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Volume IV,  Number 12              April 25 - May 1, 2004            Quezon City, Philippines


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20 Years of Cordillera Day 
A Historic Testament to the Resolute Cordillera Peoples’ Struggle

The history of Cordillera Day is the history of a vibrant peoples’ struggle for a just society. It is an annual observance of achievements, where weaknesses are recognized and lessons are learned.  It is also an annual event for renewing the commitment and ideals pursued by Cordillera’s heroes and martyrs. 

Contributed to Bulatlat.com

Part II:  Historical Highlights

April 24, 1985 was the first Cordillera Day.  It was celebrated in the village of Belwang, Sadanga, Mountain Province and was well participated in by peoples organizations of the different sectors.  The issues of Chico dams, Cellophil, mining, militarization and human rights violations were highlighted. 

In 1986, the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and upsurge in the mass movement made it appropriate to hold Cordillera Day in the town center and not the usual remote interior villages. The Cordillera Day celebration was thus held in Bontoc to celebrate the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship and to reiterate the basic Cordillera peoples’ demands to the new Aquino regime. It was the first to be held in a town center. Succeeding gatherings until 2001 would be held outside the Chico River Valley.

Turbulent period

The 1987 Cordillera Day was held in Lagawe, capital town of Ifugao province. This marked the first participation of representatives from other indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Asia-Pacific region.  In this celebration, former Senators Lorenzo Tañada and Jose Diokno were given plaques of recognition for their strong support to the Cordillera peoples’ struggle.  Ama Lumbaya, a respected Kalinga elder and peace pact holder who took up arms to concretize his defense of ancestral land and opposition to the Chico dams, was also recognized during the event. 

That year, the celebration was held amidst much hope by the people for reforms with the Aquino government.  The theme carried high hopes of achieving regional autonomy.  During the first months of Aquino’s assumption to power, the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) representing the Cordillera mass movement was honored with an invitation and appearance in Malacañang for its role in the anti-dictatorship struggle and its leadership in the particular Cordillera peoples movement for self-determination.

But the people’s hopes were immediately shattered by the anti-people policies of the US-Aquino regime, particularly its total war policy and its coddling of the paramilitary Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA).

In the end, 1987 turned out to be a turbulent year for the militant Cordillera mass movement.

The CPLA, led by Conrado Balweg, split from the New People’s Army (NPA) and held a peace pact with President Aquino in Mt. Data in the same year.  The Aquino regime would totally embrace CPLA to the exclusion and marginalization of the CPA and the militant mass movement that had historically initiated and led the Cordillera movement for defense of ancestral land and for self-determination. 

Corazon Aquino’s political shortsightedness and blind fear of the militant movement would lead to future blunders on the handling of the Cordillera struggle for self-determination.  It set up the failed Cordillera Bodong Administration – Cordillera Regional Assembly and came out with the first Organic Act for Regional Autonomy which was strongly rejected by the people. 

CPA exposed and criticized the CPLA for its bankrupt ideas on Cordillera self-determination like “setting up a Cordillera nation” with a “bodong government,” creating animosity between Cordillerans and non-Cordillerans with pronouncements such as “Cordillera for Cordillerans only,” terrorism of the paramilitary CPLA against the unarmed mass movement, and its opportunist deals with mining companies/vested interests, and positioning in government even though it is an armed group. 

In turn, CPA leaders were harassed and persecuted.  The worst cases were the murders by CPLA operatives of Daniel Ngayaan, CPA vice chairperson, and Romy Gardo, CPA Abra coordinator, in October and December 1987, respectively.  The spate of human rights violations was a testament to the folly of the Aquino regime. Its initiatives on Cordillera “self-determination,” closely undertaken with the CPLA and other opportunist traditional politicians, were dismal failures. The CPLA would be condemned for its terrorism and would break apart.  It was transformed by the military and the government as well as traditional politicians for their self-serving interests. 

Cordillera Day 1988 was held in Baguio City, as a Peoples’ Tribunal to try Conrado Balweg and the CPLA for their crimes.  Witnesses and families of CPLA victims presented testimonies on CPLA atrocities before a panel composed of indigenous elders, lawyers, church people, representatives of peoples’ organizations, media, and international solidarity partners/ advocates of indigenous peoples rights and human rights.  The CPLA was found guilty of at least 18 crimes. 

The event was a historic milestone for two reasons.  First, the people’s trial was held at the height of the Aquino regime’s total war policy and CPLA terrorism.  Second, the people, through their testimonies, courageously presented the truth and details of the CPLA crimes.  The testimonies brought the CPLA crimes to broader public attention. The celebration drew its success from the families of the victims and witnesses who braved the storm of terrorism and persecution.

