To keep their lands, they are raising fighters

By Filipina Storyteller Desiree Caluza

One of the modern tales that defined courage among Cordillera women, who fought for their ancestral land, was a story about a mother who confronted a military man while breastfeeding a baby, during the height of the anti-Chico dam struggle in the 1970s.

Leonora Membrot, an elder from Tabuk town of Kalinga province, said the experience of the Kalingas and Bontocs of Mt. Province in fighting against the construction of Chico Dam during the turbulent martial law years, became an inspiration for them to continue to protect their land from “development aggression” such as large scale mining, logging concessions and dams.

Membrot said, the women played an active role in the history of the Igorot people, who opposed the entry of mining and dams, to the point that they had to show their breasts to their enemies to drive them away from their lands.

Membrot said, the women during the Chico dam struggle were not threatened by the presence of the military.

“We were the ones who were confronting the military. Once, there was this mother who was breastfeeding seven children, but she charged and squirted some milk from her breast on the faces of the soldiers who were trying to intimidate us,” she recalled.

Membrot said, almost all of the women bared their breasts in most of the confrontations with the government troops. “ In our culture, if we show our breast to you during a confrontation, it already means a curse and that you should be ashamed of yourself,” she said.

It was in the 1970s that the residents of Mt. Province and Kalinga learned that a series of giant dams were to be built along the Chico River. Dams 1 and 2 were to be built in the Mt. Province—the first in Sabangan town and the next in Betwagan in the municipality of Sadanga, also in the Mt. Province, Dams 3 and 4 were to be installed in Tinglayan and Tabuk towns in Kalinga.

The Chico River dam projects

The first time that the National Power Corporation (NPC) surveyed the Kalinga area, they did not pass through the community. Instead, they went straight to the river, but they were told by the tribes to leave. When the surveyors came back, they were accompanied by soldiers who set up camps in Betwagan, in Mt. Province and Tinglayan and Sitio Tomiangan in Barangay Dupag, in Tabuk, Kalinga.

Around 20 big camps were set up in Sitio Mosimos. Women farmers from Tanglag, Tomiangan and Cagaluan of Kalinga came to dismantle and carry away the military tents.

The women walked 27 kilometers from Barangay Dupag to Camp Duyan in Bulanao to return the tents to the military. On their way there, Catholic and Anglican nuns approached to help them carry their load to the camp.

“It had to be the women because we knew that the military would not harm them. If we were to carry those things, there would be tension. The soldiers could not do anything then but watch our brave women,” Banag Simunlag, an elder of the Butbut tribe in Bugnay village said in an earlier interview.

In spite of the residents’ opposition to the military presence, the government persisted in deploying troops to the area.

In response, the Kalingas burned the military camps in Betwagan and Tinglayan. Macli-ing Dulag and the protesting residents were arrested and imprisoned at Camp Olivas in Pampanga.

Dulag, a respected pangat (tribal chief ) of the Butbut tribe, led the opposition against the Chico Dam.

The dam proponents tried to buy the approval of the people. “We can never forget what Macli-ing told the dam supporters when they were bribing him: “If this is a letter, I do not know how to read. If this is money, I do not remember selling anything,” Simunlag recalled Macli-ing as saying.

On April 24, 1980, Macli-ing was shot dead in his home by the members of the military led by then Lt. Leudegario Adalem.

“When Macli-ing was killed, the government thought that the opposition would stop, but it was the other way around. It became wider and stronger,” said Simunlag.

“We were against the dam because we knew that it would submerge our land and resources, and that is life to us. We opposed the dam because we learned about the experiences of our brothers and sisters in Benguet, whose communities were submerged by the Ambuklao and Binga dams,” Simunlag said. When the chainsaws screeched, the women embraced the trees that were to be cut to clear the area for the project. When the bulldozers started rolling, the women formed a human chain and bared their breasts. The soldiers backed off, saying they saw their mothers and wives in the half-naked women. They packed up and left camp.

The 32-kilometer stretch of the river is the major source of water for the rice fields in the villages where the dams were to be built. The death of Macli-ing Dulag led to louder calls to stop the dam project.

