Chico Once More: Legacy of Resistance in Cordillera Highlands

The Rice Terraces of Banaue, Ifugao in North Philippines. Photo by Jiten Yumnam.

“When you run, gold will gather in your feet”

Traversing along the rugged, pothole filled, steep and slippery mountainous roads towards Camandag Barangay in Ifugao in mid July 2018 revealed mesmerizing landscapes of the Cordillera in North Philippines, fringed by lush forest greeneries, mystic bluish mountains and lofty clouds. The mountainous landscape and biodiversity in akin with terrains of Manipur in India’s North East. The Cordillera with 1.7 million people is blessed with opulent biodiversity and natural resources. Tribes like Bontoc, Kankanaeys collectively known as Igorot people, were able to maintain their distinctive cultures despite Spanish colonization, due to their affinity with land. “When you run in the Cordilleras, gold dust gather in your feet”, an Igorot elder exclaimed, during an interaction in Camandag village, signifying the abundance of the land. Indeed, most of gold and copper in the Philippines is extracted from the region.

“Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China”

The Cordillera region for long has been exposed to the neoliberal policies of the Philippines, leading to intrusion of multinational companies and increased financing from international financial institutions (IFIs) like Asian Development Bank, World Bank and countries like Japan and China, targeting its land and resources. Of late, the overwhelming financing from China in the Philippines including in the Cordilleras impelled considerable debate. Indeed, the Philippines government signed three loan agreements on economic and infrastructure cooperation with China during the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in November 2017. The loan agreements cover the $234.92-million New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam project and the $72.49 million for the Chico River irrigation project over Chico River in Cordillera. On 12 July, 2018, banners welcoming visitors to the Philippines as a “Province of China” were seen hanging on footbridges in Metro Manila on the second anniversary of The Hague’s ruling on 12 July 2016 invalidating China’s claim to South China Sea. The incident exposed how Philippines is being increasingly influenced economically and militarily by China and become subservient to the domination of neoliberal forces for its economic and political survival.

“Build, Build, Build”

The Philippines including the Cordillera region is subjected to massive infrastructure projects as Government reinforces it neoliberal development processes. The Philippine and Chinese Governments have signed the Peso 3.135 billion loan agreement for the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, the first flagship infrastructure project to be financed by China under the “Build, Build, Build” program. The National Irrigation Administration and China CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd. announced the signing of the P4.37 billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project in March 2018. The World Bank initially planned to find the project, but abandoned due to massive protest by Igorot people, who revered the Chico River, as “river of life” The project will displace at least 100,000 people and submerge their land.

The “Build, Build, Build” vision of the Philippines Government led to aggressive push for infrastructure projects, extractive industries, hydro power and other energy projects, targeting of indigenous peoples’ land and resources. Cordillera possesses 25% of watershed areas of the Philippines and new hydel projects are extensively planned over almost all Rivers in Ifugao, Kalinga and other provinces. The Philippines’ Renewable Energy Act of 2008, the first comprehensive legislation on renewable energy in Southeast Asia, likewise aims to increase the country’s power generation from renewable energy by three times, approximately 16,200 MW by 2030 . At least nine dams are planned over the Chico River and several of its tributaries in Kalinga. The Department of Energy (DOE) has been fast tracking approval of renewable energies, primarily hydel projects. In Camandag village, villagers’ rejected the plan for hydel project in their village, fearing it will submerge their land, forest and livelihood sources.

Developer SN Aboitiz Power-Ifugao is preparing to construct the 390 MW Alimit hydropower project in Cordillera. The SNAP Group, a joint venture of Norway’s SN Power and Aboitiz Power Corp., applied with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in March 2014 to complete the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) process stipulated under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), 1997. The Aguinaldo, Lagawe, Lamut and Mayoyao communities will be affected by the dam . The DoE is also planning to construct the 11 MW Tinoc II Mini Hydroelectric Power Plant project at the Tinoc River in Ifugao with the Quad River Energy Corporation, a joint venture of AC Energy Holdings Inc. and Sta. Clara Power Corporation as project proponent. In Kalinga, the DoE has approved the Renewable Energy Service Contracts (RESCs) of 15-megawatt Upper Tabuk Hydro Power Project in Sitio Saranggani of Barangay Dupag proposed over the Tanudan River. The Kalinga Hydropower, Inc. (KHI), which is the project proponent of Tanudan dam misinformed affected communities and undermined their traditional decision-making processes while also causing social division.

