“The mountains are still here, because of the people’s struggles.”
By DEE AYROSO
ITOGON, BENGUET – On Cordillera Day, April 23, the mambunong or indigenous priest of Keystone, Ucab village slaughtered two pigs: for the feast, and more importantly for a ritual, to give tribute to the ancestors and the martyrs of the struggles of the indigenous peoples.
It was a pact of the people of the present with those of the past –a pact between generations.
“They are the ones who serve as inspiration, their names not to be forgotten…their names, stories and lives will nurture the continuing struggle,” said Rev. Dr. Ferdie Anno of the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) at the April 23 ecumenical mass in Ucab.
Anno said the “banuars,” – the martyrs and heroes – “will continue to give ardor and inspiration.” He referred to Macliing Dulag and other Cordilleran martyrs who successfully fought the Chico dam project and other destructive projects in the ancestral lands in the region.
The new generation will not be deprived of the stories of those lives, Anno said, which they will continue to celebrate “not just in prayers, but in following their footsteps.”
Elders take the center stage in gatherings like these, being the ones who led the struggles in their prime. The Council of Elders Association (CEA) is among those who led Cordillera Day activities.
With the elders in the celebration were children and the youth – the second, even up to fifth generation of Cordilleran activists –who will carry on the fight in defense of land, life and resources. The elders refer to them as the “younger voices” who will continue to tell the stories of victories, losses and lessons of those struggles.
One such story is the resistance of the Ibalois and Kankana-eys of Itogon, particularly of Ucab village, a flashpoint in the fight against open-pit mining.
In 1905, Benguet Corporation Inc. (BCI) began its mining operations in Itogon, Benguet, having acquired a mining patent which gives them the right to extract the mineral resources in the area.
The company implemented the conventional underground, tunneling operations, UCCP Pastor Vergel Aniceto told Bulatlat in an interview.
Aniceto, 57, an Ibaloi and Ucab resident, is the secretary general of the Kabenguetan Ilaban ti Daga, Biag ken Kinabaknang (Benguet people, fight for land, life and resources or Kaiabang). He is a geodetic engineer by training and was a former employee of the BCI.
It was in Ucab village where BCI began its experimental mining in 1981, Aniceto said.
“In 1985, in (the Ucab subvillage of) Keystone West, people, began to notice the changes. They began to react: ‘This is different’,” he recalled. But it was years later when things would get more confrontational.
In 1989, Aniceto was among those who were retrenched as the company shifted to the more mechanized bulk and open-pit mining. The company had three open-pit mining projects: the Antamok Gold, Super Tuding and Project XYZ.
Aniceto said the BCI started satellite open-pit mining operations in eight out of nine villages of Itogon, and gave notices to residents to leave.
“This angered the people,” Aniceto said. “They began to discuss what should be done.”
The people began to hold community meetings, the start of what would be a fierce stand against BCI.
Jill Cariño, Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) vice chairperson for external affairs, narrated during the program that the BCI conducted blasting in Ucab on Nov. 14, 1989, and destroyed 12 houses and wounded a woman resident.
Furious villagers stormed the BCI field office, wielding bolos and farm tools, to protest the blasting. Pressured to conduct an investigation, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported that the BCI did not warn the residents before the blasting, and ordered the company to pay damages to those affected.
In spite of the strong opposition from Itogon residents, the BCI continued the open-pit mining. In 1990, Cariño said, the people then formed the Timpuyog dagiti Umili ti Itogon to strengthen the campaign against the open-pit mines.
Barricades were then on and off, in various open-pit mines in Itogon.
Aniceto said the Ucab women volunteered to form the barricades, because the Philippine Constabulary (PC), the state peace-keeping force at that time, were armed.
“The women worried that if the men were at the barricades, it could turn bloody,” recalled Aniceto. The men organized in the other communities, while women and children maintained the barricades.
In July 1991, Aniceto recalled a crucial stand-off at the Keystone East open-pit, where he, his wife and three small children – aged seven, four and three – were at the barricade. “We were all there, nobody was left at home,” he said.
The people, including children, laid down on the ground, and on the blades of the bulldozers. The PC goaded on the bulldozer operator to run over the barricade.
“The elders told the PC: ‘Go ahead! You might as well bury us here because the open-pit mines will kill us anyway,’” Aniceto recalled.
At 6 p.m., the PC arrested the 200 Ucab residents at the barricade, and ordered them to board the BCI dump trucks. The people, however, insisted to walk up to the crossing along the main road, because the floor of the truck was slippery.
As they walked through the village, other residents came out of their houses and joined them, until their number reached 500. At the crossing, the commander of the PC detachment stopped them and said that they were all to be detained there.
Aniceto said that unknown to the PC, the residents had sent out a messenger to notify other organizations and the local government in case they were brought to Camp Dangwa.
The PC commander however, told them to go home after registering their names in their logbook, and just return the next day so that they will brought to Camp Dangwa. The villagers protested and stayed at the detachment until 11 p.m.
“We returned the next day, but we were organized,” Aniceto recalled. Some 2,000 villagers came in force, carrying bolos and farm tools, while the children brought slingshots.
“Explain yourselves and what you did to us last night,” he recalled what the people told the PC, who kept inside the detachment, peeking through the windows.
The villagers left after holding a short program.
Jubilant with their first victory, the people realized the need for a village organization, Aniceto said. Thus, the United Concerned Citizens of Ucab was formed.
It signaled the start of a six-month-long barricade, a show of the people’s defiance. The local government responded by ordering a halt to the open-pit mining operations.