In stark contrast, the government has yet to convict or declare the CPLA responsible in any of these crimes.  

Rejection of false autonomy

The next Cordillera Day celebration was in Tadian, Mountain Province.  It took place amid the fuss over the drafting of an Organic Act for an Autonomous Region of the Cordillera, which in 1990 was rejected in a referendum. The Act failed to truly represent the land/resources and political interests of the Cordillera people and there was no genuine consultation with the people. Its close association with the CPLA was a major factor for the strong rejection.

In 1990, Cordillera Day was celebrated in Conner, Apayao, with the theme, “Live out True Autonomy.”  The celebration stressed that the true essence of autonomy is that which is practiced at the community level and not one that is imposed.  The celebration also held the dornat or renewal of the peace pact between two communities – an Isneg tribe and a Tingguian tribe.

 In 1991, Cordillera Day was held for the second time in Tadian, Mountain Province.  It highlighted sustainable development of resources within ancestral lands as an integral component of advancing autonomy. 

The following year saw the Cordillera Day celebration in Itogon, Benguet, site of the open-pit mining operations.  It projected the militant struggle of the communities against large-scale mining and the plunder of their resources and livelihood since the early 1900s when American mining started in the area.

In 1993, Cordillera Day was celebrated in Sagada, Mountain Province where soldiers and paramilitary elements stationed at a ridge overlooking the venue, “guarded” the activity. 

Cordillera Day 1994 was held in Mankayan, Benguet. Like Itogon, Mankayan communities since the American colonial period have been affected by large and destructive mining operations of the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company.  Issues of mineworkers on retrenchment and their longstanding demands were put forward. It was also the first year of the United Nations’ International Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which ends this 2004. In line with this, the CPA’s decade-long campaign for the “Defense of Land, Life and Resources” was also launched. 

It was during this year that the CPLA and other groups started their own bogus version of “Cordillera National Day.”  Such self-serving bogus celebrations would be attempted in the coming years depending on the objectives of CPLA, the Armed Forces of the Philippines or traditional politicians who persistently tried to confuse the people.

Cordillera Day 1995 was the only decentralized celebration, held in the provinces of the Cordillera and in Baguio City.

In 1996, Cordillera Day was celebrated in Baguio City for the second time. A breakthrough in the history of Cordillera Day, the celebration was characterized by week-long coordinated activities and conferences, and peaked in a march–rally.  A covenant was signed denouncing the policies of the Ramos government like the Expanded Value Added Tax, the MTPDP (Medium Term Philippine Development Plan), Mining Act of 1995, San Roque Dam and policies on agriculture, tourism, ancestral lands and deceptive regional autonomy. 

Still the same issues

The Cordillera Day celebration in 1997 focused on the issues of megadams, which were the starting issues of the early Macliing Memorials and Cordillera Day. It was held in Dalupirip, Itogon, Benguet, one of the remaining bastions of Ibaloi culture threatened by the San Roque Dam construction.  Anti-Chico dam veterans from Bontok and Kalinga shared their experience with the younger generation, narrating how they employed different legal means, mass mobilizations, and even armed resistance to defend their land.  The elders openly expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the NPA for its support in their life-and-death struggle.  They urged the people of Dalupirip to learn from their experience and heed the lessons of their struggle. 

Unlike the past celebrations which were held only on April 24, the 1997 Cordillera Day started the tradition of holding the celebration for two days.  Various workshops on people’s issues were held on the first day.  The main celebration was on the second day.

The 1998 Cordillera Day was the first centralized celebration to be held in the province of Abra, outside of the 1995 decentralized celebrations.  It was a slap on the face of the CPLA since it was in this area that the CPLA was formed and where the Balweg faction declared their split from the NPA in 1986.

Balweg and his CPLA desperately attempted to prevent the preparations and even harassed the participants who were on their way to the venue.  But all their efforts were futile as the villages remained firm in their determination to host the Cordillera Day.  Delegates from Mountain Province trekked the mountains for a day just to reach the venue. 

Cordillera Day 1998 was held in the wake of the resounding rejection of a bogus autonomy act in a second plebiscite. It reiterated the basic position of the Cordillera peoples’ movement on the issue – genuine respect of ancestral land rights, indigenous socio-political institutions, and democratic processes is the essence of Genuine Regional Autonomy.

