Joan Carling?s Journey to Damascus

As she herself admits, Joan Carling – chair of the Cordillera Peoples? Alliance – felt no pride in having been born of Cordillera?s indigenous peoples when she was younger. But she would reach a point from which there was no turning back, and now she is a prominent leader of the Cordillera peoples? movement against development aggression and for social justice and self-determination.

By Alexander Martin Remollino

If you didn?t know her and you saw her giving a workshop to a group of about 70 last April 23 (the eve of the 20th Cordillera Day in Tocucan, Mt. Province north of Manila), you?d think she?s Japanese. Which was probably one reason the young Japanese women in that group found themselves quite comfortable with her.

Indeed Joan Carling, chair of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), has Japanese blood in her veins. Her father is half Japanese, half Kankanaey (of the tribe native to Mt. Province). Her mother is a full-blooded Kankanaey. Both are from Sagada in the same province – a big hit among foreign and local tourists, because of its cool air and scenic wonders. She was born on June 30, 1964 in Baguio City, another tourist haven because of its also cool air, as well as its vibrant cultural scene and its famous ukay-ukay (bargain) stores.

Growing up years

She was born at a time when memories of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army were still very fresh in the public consciousness.

Baguio was one of the strongholds of the Japanese forces that occupied the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. The physical abuse that Japanese soldiers routinely inflicted on the civilian Filipino populace is well documented.

Because of this, she says, her mother?s family couldn?t accept her father, so her parents had to leave Sagada and settle in Baguio. ?When we were children, whenever we went on vacation at our grandparents? place in Sagada, our parents didn?t go with us. Our parents only went back home when my maternal grandmother died,? she says.

?That is why though I understand the Kankanaey tongue, I didn?t learn how to speak it.?

Her father worked in a lumber company in Boboc, Benguet. It was there where she took her elementary schooling. ?I grew up with the daughters and sons of workers and natives in that area,? she says.

High school and college

She took her high school in Baguio where she would enroll later in the University of the Philippines (UP) college for Sociology and Economics.

As a student, Joan was, as she herself tells it, hardly one whom you?d suspect would become an activist, much less the prominent figure of the Cordillera peoples? struggle that she now is. In the city, where many people hail from different ethnic origins, her classmates were usually from upper-class families that were not part of the Igorot tribes.

She remembers feeling some ?inferiority complex? before her classmates at UP. ?I didn?t tell my classmates that I am from an indigenous tribe,? she reveals, ?because of the negative perception of indigenous peoples. So they didn?t know; they may have had suspicions, but I didn?t tell them. I wasn?t proud to be indigenous before them, because of the denigration of indigenous peoples. That, aside from the fact that unlike they I?m not from a rich family.?

Chico Dam

But the people?s fury surrounding the anti-Chico Dam struggle would find its echoes in UP and change Carling?s life forever.

Funded by the World Bank, the Chico Dam was a ?development? project which would inundate the lands of Bontoc, Kalinga and Apayao provinces in the Cordillera ranges. Macliing staunchly opposed the project, upholding the sacredness of the land which his tribe believes in, and several times refused government offers of cash in exchange for giving up the fight. For his staunch opposition he was shot dead by Army soldiers on the morning of April 24, 1980.

Macliing?s death increased media projection of the Chico Dam issue, and unleashed a wave of public indignation starting in the Cordillera region and eventually crossing the oceans.

The murder of Macliing, a Kalinga tribal chief who was one of the leaders of the anti-dam campaign, awakened in Joan an interest in her own peoples? struggle. She was in college by then. ??What happened there? Why did they do such a thing to Macliing Dulag?? I was asking. I began to open my eyes.?

In 1984, she attended the Macliing memorial held in Betwagan village, Sadanga, Mt. Province. ?I saw vividly the unity and dynamic culture of the tribes here in the Cordillera.? After that she went on community integration in Kalinga.

?So that?s the story of how I suddenly became involved,? she shares. ?And from then on, I was proud of my indigenous identity, I was not ashamed of it.?

Joan the activist

She would become a human rights activist in Kalinga for three years after that.

In 1989, she attended a conference on ethnocide and militarization held in Mindanao in southern Philippines. She was arrested, along with 15 other delegates to that conference. She was the only one from the Cordillera region in that group, which became known as the ?Maguindanao 16.? They were accused by the military of being members of the underground New People?s Army, and were released only after a series of public protests.

Sick of malaria then, she could not continue with what she was doing in Maguindanao, so she went to Baguio where she joined the secretariat of the CPA as convenor of its human rights commission. She would become the CPA?s secretary-general in 1997, and its chair four years later.


Joan Carling?s personality, which is quite the opposite of that of the stereotypical grim-and-determined activist, doesn?t readily show that she has met quite a number of challenges in the course of her work as activist.

She shares, for instance, that the time she was doing human rights work in Kalinga was also the peak of militarization in the area. She cannot forget one of the fact-finding missions she joined, where she saw an entire village razed, ?their broken antique jars scattered,? while the adjacent village was strafed.

?What kind of savagery or inhumanity is that?? she asked herself. ?And I didn?t know how to answer the questions of the victims: those who lost their homes were begging me to plead with the military to allow them to harvest their crops…especially since their children who were going to school were expecting that they would send something.?

So she had to learn how to face the military and negotiate with them, she said, ?just to get what the masses needed.?

Of course the experience of being arrested in Maguindanao was also a major challenge that she had to face.

Damning the San Roque Dam

Another big challenge for her is one that is related to the campaign against the San Roque Dam.

Funded with a $400-million loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the 345-megawatt hydro-electric San Roque Dam is said to be the biggest in Southeast Asia. It was built and is operated by Marubeni Corporation, Kansai Electric Power Company, Inc., and the New York-based Marubeni subsidiary Sithe Energies, all Japanese multinational corporations. Though located in eastern Pangasinan, it is also expected to affect the Cordillera communities by inundating land and displacing farmers in the region.

?The challenge there is that of talking with officials of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, government officials, officials of the National Power Corporation… It?s so hard to make them understand, no matter how you try to show the social dimensions,? she says. ?For them only money counts. In spite of all the evidence we have?scientific, environmental, social, etc. – they ignore our case.?

Source of inspiration

Joan is a strong one, to be still doing what she has been doing for more than a decade after facing the challenges she has had to face. Where does she get the strength to go on with the fight?

?I have always drawn my strength from the affected communities, the umili (people)… When you see them spending time and energy to wage campaigns in spite of their suffering, I am moved,? she says. ?So I always draw my strength from them. When I feel low, I always reflect, ?What would become of them if we give up??? (

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