Letters of concern from human rights advocates, activists, students, professionals, church and individuals poured in to the provincial government of Kalinga and the World Bank to pressure them to stop the dam project .

The wide support for the call to stop the dam construction came in after the story of human rights violation against Dulag and the tribes was elevated to the United Nations. The World Bank eventually withdrew its support to fund the construction of Chico Dam.

Recognizing the role of women

During the celebration of the 21st Cordillera Day in Bangilo village in Malibcong town of Abra in 2005, a resolution was adopted by the elders, representing the different tribes from the Cordillera, to recognize the role of the women in defending the lands of the indigenous peoples in the region.

Cordillera day is the commemoration of the martyrdom of Macli-ing Dulag and other Cordillera martyrs.

“We support the basic role of the women in the struggle for the defense of land, life and resources,” the elders stated in the resolution.

The late Markus Bangit, secretary general of Binodngan Peoples Organization, said the Cordillera is rich in mineral resources and it has always been a target for mining applications.

Bangit said since the Spanish period, the Spaniards had been attempting to explore and mine the Cordillera.

“After we were able to stop the construction of Chico Dam, we thought everything was already peaceful, but now comes the large-scale mining, now what are we going to do? When people ask for roads, the government’s answer is mining, when people ask for irrigation, the government’s answer is big dams,” Bangit lamented to the elders during the workshop.

“Let us not forget what the elders did and said during the Chico dam struggle, if not for them, we would never be here,” Bangit reminded the tribesmen.

Barangay Buanao in Bangilo is an indigenous farming community in Malibcong town, in northeastern part of Abra. The people of Buanao succeeded in foiling the operations of the entry of Cellophil Resources Corporation (CRC) in the ‘70s.

Joan Carling, former chairperson of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance said the region is faced with threats of extractive projects such as mining.

Extractive Mining

Mining has not been promising to the majority of the Cordillera people socially and economically, Carling said.

“Take the case of Benguet, it has been host to large scale mining companies for a hundred years, but still, the province is still among the Club 20 of the poorest provinces,” Carling said.

Carling said these big companies are Benguet Corporation, Philex Mines and Lepanto Mines.

Vergel Bugtong Aniceto, an Ibaloi who grew up in barangay Ucab in Itogon town of Benguet, said the displacement of the Ibalois in their homelands started when early American settlers bought out the lands in Itogon for a mining operation.

Aniceto said before the Americans came, Ibalois, who were small scale miners, had been mining the place as early as 13th century.

In 1902, when the Americans saw the mineral potential of Itogon, they offered the Ibalois to buy the existing tunnels made by small-scale miners.

After buying the lands, Aniceto said, the Americans started to impose American land laws such as the 1902 Public Land Act and Mining Act of 1905 to justify the mineral claims. He said the first large scale mining in the country paved the way towards the establishment of Benguet Corporation, thru Benguet Consolidated.

“Because of these land laws, the Americans have asserted we could use the surface, while the underground is theirs,” Aniceto said.

Aniceto claimed that because of the expansive tunneling, the water table has been damaged and many of the farms had dried up because of lack of water for irrigation. “When the operation switched from underground tunneling to open pit mining, we noticed that our water sources had been more depleted,” he said.

Aside from mining, the Ibalois were beleaguered with problems on the construction of two giant hydro-electric dams in Itogon. In the 1950s, the Binga and Ambuklao dams were built and the installation of these two giant structures caused the degradation of the river systems due to siltation, Aniceto said.

The families living in Ambuklao and Binga were displaced after the dams were built. Aniceto said the displaced Ibaloi families were relocated to Palawan and Nueva Vizcaya—places that were totally unknown to them.

Reports from Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB-CAR) show a total of 128 different types of mining application in the Cordillera region, covering 1,434,770 hectares or 70% of the region as of January 2005.

FPIC questioned

Carling said they appealed to the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) not to implement certain sections of the revised Free, Prior and Inform Consent (FPIC), saying this would short-cut the consultation process with the people affected by mining applications.

Carling, said the revision of the FPIC is an attempt to weaken the consultation process to hasten the approval of mining applications.

A position paper, which was endorsed to more than 5,000 participants in the 21st Cordillera Day called on the members and officials of the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) not to implement certain sections of the revised FPIC.

