by Steve da Silva, BASICS Community News Service (Published September 2011) www.basicsnews.ca
On August 13, 2011, BASICS interviewed Gwendolyn Longid, an indigenous Igorot activist and a leading organizer with the Cordillera People’s Alliance in Sagada, Mountain Province. We discussed the struggles of the Cordillera people against imperialist mining plunder and the U.S.-Aquino regime’s militarization of the region under the banner of its ‘Oplan Bayanihan’ counter-insurgency scheme. Longid also explained the difference between the bogus ‘autonomy’ that the national government is trying to impose upon indigenous people versus the genuine self-determination and defense of ancestral domain that the peoples of the Cordillera are struggling for.
This interview is part of the research for a forthcoming book by Steve da Silva, People’s War in the Cordillera, an in-depth look at the people’s resistance and revolutionary movement in the Cordillera within the overall context of the revolutionary movement in the Philippines.
Steve da Silva / BASICS: Can you briefly describe the structure and political work of the Cordillera People’s Alliance?
Gwendoyln Longid / CPA: We have a General Assembly that is made up of members from different provinces and chapters and it elects our Executive Committee. We also have chapters in Kalinga, Benguet, Baguio City, Mountain Province, and Abra, each of which also has its own Executive Committees. We are both a mass organization and an alliance, since we have not only organizations who are part of the CPA but also individuals. CPA Mountain Province has a membership of 37 people’s organization in over 10 municipalities, as well as several other IP [indigenous people's] advocates.
The political work of the CPA is for the defense of our ancestral land and our self-determination. Since the early 1960s when ‘national minorities’ of the Cordillera first faced the threats of the Chico River Dam Projects under the US-Marcos Dictatorship, the CPA has been working to empower indigenous peoples.
From the point of view of the national government, all land with a slope of over 18% or 10.2º degrees is declared public land, making 81.4% of the land in the Cordillera state-owned, or at least that’s their claim. Of course, the indigenous people have a very different point of view on this, considering this is their ancestral land. So the CPA is struggling to defend this ancestral lands.
SD / BASICS: The extra-judicial killings and disappearances of activists in the mass movement has continued under the U.S.-Aquino regime with the Oplan Bayanihan. How has the CPA and the peoples in the Cordillera experiencing the militarization and the counter-insurgency?
Gwen Longid / CPA: In the early 1960s under the Marcos regime when they tried to establish the Chico River Dam, this brought intense militarization to the region. Since the national government’s perspective on the Cordillera is that the region is simply their resource base and property of the national government, they have continued to plunder our resources without considering how the indigenous peoples may like to use these resources. So up until now, from 2010 onwards militarization has mainly taken the form of the defense of mining interests in Mountain Province, the hydro-power projects in Sadanga and Sabangan, and also the geothermal power plants.
Oplan Bayanihan approaches militarization by portraying it as helping the community and being part of the community development. This concept disarms some of the people here in the Cordillera, because it does not seem as aggressive as the militarization of the 1980s. But still, there are many human rights violations, and they are occupying churches, schools, and other public structures. Their mere presence is placing the lives of the community in danger, because essentially they are using the community as human shields against possible attacks from the New People’s Army.1
Secondly, they still use brute force. The AFP are bombing and using heavy artillery in our communities, bombing our rice fields and forests. They say that this doesn’t harm anyone because these are not residential areas, but they have to understand that the livelihood of indigenous peoples is reliant upon the agriculture and forest resources. Farmers are prevented to visit their animals in pasture or their rice fields without military escorts. This is repression.
Third, this is also a direct violation of ancestral right to their territories. Never has a commanding officer or official entered the barangay and asked permission to use the communities. They simply enter and take over public structures, and even private homes, for their military operations. Under the Indigenous People’s Rights Act [Philippines] and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the military has to seek a Free Prior and Informed Consent from the people even in military matters.
SD / BASICS: So there’s an active occupation playing out in some of the baryos. Is there also political repression?
Gwen Longid / CPA: The very presence of the military in the communities is already a form of repression felt by the peasants. The people cannot have meetings or gather in more than two to three. They can’t even go to their rice fields alone or check on their animals in the pastures, they are required to have military escorts. Anyone who has a record of being involved with the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army are closely monitored by the AFP. Those of us involved in the legal democratic movement are branded as communists. The CPA, being a militant people’s organization, is often equated with the NPA. So the military tells people not to associate with the CPA, because what we are doing is illegal and should not continue. They demonize us as terrible people with our own interests in mind.
The CPA continues to be branded as NPA or NPA recruiters, or are portrayed by the military as negative elements in the community. This is directly putting the lives of the CPA members and organizers in danger. This current of demonization is constantly played up by the military in all their barangay meetings in their so-called information activities. During the recent May 2010 election, the AFP elements have been actively campaigning against the Katribu party list2, of which CPA is a founding member. In fact, our organizers are still in the military’s so-called ‘order of battle’. They are constantly hounded by intelligence assets. In a report, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said that the continuing vilification of the legal democratic movement leaders and activists has contributed greatly to the extra-judicial killings of activist.
