the CPA that had lobbied for the inclusion of such a provision in the Constitution.  The CPA interpreted rejection to mean not necessarily a rejection of the concept of genuine regional autonomy as the form of self-determination in the Cordillera.  Rather, the rejection was of the collusion of central government and local reactionaries to coopt the earlier gains and derail the mass movement, the infighting and corruption of traditional politicians and opportunists who had jockeyed themselves into position in the new Cordillera bureaucracy, and the insincerity of government to substantially recognize indigenous peoples rights.

The militant mass movement has learned valuable lessons from the failed government experiment with regional autonomy. Genuine regional autonomy cannot merely be structural nor mechanical. For it to be truly meaningful for the indigenous peoples, it has to be predicated on a full and substantial recognition of indigenous peoples rights to ancestral land and self-determination. It cannot be merely granted from above; it has to be asserted by a conscientized and empowered people. It cannot be rushed, as it can only succeed when the people are fully knowledgeable and prepared for it.

Historical Context of the Right to Self-Determination  

Historically, the right to self-determination was originally applied to nations in creating their own independent states, and in asserting national sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was during the period of the development of modern capitalism in Europe alongside which the original nation-states were formed.  (Great Britain, France, Spain, etc.)

Unlike in Western Europe, where the development was towards integrated nation-states, in Eastern Europe where capitalist development was uneven, multi-national states were formed, states consisting of several nationalities.  Thus, minority nationalities were formed side by side with a dominant nationality in the multi-national states (eg. Austria-Hungary, Poland, Russia).   There existed inequality and national oppression between the dominant nationality and the minority nationalities.

Thus the issue of the right to self-determination was a major concern in the formation of the USSR. One of the major achievements of the USSR before its dis-integration was the unification of the various nationalities with the guarantee of the complete equality of rights for all nations, full recognition of the right of nations to self-determination, and regional autonomy for national groupings occupying their own territory within a multi-national state.

Expansionism and colonization then, and present-day neo-colonialism have stunted the natural course of development of many nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, for whom the autonomous development towards the capitalist nation-state has been effectively closed.  Instead, there is the continuing underdevelopment in the so-called “developing” countries, with monopoly capitalism at the root of this phenomenon.  The   oppression and exploitation brought about by direct colonization then and imperialist globalization now have resulted in the rise of national liberation movements in the colonies and neo-colonies, with the demand for separation or independence as the form of self-determination.

Within the neo-colonies, and even in pockets inside the developed countries, there is the persistence of pre-capitalist modes of production and social formations among indigenous peoples who have refused to give up traditional lifestyles.  Indigenous peoples are to be found all over the world and many are self-proclaimed “nations,” while living within a defined national territory of a nation-state.  Such tenacious persistence of traditional lifestyles even in the face of neo-colonialism and imperialist globalization are by themselves  manifestations of self-determination.

From the above, and notwithstanding the changing context, we may observe that self-determination has been a response to repression, to inequality, to discrimination.  Self-determination is thus an assertion of a people’s collective human rights and identity against oppression.

United Nations Framework and Its Limitations

When the United Nations (UN) was established after WWII, it appropriated the term nation (or nation-state) to refer to its member-states, notwithstanding that many of these states are not homogenous entities but are actually multi-national states.

Article 1 of the UN Charter says that among its three purposes is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on the respect for the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples…”

Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) also expressly state that “All peoples have the right to self-determination.  By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Take note that the application of the right of self-determination as used by the UN has been expanded from its original usage to nations to now include peoples.

The formulation appears to be an unequivocal statement of human rights.  This is not as simple as it seems, however, as the controversial question for a long time was how to define the category people/s, and which groups would qualify under this category.

With the approval by the UN General Assembly of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, indigenous peoples have won international recognition as peoples.  But what about other oppressed nationalities and national minorities, or even ethnic minorities, who are not necessarily indigenous peoples but who are presently minority peoples encompassed within wider State systems?

The UN is composed of States, which are dominated by local ruling classes who speak as though they represent equally all of the people in their country’s population, when in truth, there are significant sections of the population who are oppressed and discriminated against.  Furthermore, the majority of these States are subservient to the US superpower.  This makes it difficult for oppressed sections of the national population to qualify, in the view of States, as separate peoples.  Thus the modern States which compose the United Nations are threatened by the very concept of self-determination.  In truth, it was the indigenous lobby which brought UNDRIP to fruition, often against the position of their own State systems.

There is no explicit UNDRIP provision that refers to an indigenous people’s right to create an independent state.  Indeed, Article 46 clearly states: Nothing in this Declaration may be…construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States. 

The right of a people to freely determine its political status, in theory, includes the right to form an independent state that stands on equal footing with other nation-states, or otherwise, to define its mode of associating with an existing state wherein it enjoys the same rights as the other constituent peoples of that state.

Thus, the right to self-determination directly translates into the right of peoples to govern themselves without external impositions.  Historically, this right covers a wide range of options:

  • seceding outright from a state of national oppression and creating their own independent state;
  • joining a federation of states as one constituent and co-equal state;
  • constituting an autonomous political unit wherein it exercises a degree of self-rule within a broader nation-state; and
  • asserting specific rights as defined by the basic laws and through specific processes of the nation-state.

While there may be a whole range of forms of self-determination, the key issue is the empowerment of the people, the level of organization they are able to build, the struggles that they can successfully wage, including the support that they can generate from the wider population in the country, and internationally, based on the legitimacy of their struggle against oppressive structures.

The international struggle for the recognition of indigenous peoples rights has won a quantum victory with the passage of UNDRIP. Realities on the ground, however, are very far from these international standards, as will be attested to by the testimonies in this conference.   Just because there is a beautiful law does not necessarily translate to its meaningful implementation. Form is not necessarily the essence.

Presently, despite the great diversity of indigenous peoples worldwide, the truth is that there is also a great commonality in the problems that we face, among them:

  • Intensified plunder of land and resources by multi-national corporations
  • Massive displacement due to large-scale destructive projects of States and imperialist corporations (mines, dams, logging, SEZ, monocrop plantations, etc) and concomitant militarization
  • Grave human rights violations under the US-led War on Terror & corresponding “Security” Acts
  • Government neglect and deprivation of basic social services; Impoverishment
  • Racism, chauvinism and discrimination
  • National oppression and the non-recognition of our identity as indigenous peoples

It is about time to build a higher solidarity among indigenous peoples worldwide based on a deeper appreciation that imperialism and neo-liberal globalization is at the root of our common problems.  It is about time to build our strength and militantly assert our collective human rights to ancestral domain and self-determination, beyond the parameters circumscribed by the UN.  Let us unite as an international indigenous peoples’ movement for self-determination and liberation as we strive to build a better world beyond the neo-liberal capitalist model that has caused not only the climate crisis but the global economic crises as well.

A Briefing Paper On Indigenous Peoples Self-Determined Sustainable Development