Lawyer Leilene Carantes-Gallardo, NCIP regional director, allayed the fears raised by indigenous peoples’ groups, stressing that the revised FPIC was just a draft.

“We welcome all criticisms to improve the draft. It is good there are criticisms that can be addressed by the commission,” Carantes said.

Carling said the attempt to hasten the consultation process could have come from the Malacañang, which declared its full support to the mining industry.

She said one of the questionable provisions of the revised FPIC is the classification of the consultation into a “regular FPIC process” and a “special FPIC process.”

“In the original FPIC, all community members were consulted about the projects. With the entry of the special FPIC process, only a few members of the community will be consulted. This special consultation is dangerous as it projects that the decision of the few is the position of the whole community,” she said.

The original FPIC, which only covered the regular FPIC process, involves all members of the community in the consultation on development projects.

In the revised FPIC, the regular process will involve the whole community if the projects cover industrial land use, including eco-tourism, large scale agricultural and forestry management projects and activities that may adversely affect the airspace, bodies of water and ancestral lands.

The special process will cover bigger and more extractive land based projects on ancestral lands such as exploration of mineral and energy resources.

Carling said the NCIP would only consult the community elders during the special consultation.

“The NCIP should not impose on what the community should do. By seeking only the endorsement or decision of the elders and not the consensus of the community on entry of a project in their lands is already a violation of their right to self-determination,” Carling said.

However, a former NCIP official said the proposal to revise the FPIC came when President Macapagal-Arroyo asked the NCIP to shorten the consultation process with the indigenous peoples communities to support the mining industry.

The NCIP official, who requested anonymity, said the verbal instruction came from Ms.Arroyo during a meeting with the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) in February in 2005.

“The NCIP has been feeling too much pressure until now, because of Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo’s declaration to support the mining industry, following the Supreme Court’s decision on 100 percent foreign ownership of mines,” he told this writer.

An official of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau-Cordillera (MGB-Cordillera) said, unlike the NCIP, their agency was not pressured by the Arroyo administration.

Felizardo Gacad, chief of the mines safety division of MGB-Cordillera, said there would be no “short cuts” on processing of the mining applications in the region.

“There is no pressure (from the government) and there would be no shortcuts,” Gacad earlier said.

Raising fighters to defend Cordillera resources

But Carling said the tribal members would do anything to prevent any foreign company in exploiting their lands.

Elders in the Cordillera speak of strong adherence to the indigenous practices in the region would protect their lands from the entry of large-scale development projects.

In a resolution during the 21st Cordillera Day in Bangilo, Abra on April 24, 2005 the elders said unity among the tribes, as enhanced by the bodong (indigenous peace pact), would stop big corporations from exploiting their resources.

“The ongoing indigenous systems are still being used to defend our land and resources from those who want to exploit them. We want to strengthen our bodong so we can unite ourselves from any exploiters of our resources,” said Bangit.

“This resolution is a challenge to all the council of elders as well as to the Cordillera youth to unite at all costs. We should not be having tribal wars among ourselves, we have to fight the common enemy which is the large scale mining industry, large dam builders and loggers and other projects which are counted as development aggressions,” Joe Cawiding, convenor of the Metro-Baguio Tribal Assembly said.

For Membrot, the resolution that was approved by the men and women elders is one of the legacies that they could pass on to younger generations of Igorots.

“In Mt. Province, the reason why there is no large scale mining is because of their vigilance, and we are very proud of it. What we fought for is what we want to pass on to our children, so they can continue to nurture our land and protect it from further destruction,” Membrot said.

Petra Macli-ing, a Bontoc woman elder, who was one of the active leaders in Mt. Province during the Chico dam struggle said: “ Whether we like it or not, we are now raising our children to become fighters—fighters who can defend our land, life and resources.”

Published 22 April 2007, Northern Dispatch Weekly,

Desiree Caluza has been rounding the Cordillera region for 15 years, covering stories ranging from culture, environment, women’s rights and human rights, to indigenous peoples’ issues. In her visits to tribal communities in the region, she has proven that Cordillera women have always been powerful and strong.