The celebration for Cordillera Day in 1999 was hosted by another community with many historical lessons of struggles to share. This time it was in Mainit, Bontoc, Mountain Province.  Before the actual Cordillera Day celebration, Mainit and the nearby villages united in a petition to drive away the 54th Infantry Battalion from the area.  Thus, there were no military harassments during the actual gathering.  The host community shared their historic record in frustrating various tactics of mining companies to enter their ancestral territory as well as opposing through concerted militant actions a geothermal energy project. Thus, the challenge espoused by the 1999 Cordillera Day was to draw lessons from militant local struggles.

Cordillera Day 2000 was the second celebration to be held in Abra, this time in the municipality of Sallapadan..  With the enactment of Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) and various anti-people projects in the region, the call during the celebration was “Resist all attempts to disintegrate the indigenous systems and processes of the Cordillera peoples.”  The unity pact forged in 1998 in Tubo was renewed in a closing ritual led by the host community and elders.  The celebration supported the community protest against the FTAA (Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement) application of a U.S. mining company, Newmont.  The peasant situation, IPRA (Indigenous Peoples Rights Act) and various issues on forestry were tackled. 

In 2001, Cordillera Day was brought again to Mankayan, Benguet - a community ravaged by mining. The usual scarcity of water due to Lepanto Mining operations was minimized by the discipline of delegates in view of rationed water.  This was also assuaged by a sudden welcome rain at the time of Cordillera Day.

The delegates saw first-hand the tailings dam of Lepanto, ground subsidence and massive landslide as well as the collapsed mine tailings dams.  The celebration highlighted the burning issue of mining and expressed support to the local struggle against Lepanto operation and expansion. 

It was also during this year that the peoples’ movement participated in the electoral struggle through the party list elections.  The celebration pointed out the role of the mass movement in Philippine elections and advanced the politics of genuine change.  Cordillera Day 2001 supported Bayan Muna (People First), a progressive political party of marginalized sectors, which later overwhelmingly topped the party-list elections and garnered more than enough votes to qualify for the maximum three seats allowed to party-list groups in the House of Representatives.

Returning to where it all began

Going back to where it all started in the Chico Valley, Cordillera Day 2002 was celebrated in the village of Dupag, situated along the Chico River, in Tabuk, Kalinga.  There was an ocular tour to the historic sites of protests against the Chico Dam passing through military detachments stationed inside the community. As Kalinga is the most militarized province in the region and is beset with tribal wars together with Mountain Province, the celebration drew attention to and passed resolutions on the issues of tribal wars, militarization, and human rights.

The celebration also highlighted the national and international protests against U.S. military intervention in the Philippines, and the all-out puppetry of the Arroyo regime to U.S President Bush’s preemptive wars of aggression and intervention in sovereign states.

Cordillera Day 2002 was honored with the presence of the CPA founding chairperson, lawyer William “Billy” Claver. Aside from the remarkable support of the local government unit, the 2002 celebration had the biggest number of international delegates and mobilization in the recent celebrations.

In 2003, the Cordillera Day accomplished another breakthrough as this was the only celebration ever held outside the government-defined Cordillera Administrative Region.  It was held in Lamag, Quirino, Ilocos Sur.  Cordillera Day 2003 affirmed the self-defined identity of the host community, being Igorot indigenous peoples and reaffirmed the Cordillera mountain range as the regional geographical coverage of the Cordillera region as defined by the Cordillera peoples’ movement.  The celebration served to build the broadest Cordillera and Ilokandia solidarity in saving the mighty Abra River from further destruction by Lepanto Mining for the next generations.

Testament to a people’s resolve

Delegates to the Cordillera Day celebrations range from 3,000 to 4,500 persons. It continues to be the biggest annual regional mobilization of CPA and serves as a mass educational forum for the Cordillera mass movement. Mobilizations could easily be much bigger if not for financial constraints. Militarization has also been a factor restricting village delegations.

Celebrations have also been held for the past several years in Hongkong, Belgium and Macau, and recently by Filipino Americans in California.  These are organized by Cordillera migrants and workers together with international solidarity partners and advocates of Cordillera struggles and indigenous peoples rights. 

The history of Cordillera Day is the history of a vibrant peoples’ struggle for a just society. It is an annual observance of achievements, where weaknesses are recognized and lessons are learned.  It is an annual event for renewing the commitment and ideals pursued by the Cordillera heroes and martyrs.  It is a testament to the unwavering resolve of the Cordillera peoples and of the Filipino people to further strengthen the struggle for genuine regional autonomy for the Cordillera within a truly sovereign and democratic Philippines. Bulatlat.com

Part I: A Mirror of Cordillera History and Politics

Cordillera Day Celebrations Through the Years

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