Jun 30, 2001

Cordillera: Indigenous Rights vs. Globalization

Once again, the Philippines recently experienced a profound change in central government power. The question arises whether this would result in any significant change in the government's approach towards the situation of the Cordillera people.

On May 14, 2001, general elections in the Philippines were to decide on the legitimacy of the Arroyo administration. In January of this year, Gloria Arroyo seized power in an unusual way, by putting aside president Estrada, who was involved in a parliamentary impeachment procedure. Although the Supreme Court had already upheld the legitimacy of the new administration, the elections were to make clear whether the new president is also backed by a majority of the population. (At the moment of writing the results of the vote were not yet clear). This article will briefly discuss two important aspects affecting the people of Cordillera: the president-in-office and the impact of increasing globalization.

Called the Igorot, the people of the Cordillera live in a mountainous area in the northern part of the island Luzon. As the indigenous inhabitants of this region, they are divided into seven ethno-linguistic groups. Although each of these groups has its own language, they share a common cultural background and language, which is called Ilocano. The Cordillera people are organized within the Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (CPA is one of the founding members of the UNPO), which is a federation of some 120 organizations of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Founded in 1984, it aims at uniting the Igorot people to fight for a common cause.

“As an indigenous people, the Cordillera is different from the Philippine majority in their perception of land ownership. The Igorot views land as the source of life and an integral part of a cultural identity that traces its origins from the land. The land is considered sacred and can neither be owned nor sold; instead it should be nurtured to produce life for the communities.” This view sharply contrasts with the capitalist paradigm of free market forces and the increasing globalization thereof. Multinational corporations (MNC's) penetrate the resource rich land of the Cordillera, largely contributing to the degradation of the environment. Profits are repatriated to the mother companies or to foreign banks, and taxes are paid to the central government. In short, as a result of globalization, foreign companies are exploiting the resources wealth, but the Igorot people receive little in return.

From the independence of the Philippines in 1946, the aim of the central government was to integrate cultural minorities into the mainstream culture. By creating several provinces and increasing regional representation, the political élite hoped to increase development spending in the Cordillera and the other separate areas. In the 1970's, under the Marcos administration, the case of the Cordillera was further politicised. Itself being influenced by forces of globalisation, the national government initiated development projects in the Cordillera, which were against the interests of the Igorot people and were strongly resisted by them. Particularly important projects were the Choco River Dam Project and the Cellophil Project. The first threatened to inundate traditional villages and the second gave outsiders control over vast indigenous lands. This negative consequence of globalisation can be seen all around the world; world-wide there are more refugees because of dam projects than as a result of wars.

In 1986, because of financial malversations, Marcos had to step down from office and was succeeded by Corazon Aquino. In the first years of her term, the human rights situation in the Philippines improved, with the release of political prisoners and the repeal of repressive laws and presidential decrees. UN Conventions were ratified while a new Philippine (human rights sensitive) Constitution was promulgated. However, the government refused to tackle substantial issues such as land reform and the restructuring of the economy. When Fidel Ramos became president in 1992, the human rights record in the Philippines once again deteriorated. A good example of the increasing globalisation during the term of Fidel Ramos was the signing into law of a new Mining Code in 1995. Without consulting the Cordillera, the new Mining Code gave MNCs the freedom to devastate tribal lands, allowed 100% foreign ownership, and gave companies the right to displace and resettle people within their concessionary areas.

Two years later, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) came into existence. This act gave the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera decisive influence over the establishment of foreign mining companies, which made it very hard for mining companies to start operations. In the act, the ownership over indigenous lands was regarded as communal, rather than individual. This act is completely different from the 1995 Mining Code and caused a lot of tension between the two laws. Some influential people questioned the constitutionality of the IPRA and filed a lawsuit against this law with the Supreme Court. In December 2000, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition that questioned the constitutional legality of the IPRA. The Supreme Court had to dismiss the petition, because the result of the vote within the Court had been 7-7.

Another example of the tension between globalisation and the protection of indigenous rights is the contested San Roque Dam project. In September 2000, the municipal council of Itogon, Benguet withdrew its endorsement of this dam project. The project had met a lot of resistance, because of the reported failure of its proponents to update its Environmental Certificate of Compliance (ECC) and to submit a watershed management plan required for a project of that magnitude. The San Roque Dam was to become one of the biggest dams in the world and would threaten the living environment of a majority of the Igorot people. The CPA, in co-operation with other organizations, strongly resisted this project and thus booked a little victory. However, in May 2001, president Arroyo declared that the San Roque Dam project would continue because it had already started and therefore was difficult to stop. At the same time she promised to not sacrifice the environment, to resettle the people who will lose their houses, to compensate other people, and to initiate no other large-scale irrigation projects in the future. Time will have to prove whether she will keep this promise.

Patterns in history reveal that the influence of successive presidents on the situation in Cordillera is more or less the same. The issue is not too high on the political agenda, as the central government is more concerned about general development projects and the kidnapping of tourists in other parts of the country. While the central government and foreign companies initiate new mining and dam projects, globalization increases even further through the demands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their granting of development funds. The central government of the Philippines seems to have fully embraced the principles of the Washington consensus in order to become the next newly industrializing country in the region. As a result, tension arises between globalization and the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. The central government cannot escape fully from the forces of globalization, but it should not forget that it has a duty to protect the rights of the Igorot people.

In February 2001, president Arroyo spoke with officials from the Cordillera Administrative Region, and promised to start rebuilding the infrastructure and offered the Cordillera people financial assistance for development projects. Some people were surprised when they found out that Arroyo spoke fluently Ilocano. This apparently unknown fact may well prove to be an essential tool in improving mutual understanding and strengthening the dialogue between the parties.