But aside from that, there are a lot of other violations. Our members are being tailed by intelligence agents. Recently, students involved in the [July 2011] Mountain Province State Polytechnic College strike in Bontoc asking for reduction of tuition fees have been followed and approached by intelligence assets bullying them not to continue with their student activism. These are direct threats to their lies. There is also the abduction of James Balao, who was abducted by state forces on September 17, 2007. Until this day, he has not yet been surfaced by state forces.
There was a period when the membership was set back by the repression, and some of our members were very scared. But we’re feeling an upsurge in the people’s movement now as the threat of large-scale mining intensifies and as the economic crisis intensifies. Despite the open threats, the CPA remains firm in its commitment to forward the struggle for self-determination and the defense of ancestral lands. The Aquino regime has been very open in courting large-scale mining corporations, including Canadian firms.
SD / BASICS: What’s the difference between the self-determination that the CPA struggles for versus what national government intends to impose upon the Cordillera with its recent ‘regional autonomy’ scheme? What function would this “autonomy” serve the Aquino regime, which is clearly intensifying mining plunder and militarization in the region?
Gwen Longid / CPA: Well, the very fact that its being imposed by the national government demonstrates that its not self-determined. The indigenous peoples have their own systems and their systems have been working. There are indigenous socio-political structures in place, and even if there are some negative aspects of these structures, they can be mended and developed alongside principles of true democracy and nationalist industrialization. The national government does not recognize the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples and a right to their ancestral territories. Their model of ‘autonomy’ is creating an administered autonomy, with another bureaucracy and structure in the framework of the national government.
This bureaucracy would of course be composed of the ‘trapols’ [traditional politicians] who are mainly concerned with their careers and economic benefits, and may help facilitate the entry of the mining companies and the military into our communities. The people may be disarmed by these structures, because it will be fellow indigenous peoples sitting in office and implementing these policies. This is exactly what CPA has said in its critique of the governments autonomy efforts as political misrepresentation.
SD / BASICS: In the July 6, 2011 statement on the issue of autonomy, the CPA points towards a certain ‘political expediency’ on the part of local political forces pushing for autonomy. As you say, regional autonomy is not an issue that the people are clamouring for. What do you make of the timing of this new attempt to push through the issue of autonomy?
Gwen Longid / CPA: The drafting of a third Organic Act for the creation of a Cordillera Autonomous Region will definitely allow for these local politicians to have a seat ‘at the table’. With the creation of a new bureaucracy, there will be a new venue to fight over the spoils, the political and economic gains that will come to these politicians from the mining projects, therefore making it easier for the Aquino regime to divide and conquer the people and push their large-scale mining agenda.
This is definitely not what the masses are asking for. What they are asking for is support for their livelihood and the addressing of economic needs that are currently not being attended to. The regional autonomy that these politicians are pushing has nothing to do with what the people want.
SD / BASICS: Can you elaborate upon the relationship of the indigenous people’s struggles for self-determination here in the Cordillera within the broader national liberation movement?
Gwen Longid / CPA: The CPA recognizes that the struggle for self-determination and defense of ancestral domains will not succeed if it is not directly attached to the national struggle for independence from imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and feudalism. But the CPA also recognizes that the struggle for self-determination goes beyond the victory of the national struggle for New Democracy, because there are other aspects of the indigenous peoples struggles that would have to be developed. The CPA, of course, recognizes that their is a socialist perspective that must guide us after the victory against the ‘three demons’ – imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and feudalism. We, of course, recognize the need for national industrialization and how this is needed for the support of the agrarian revolution. But it is also very clear to us that national liberation will respect self-determination.
One of the main reasons why indigenous peoples do not allow the national government to use their natural resources is because it is in the framework of plundering for the gains of foreign big capitalists and their local cohorts. But in the course of national industrialization, indigenous peoples would be open to a discussion on how these resources should be used since national industrialization guided would benefit all Filipinos and wouldn’t necessarily set aside the rights of indigenous peoples, as is the case with imperialism.
We know that we are on the frontiers of the main resources of the Philippines and these will be necessary for national industrialization. So it is a question of who owns these resources, who will exploit them, and who will benefit from such developments.
SD / BASICS: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview Gwen.
Gwen Longid / CPA: You’re welcome, Steve.
1The communist New People’s Army will not attack the Armed Forces of the Philippines when it is stationed in villages in accordance with the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law that it signed with the Government of the Philippines in peace agreements in the 1990s. The AFP’s stationing of troops in villages constitutes a major violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.