Geothermal Energy development is another focus of the corporate bodies and the Government of Philippines to exploit the hot springs in Cordillera. In 2010, US based Chevron entered into a joint venture with APC Group Inc., a subsidiary of SM Group, and Guidance Management Corp., to explore, develop and operate the Kalinga geothermal prospect covering 25,682 hectares. APC, that invested $300 million to set up a 100 MW geothermal plant, targets to generate 300 MW in the long run . In Kalinga, Chevron is failed to take consent of Dananao and Uma tribes. The two others, one to be put up in Mainit, Mountain Province and in Daclan, Bokod in Benguet cover approximately 76,000 hectares. In Chevron’s Kalinga project, the NCIP ignored community objections to the project, while causing social divisions and conflict. Air and chemical pollution, drying of hot springs and geysers in the surrounding area, toxic waste water entering clean aquifers due to lowering of water table, violent explosions, accidents killing workers are others concerns with such plants. Terrible noise is caused by geothermal plants during drilling and operation, often reaching above the pain threshold of 120 decibels.

Mining of minerals has long been a controversy in Cordillera with affected communities resisting mining operations. Mining companies, including Philex Mining Corp, Lepanto Mines, Benguet Corporation mined copper, silver and gold in several provinces of Cordillera. Policies on mining and other extractives, plantations, and other exploitation of land and natural resources continue to trample indigenous peoples’ rights and encroaching upon their ancestral domains. Mining destroys and contaminate indigenous peoples land and territories. Militarization and human rights violations goes along with operation of mining, setting up geothermal energy plants and in constructing dams in CAR.

There is clear cut violation of Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, 1995 in pursuit of such aggressive development. The non-recognition and violation of Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their ancestral domain is perpetrated through regalia doctrine, forestry code, Philippines Mining Act etc. The non-recognition of IPs socio political system, manipulation of FPIC under IPRA law, institutionalized discrimination through religious, media and educational institutions also facilitated violation of IP rights.

The aggressive nature, the massive infrastructure focus, the involvement of multinational companies, the financing by IFIs in the Cordillera and militarization is much similar to the intense push for oil exploration, mining, plans to build multiple dams all over the Rivers of Manipur. The Barak River and Manipur River system are now subjected to plans to build around fifteen dams, including the 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam, the 190 MW Pabram Dam, the 66 MW Loktak Downstream Project, the 50 MW Irang dam etc. The Jubilant Energy Private Ltd, the Oil India Limited is conducting forceful surveys to drill oil and gas. Massive infrastructure projects like Trans Asian Railway and Roads are also pursued, to facilitate dam building, mining, oil exploration etc in Manipur as part of India’s Act East Policy.

 

The Igorot people of Cordilleras practiced such sustainable farming with superb land, forest & water management with their traditional practices for millennia. Photo by Jiten Yumnam.

“Full Blooded Ifugao”

The aggressive development push in Cordillera involves extensive scale of violation of indigenous peoples’ rights over their land and primarily their right to free, prior and informed consent. Villagers of Huhlukan Barangay in Ifugao complaint the real FPIC process prescribed by NCIP was not followed for proposed hydel projects as information was denied to them by Santa Clara Company for the dam proposed in Tinoc. Villagers are rather misinformed that villagers will have roads, electricity, and employment with the dam construction.

The Field Based Investigation conducted by NCIP for FPIC for dam building in Huhlukan, Binablayan led controversy and violence. Based on notification by DoE, NCIP conducted field based investigation (FBI), targeting only selected villagers of community supporting the project. In Huhlukan village, the FBI is referred to as “Full Blooded Ifugao”, indicating the threats, violence, bloodshed, associated with dam building and the FPIC process, which also involves the murder of Ricardo Mayumi for rejecting the dam and the manipulative FPIC process. Already blood have spilled in the Ifugao during the field based investigation and FPIC process for building a hydel project.

