Philippines: the Cordillera Peoples’ struggle

Manang Tina continues to struggle for her peoples land. Photo: Andy Vermault, FoE Flanders

“gold only glitters when controlled by the people and for the people”, Manang Tina

Christina Batiel Moyaen from the Save Apayao Peoples Organisation, also fondly known as “Manang Tina”, is from the Kankanaey tribe (sub-tribe of the Igorot). Manang Tina is from Conner, Apayao, Cordillera Northern Philippines.  Manang Tina was one of the Kankanaey victims of repression and militarisation. She was harassed and arrested by the military as she fought for their recognition and their rights over their ancestral domain. Manang Tina’s presentation was on the Cordillera Peoples’ Struggle for Life, Land and Resources.

Manang Tina lives in the town of Conner, the homeland of the Isnegs and Kalingas – the Indigenous Peoples of Apayao. The terrain is rugged, the mountains and hills, plains and riverbeds used to be thickly forested. Wildlife abound in the forested plains and mountains. It was a land of promise not only to the Isnegs and Kalingas but also to other indigenous peoples of the Cordillera who came for life and security. The indigenous peoples of Apayao intermingled harmoniously until large-scale logging activities invaded their, and eventually mining companies invaded their ancestral domain.

The struggle of the Apayao people is likened to a small voice in the wilderness. They live a simple and quiet life where they work in their fields day-by-day.  Their traditional practices include communing and taking care of their natural environment and live harmoniously according to the resources offered by their natural environment.

Until suddenly in 1975, logging companies invaded their lands. They were faced with a giant enemy and at that time, did not have anyone to approach for help – no media nor NGOs near them. Their only recourse was to organise themselves, persevere in their struggle and establish relationships with NGOs.

From 1975 to 1985, three Chinese logging companies logged the Apayao mountains where they bulldozed fertile lands, fruit trees and crops to give way to roads for logging trucks. Due to this invasion on native lands, there were increased human rights violations.  Conflicts arose because of the logging activities. There were people who were given incentives for spying and for harassing people who were resisting logging. Those who resisted the intrusion of roads into their farmlands were killed, others went missing. Crimes were prevalent. Store owners were held up day and night. Residents were displaced by logging operation. Many families left their houses and source of living for fear of robbery or death by unidentified armed men strongly believed to be agents of logging companies. These families sought refuge to other parts of the Cordillera.

In 1985, government troops were sent which worsened the human rights situation. The people got caught in the conflict and most affected people had no recourse but to give their support to the armed struggle through the New Peoples’ Army, a revolutionary armed group. Militarization rampaged but the indigenous peoples pursued in organizing ourselves.

In 1991, a number of leaders were killed by para-military troops. Harassment against peoples’ organizations intensified. Indigenous peoples and community leaders were traumatized and tortured and were branded as rebels.  Anyone fighting for their land and their ancestral right were branded as rebels and communists – threats and enemies of the government.

The tactic of the government was to sow fear in the hearts of the indigenous peoples in order to invade their lands and rob their resources. The Cordillera mountains were rich in timber and minerals and by the late 80s to mid-90s, the gold threat to indigenous peoples and their lands intensified. The passing of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 facilitated the entry of mining corporations to ancestral domains and native lands. Giant transnational mining corporations applied for 66% of land for mining concessions leaving only 34% for agriculture and forest. The Cordillera Exploration, a subsidiary of British-owned  Anglo American Co. and the Australian -owned Copperfield Co., applied for gold and copper exploration. The local government units, composed of the provincial and municipal officials, committed the gravest treachery on the people by holding on to their pro-mining position.

During the series of false consultations, conducted in 2005, the local officials campaigned hard that mining is good for the community. They sold out and thought that roads will be built by the mining corporations which is of great benefit to the people. They sold the companies’ promises of scholarships for the youth, employment for the unemployed, and yearly financial assistance of P100, 000.00 (US2, 000.00) for the affected villages.

Large-scale logging is also a threat against the land’s fragile biodiversity and the indigenous people’s economic activity. In 2008, the Furniture Group Incorporated (FGI) entered into an agreement with the community people of Calaoan and  Nabuangan in the guise of community based forest management (CBFM) and integrated forest management agreement. These agreements are “deodorized” terms for logging activity.  The agreements allow FGI to log about 30,000 hectares of forest land. The community people seemed helpless because  they misled by the logging company into agreeing on the project. They organized,  protested and fought against the invasion of  the logging and mining industry. They also built alliances and started campaigns together with national and international solidarity movements and NGOs.

Manang Tina ended her sharing by highlighting some lessons and actions we can do together. What can we do, what actions can we take in order to support indigenous peoples/ community struggles?

  1. strengthen their organization and draw courage from the ages who nurtured the land for them. In return, they will defend the land for their children and for many generations to come;
  2. link with other people and organizations like, Friends of the Earth and other friends present, for strength and support;
  3. find spaces for engagements with other indigenous peoples, aboriginal, ethnic and
  4. tribal groups to increase solidarity and worldwide pressure for the recognition of indigenous peoples rights; and
  5. exercise courage, sacrifice and patience amidst fear to do the right thing for the people.

Manang Tina closed by saying that she derives strength from her sisters and brothers around the world who have the same story as a persecuted but fighting indigenous peoples who believe that “gold only glitters when controlled by the people and for the people”.