2060: The Cordillera Nightmare Scenario

The Cordillera is definitely not left behind development-wise. For a time it resisted following other regions of the Philippines, for the indigenous people of the region’s affinity with the land they call their ancestral domains gave them enough reason to oppose attempts to ravage the mountains that their ancestors have earlier protected passionately.

For a time.

It is 2060, and there are now about 50 operational large-scale mines in the Cordillera, including about a hundred small-scale mining areas. Mine safety seems to have been disregarded by both kinds, for in 2031, some 32 miners were trapped in a massive underground accident in Mt. Province. The company involved did provide some indemnity for the victims, which many beneficiaries felt inadequate. The case they filed for torts and damages remains in the courts, still unresolved with finality. There was also the mining accident in a small-scale mining enclave in Kalinga that claimed the lives of 46 people in 2029.

Some of the mining operations ceased rather early. Reasons cited in the cessation of operations include the drop in gold and copper prices in 2037; the armed insurrection of a tribe in Kalinga, that, while violently dealt with by the AFP, discouraged the mining company (they now operate another mining venture in Benguet); other mining companies say that the mineral deposits in their mining concessions were no longer economically viable, except for open-pit mining. So far, no communities in Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Province allowed open-pit mining.

Yet the discontinued mines have left ghost towns in their wake, with the erstwhile residents eking out a living in the mined out areas. Some of the communities have earned the fate of Mankayan Poblacion, which started sinking in the past century, and is now abandoned after having been declared a high-hazard area by the government. Many communities are now suffering the same fate, including Fidelisan in Mountain Province, where small-scale mining has been in operation until 2021.

Around 2020, many communities became convinced that allowing large-scale mining in their ancestral domains provided an opportunity for development. This came about after mining companies and government functionaries came up with formulas that they said would recognize their rights as indigenous peoples and as host communities. The offer may have varied in different villages, but the main ingredients to the mining menu always included: 1) Preferential employment for people of the affected domains; 2) Provision of basic health and education facilities; 3) Scholarships for deserving students in the host communities; 4) Provision of additional development funds for the local government units; and 5) Provision of a royalties to the host IP communities – as much as 5%; and 6) Membership of a community representative in the company board.

Around 2025, it became apparent that the preferential employment scheme was a failure. The mining companies argued that they could not be expected to employ ALL interested members of the community in their operations, because their operations required fewer personnel. The advancement of technology reduced the number of actual workers in the mines, with specialization in the handling of machines the actual real criteria that the mining companies valued. In addition, management and middle management positions required certain qualifications that the local people were hard-put to satisfy. Scholarships offered were also limited, and the mining companies only sponsored those who would later on work in the company; favoritism in the selection process has also been raised many times. The education and health facilities were also found lacking. The use of the development funds given to the local government units were severely limited by company policies. Furthermore, allegations of graft in the handling of the funds have been common. The supposed representatives of the community, with a few exceptions, are also known to have turned blind and deaf in their representation of their communities. At least 5 communities have sued their representatives for abuse. 2 of such representatives have been murdered after allegations of misrepresentation.

The royalty due to the communities have also become a bone of contention among community members, with lawsuits of all kinds raising questions as to sharing. In the meantime, alcohol addiction has become a common occurrence in the communities receiving high royalty amounts. In a study conducted by Benguet State University in 2039, the high rate of alcoholism may be traced to “lose of self-worth arising from a generation of guilt.” Royalty funds that were retained by community leaders for community projects have been questioned, with the supposed beneficiaries complaining that the community leaders are misappropriating these. Such complaints became more common after the conviction of an Ifugao Council of Elders of salting away as much as P20M annually from 2034-2038.

The turnaround of the people’s resolve on mining was partially influenced by the decision of the Supreme Court in 2018 on the issue first raised against the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in 1998 averring that the mineral and forest resources in ancestral domains were owned by the state. The Supreme Court ruled that while indeed the indigenous peoples have rights over the surface of the domain, the state reserves the right to the mineral, water and forest resources.

As the case against indigenous rights to resources was being heard, a handful of stalwart indigenous people, aided in no small way by support groups at the national and international level, held vigils and rallies championing IP rights to resources. However, these intrepid protesters were considered by many as rabble-rousers, and accused as communists. In 2018, the people of the Cordillera were unwilling to be part of anti-government protests, and the SC finally rendered their decision denying them the right to own and manage natural resources in their domains.