“Flatten the Hills”

Indigenous peoples’ effort for defense of their land, lives and future is often perceived as anti-development and leveled as terrorists, and often responded militarily with direct attacks. Direct military operations, such as Oplan Bayanihan, Oplan Bantay Laya, with the tacit military support of US, have led to series of human rights violations on communities in various parts of Cordillera, in Ifugao, Kalinga and Abra provinces. Military atrocities and violations have been reported in Abra and in Nalapunan, where the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) bombed civilian areas. Forest areas of Gubang and Malacato communities in Bangillo were set on fire due to bombing.

The direction of the president of Philippines in early 2017 to “flatten the hills with bombs”, have led to intensification of aerial bombing in Mindanao and in Cordillera highlands, with severe repercussions, viz, displacement, killings, destruction of environment within indigenous communities . Militarization is an entrenched reality among indigenous communities employed by the Government to counter the liberation movement of New People’s Army and to support corporate bodies to exploit the land and natural resources, like dam building in Camandag village and Halludan village in Ifugao province, gold mining, and geothermal plants in Kalinga. During military clash between the armed forces and liberation groups, civilians are harassed and villagers could not also go to their farms. Military occupation in schools is widespread and youths are subjected to search, verifications and other harassment. Soldiers also indulged in rape and sexual abuse of indigenous women. AFP personnel also forced villagers to sign papers to desist hosting NPA. The AFP officials also indulged in violations of customary laws such as forcing villagers to sell liquor in villages where liquor is prohibited. There are reports of military interference in resolving inter-tribal conflict in Kalinga province.

Similarly in Manipur, the promulgation of the infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 not only derogated the fundamental right, “right to life”, but also conferred immunity to the Indian armed forces operating in Manipur to subdue indigenous self-determination but also to facilitate the plunder of land through dam building, mining, oil exploration, road and railways building with IFI financing. The pattern of perpetuation of extreme forms of violence and persisting culture of impunity is much similar.

The enchanting land & the rivers of Cordillera in North Philippines. Photo by Jiten Yumnam.

Gray-May, June-Gloom, No Sky-July

Indigenous leaders and organizations are subjected to harassment, surveillance and attacks by Philippines National Police (PNP) and AFP for defending peoples’ rights over their land. Officials of Ifugao Peoples Movement (IPM) and CPA Ifugao chapter are threatened with trumped up charges, surveillances and death threats using social media. In 2015, ten members of the IPM, including Mayumi, have received death threats using the picture of ‘Gamong’, the Ifugao fabric used for the dead with words inscribed, “Gray-May, June-Gloom, No Sky-July”. On 2 March 2018, Ricardo Mayumi, an IPM member in Tinoc, Ifugao, who also received the ‘Gamong’, was murdered in Kiangan town . Mayumi opposed the Quad River mini hydro projects in Tinoc town in Ifugao. William Bugatti was earlier gunned down after attending a court hearing on 25 March 2014. The filing of trumped up charges against seven indigenous leaders of Cordillera in early 2018, among the list of 600 activists across the Philippines, led to international condemnations. Five women were also arbitrarily arrested in July 2017.

The prevalence of culture of impunity, systematic denial of justice for human rights Violations by PNP and AFP, such as in the case of William Bugatti, is widespread. There is lack or insufficient investigation by law enforcing agencies and concerns abound this lack of investigation is on account of their involvement in these violations. Community leaders who challenged AFP and PNP in judicial processes are subjected to extra judicial execution like Ricardo Mayumi. Investigations often failed to identify and charge perpetrators. Villagers fear filing complaints for fear of reprisal. Even the investigation by Commission on Human Rights (CHR) failed to identify and prosecute perpetrators.

The NCIP and CHR etc are ineffective to address peoples’ rights. Villagers complained the NCIP’s role is more to help corporate bodies with their business, instead of supporting communities’ rights. Lawyers deputed by NCIP even denounced indigenous peoples’ rights over their land during consultations on proposed dam in Tinoc. During aerial bombing by AFP in Abra and human rights violations, the CHR only issued advisory to the warring parties, instead of efforts to stop the violations, The administrative functioning in Cordillera closely resemble a military state, with the military dictating the civilian affairs and silencing voices of dissent and call for democratic spaces, for indigenous peoples rights and justice.

Farming in Binablayan, Ifugao, Cordillera in the Philippines. Photo by Jiten Yumnam.