Aniceto said the company employed divide-and-rule tactics, bribing community leaders to sign a Memorandum of Agreement acceding to the open-pit mines.
In 1990, a group of village officials were treated to a restaurant reportedly by the mining company, and came back with a signed MOA. In response, Aniceto said the people burned the MOA.
Pro-mining residents, mainly the dependents of BCI employees, were also mobilized and pitted against those at the barricades.
“‘If the barricades don’t stop, BCI will go bankrupt, and we will all be the losers,’ they told us,” Aniceto recalled.
“We told them that the BCI will never go bankrupt,” Aniceto said, but the community will be left with gaping holes.
Eventually, the BCI went full-blown mechanized in its operations, and laid off workers.
“You were right,” the erstwhile pro-mining residents told those at the barricades.
The elders also tightened their ranks by putting a “curse” on whoever would turn their back on a decision.
Simplicio Sikuan, 75, an elder from Tuding, shared that he was also offered money by the company. When he refused, he and two others were put up for assassination. Sikuan said he talked to his two village mates, the local hired guns who were paid to kill him.
“This job will pay you now, but after we’re gone, you’ll be out of work,” Sikuan told his would-be-killers. Sikuan told them that the barricades were for the good of the whole community, and they were convinced. Ironically, he said, the two hired guns died of illnesses, way ahead of their former targets.
In 1992, the BCI retaliated by filing charges of grave threats against the 200 residents. They were also charged with violation of Presidential Decree 463, Marcos’s “Mineral Resources Development Decree,” as the BCI claimed they were losing P1 million a day because of the barricades.
From 200, those charged went down to 43, who were ordered arrested. Among them was Aniceto’s wife Judith, also a UCCP pastor. Aniceto said that each household contributed P50 for the bail bond, but the pooled amount was still not enough. It was then that Itogon Mayor Alfonzo Fianza stepped up and put down his land title as bail bond. Nobody was detained.
Aniceto recalled that every court hearing became a venue for protest, as the villagers filled the courtroom. They would answer “I’m here!” as the clerk of court called out the names of the accused.
Two years later, in May 1994, on the verge of the court’s dismissal of the case, the BCI withdrew its charges, claiming that it wants to “rebuild” its relationship with the community.
Aniceto, however, said that the company only tried to save face, as its witnesses had failed to show up.
The bail bond was returned, and became the starting fund for the organization, including Mayor Fianza’s land title.
The children of Ucab were literally among the voices of protest, as they formed the Anti-Open Pit Mining Kids (AOPMK), and performed songs and plays during protests. A song written by Aniceto’s wife Judith “Nabaknang a Daga” (Bountiful land) became the trademark song of the group.
Bulatlat.com found the same song on the internet titled “Napateg a kinabaknang” (Priceless wealth)and performed by Shengnget.
Later all grown, including Aniceto’s daughter Rejoice, they formed Sheng-nget, and continue to compose and perform similar songs of struggle in the region. Some of them, now in their 30s, have become full-time organizers of the CPA allied groups.
In 1992, Cariño said Cordillera Day was held in Ucab, at the height of the anti-open pit mines struggle. It was a year full of successes in campaign and organizing.
The mass actions led to the formation on August 2, 1992 of the Itogon Inter-barangay Alliance, or Iib-a, which means “sibling” or “kin” in Kankana-ey and Ibaloi.
As part of the campaign, Cariño said the groups filed a complaint against BCI in the Second International Water Tribunal held in The Netherlands in February earlier that year.
The tribunal called for a stop to the open-pit mines, as it issued a guilty verdict on BCI, for destroying the Antamok river and violating the rights of the indigenous peoples.
The groups also filed a complaint against BCI in the Permanent People’s Tribunal, held in Bhopal, India in September 1992. The tribunal found BCI guilty of violating international human rights laws.
Cariño said the campaigns successfully stopped BCI’s expansion of its open-pit mines in the villages of Ucab, Tuding and Virac, but failed to halt the operations in Camote Vein, Loacan village. The people staged barricades, but they bore the brunt of the militarization, and many were arrested and detained.
Eventually, Camote vein ran out of gold reserves and was abandoned by BCI, leaving a big hole.
In 1996, the open-pit mining operations in Itogon had come to a full stop. Aniceto said the BCI claimed losses due to the high cost of operations and the low prices of gold.
“For us, we knew that the continued barricades disrupted their operations, and they were forced to stop,” he said.
The elders, the lessons
“The mountains are still here, because of the people’s struggles,” said Cariño.
But the need to defend their lands and rights still remain.
In 2001, Aniceto said the BCI started sub-contracting its operations. Sub-contractors employ small-scale miners, dividing profits under a 60-40 or 70-30 scheme, or even daily payment. It was a more exploitative arrangement, he said.
In 2003, the BCI attempted to push for a bulk-water project in Itogon, but was thwarted by protests from residents.
In a workshop as part of the celebration on April 23, elders recalled their experiences in leading the campaigns against open-pit mines and dam projects.
Sikuan said retelling of the stories of struggles is like taking care of crops. “We have to water and nurture the movement,” he said.
It is this tight-knit relationship between generations that has kept the indigenous peoples’ movement alive, as the elders do not merely tell children stories, but allow them to take part as they unfold.
“I have seen them put their own lives at risk,” one local organizer said she was just a Grade 3 pupil during the Ucab barricades, and she was struck by the selflessness of her own parents and the elders. Indeed, she took the same path when her time came, and became a full-time organizer.
Cariño said the lessons of the struggle should not be forgotten: “Let us trust on the power of the people. We are strong when we are many. Let us not tire of organizing others to join the movement. Our unity and action are for all of us and our own good.”