There continue to be voices in the wilderness protesting the havoc that we have allowed to be wreaked upon the environment, but these voices are lost in the general hubbub of fellow members of indigenous people in government and in the mining and other venture companies themselves.

Very few communities have had their ancestral domain titles issued, partly because of irresolvable boundary conflicts within and between domains, the antipathy of the people or their false self-assurance that their rights will be recognized even without titles, and the lack of adequate community arrangements as to how to manage the domain.

On the other hand, starting in the past century, the indigenous people of the Cordilleras have by and large adopted the non-indigenous concept of ownership by applying for Tax Declarations over every square inch of land in their domains. Many also applied for ancestral land titles, which the government issued. These tracts of land have since then been transferred and conveyed following non-indigenous patterns. It was not unusual from 2012-2028 that court cases were overburdened with cases between the heirs of long-dead ancestors involving areas that these ancestors couldn’t have actually owned. Nevertheless, the parceling out of ancestral domains provided indigenous people with claims to pieces of land that they would later on use to negotiate with the many development initiatives, including  tree-farming of alternative energy sources, or large orchards of exotic fruits. Others would use their ownership of the land to negotiate with the mining industry, both of the small scale and large-scale kind. Other members of the community were left out of the negotiations.

Alongside the entry of mining interests, the people themselves were not averse to converting the forests to vegetable farms, following the example set in the past century along the Mountain Trail. Vegetable farming provided the people a chance to be major players in the cash economy, and since government was unable to provide for other alternatives, people who “owned” the land felt free to do with it as they please.

The introduction of new floral species in extensive commercial farms was welcomed by the Cordillera, for these provided the landed (read: those who dared claim large areas of traditional communal areas as their own) with sources of livelihood. These species replaced the flora in hectares upon hectares of land in the mountains, altering the ecosystem and the food chain, denying hundreds of insects and other organisms of habitat. As a result, pest and disease incidence would sometimes reach alarming proportions, like the citrus pest and disease outbreak that wiped out most of the citrus orchards in the region in 2036-2048. The effects of the introduction of species in the Cordillera habitats should not have been altogether unforeseen, considering that the Cordillera has experienced in the past century the introduction of the golden kuhol that radically changed the water habitats of the region, or the apple trees that soon became lost because of a soil-borne disease, or the local citrus groves becoming infected with a disease borne by imported seedlings from elsewhere.

The total effect of the introduction of commercial species into the Cordilleras may never be measured. What is sure is that along with other ventures promising development, many native flora and fauna are now feared to be lost.

Government did try to arrest the commercial exploitation of lands of the region, but was powerless in doing so, much as it was powerless as the indigenous people themselves started converting forest lands into vegetable farms in the past century and earlier in this century. When government wanted to promote alternative crops such as bio-fuel flora, fast-growing timber species, and plantations of all kinds, there was no stopping indigenous people from negotiating their ancestral lands with international companies ever so willing to invest in carbon trading. Because the lands were owned no longer by communities but by individuals, these speculators made a killing by consolidating large areas for their ventures.

The population in the region continued to grow, and many areas traditionally reserved for agriculture and forest use were converted to residential enclaves, with people building bigger and bigger houses upon wider and wider lots with the money earned from the mining industry and the multitude of money-making opportunities that this century has given them.

However, a large part of the population has had little or no share of the bounty. This section of the population includes those who do have not claimed ownership over large areas of land, or those whose claims were denied in favor of other members of their family or community.  It would seem that the only way by which these people could share in the land of their ancestors is leave their homeland and earn precious money elsewhere so they could buy back a piece of real estate that they can call home. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in traditionally egalitarian indigenous communities have widened, with some of us becoming filthy rich, but the vast majority remain impoverished.

It is not a surprise that among those who have left the mountains for greener pastures, many have opted not to go back at all.

Each province is now required by law to maintain at least a fifth of its area as forest reserve. All the Cordillera provinces have problems maintaining a tenth as forest reserves, as the all the lands have been claimed by the people.

A loss that is somehow relegated to the background is the loss of cultural heritage. With the changes in economic activities, the people have long discontinued the belief systems that their ancestors have maintained until a mere fifty years ago. The dialects that characterized  a diversified milieu is all but gone, with old terms associated with a forgotten culture replaced by a hodgepodge of non-indigenous languages. The spirits that the people have long respected are now replaced by the demigods of Western culture: money, fame, and power.

It is 2060, and the Cordillera may be referred to as fully developed.

The nightmares that earlier generations have feared have come to pass.


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