“This is our land, we lived here, we will die here”

Sustained people’s resistance has prevented dam building companies and mining companies from pursuing their operations and expansion in the Cordillera. The combined legal and political actions of the Bakun communities have delayed Royalco’s exploration for the Gambang Copper-Gold Project. In Benguet province, sustained community barricades have prevented Lepanto and the South African mining company Goldfields from conducting exploration drilling for the Far Southeast Gold Project. In Kalinga province, the Silages tribe opposed mining plan of Lepanto. Kalinga communities affected by hydropower projects registered their opposition to these projects, including the Karayan Dam project. The Naneng, Dallak, and Minanga tribes in their letter to NCIP in the region rejecting the project stated, “… this land is our source of our living and also where we buried our ancestors. …we are afraid that rebellion will arise and blood will be shed” . The effort to build dams is despite the presence of 200 MW Ambuklao, the 1,000 MW San Roque Dam etc. The Cordillera remains one of poorest in the Philippines despite its rich mineral resources and subsequent exploitation by the multinational companies. One has to ride on motor bikes on rugged, narrow and steep road revealing the hardship endured by villagers to avail education, health facilities and to market their agriculture produces.

The serene landscape conceals the manifestation of persisting unresolved armed conflict situation within which indigenous peoples are forced to endure for generations in Cordillera. The people however are much adamant about their rights, land, cultures, traditional and survival of their coming generations. Land is life, land is the livelihood source and they have nurtured with their sweat and blood for generations. Allowing corporations to plunder their land will affect their identity, impoverish them and destroy their future. An elder from Camandag Barangay said, “This is our land, we lived here, we will die here”, highlighting the anger and the spirit of his people to resist all forceful, destructive development process. Another elder from Binablayan said, “Younger generations need to appreciate the importance and value of land and natural resources and strive to protect it for coming generations”.

“Chico once More”

An obvious reality within indigenous peoples land is change, rooted in deepening of State’s oppressive nature, the onslaught and savagery of neoliberal forces, destroying peoples’ land, lives and their future. Across Ifugao, one could perceive realities of how the land, forest, rivers, resources and peoples’ lives are subjected to aggressive efforts for economic and political domination by State and neoliberal forces, relegating communities inhabiting the land for generations to extreme forms of oppression and violence.

However, the aggressive push for unsustainable development and deepening of the involvement of neoliberal forces, such as massive plan for hydropower generation, geothermal plants, mining with tacit support of the Philippines States and its machineries posed enormous challenge for the people of Cordillera to defend their land. The aggressive development onslaught have provoked the Indigenous peoples to recall the struggles and sacrifices of leaders in 1980s and to drew inspiration, build unity and solidarity within communities. The indigenous peoples of Kalinga and Mountain Province successfully opposed the US$ 50 million World Bank-funded Chico River Irrigation Project, also known as the Chico Dams Project, from 1976-1985. The martyrdom of Mcling Dulag in the resistance had long been a source of inspiration to resist imperialist forces and to assert their self-determination over their land.

The unfolding adverse reality is a big challenge for the present generation and leaders in Cordillera. Indigenous peoples assert that the recognition of their right to self-determination, to their ancestral lands, territories and resources, and to free, prior and informed consent, as per provisions of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 will foster meaningful and genuine sustainable development in Cordillera. Forging and deepening solidarity among indigenous peoples is perilous to combat state oppression, offensive and militarism of imperialist forces and in asserting their self-determination and liberation. One recalls the sacrifices of Mcling Dulag while listening to deeds, spirits and efforts of Ricardo Mayumi, during the tribute in his village at Huhlukan, Binablayan. Indeed, community leaders commenced sacrificing themselves. “Chico Once More’, is already the slogan among community leaders, reflecting the resolve to continue the legacy of resistance and struggle of their leaders for their land and rights. Leaders like Mayumi already followed the footsteps of their elders, showing the light to others, with his indomitable spirits, relentless struggles and sacrifices. The legacy of resistance and the sacrifices of leaders, appreciating the sanctity of the land will continue to inspire and guide in all moments of struggles for self-determination and liberation in the Cordillera highlands and far beyond.

 

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Story written by Jiten Yumnam of the Centre for Research and Advocacy – Manipur and International IPMSDL. This article is originally posted in Imphal Free Press.