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Cordillera Mass Movement Against the Chico Dam and Cellophil Corporation

 |  10 min read

The tribal opposition to so-called "development" projects can be cited as early examples of organized people's power in the Cordillera.

via igorotage.com

It was the people's power of the Kalinga and the Bontok that stopped the construction of the Chico dams, which threatened to displace thousands of people. Tinggian people’s power was the major factor in the shutdown of Cellophil Resources Corporation, the 200,000 hectare logging and paper-pulp concession, which was awarded to Marcos crony Herminio Disini in 1973.

And it was the inspiration from these two shining examples of organized people’s power in the Cordillera region, which led to a greater unity among the various ethnolinguistic groups, and tribes in the region.

Historical Background to Chico and Cellophil

The Kalinga and Bontok people’s struggle since the early 70’s against the construction of the Chico River Basin Development Project, followed soon after by Tinggian opposition to the Cellophil Resources Corporation, sparked off the people’s movement in the Cordillera.

The series of four large dams to be constructed along the Chico river was the priority project of the dictator Marcos in the late 70’s to the early 80’s. World Bank has committed funding to these mega-dams, and the National Power Corporation (NPC) was to implement the project. The Chico river is one of the major river systems in the Cordillera, passing though Mountain Province from its headwaters in Mount Data in Benguet, to the province of Kalinga.

Chico river, it covers the provinces of Mountain Province, Kalinga, and Cagayan
Chico river, it covers the provinces of Mountain Province, Kalinga, and Cagayan

Thousands of villagers rely on the Chico river for the irrigation of their rice fields and for domestic consumption. Series of Bontok and Kalinga villagers are located on both sides of the river. The construction of the four mega-dams will submerge several villages and hectares of rice fields. More than 100,000 Kalingas and Bontocs were to be adversely affected by this project. Thus, widespread opposition was the response of the dam-affected peoples.

To start with, the affected tribal communities signed numerous petitions and sponsored delegations to bring to the attention of numerous government offices their grievances that dam construction would mean the destruction of the communities and indigenous way of life. They even went to Malacaňang to plead with the dictator. But this was martial law and their actions did not meet with much success. Instead, they were given a scolding, labeled "sentimental" and told that the minorities would have to sacrifice for national "development".

Malacaňang chose instead to set up the Kalinga Special Development Region (KSRD) and send the Presidential Assistant for National Minorities (PANAMIN), Manuel “Manda” Elizalde, to the Chico area, bringing with him truckloads of food, chocolate bars, basketballs, flashlights and other trinkets. His job was to “minimize opposition to the projects.” His methods were bribery, deception and coercion in the classic tactic of divide and rule. He was able to coopt a handful of elders, who were easily exposed and isolated by the majority. He selected several young women and took them away with him, allegedly to study or earn in the big city. He armed one tribe against the other and caused the outbreak of tribal wars (Basao-Butbut).

Kalinga dancers during the 2nd Bodong Festival celebration
Kalinga dancers during the 2nd Bodong Festival celebration

This was undoubtedly a big test on whether the tribal opposition would hold, but they met it head-on and dealt with the myriad problems as they came, with great self-respect and dignity. The story goes that Elizalde called Macliing Dulag to a meeting a posh hotel and offered him a thick envelope. Macliing replied: “This envelope can contain only one of two things – a letter or money. If it is a letter, I do not know how to read. And if it its money, I do not have anything to sell. So take your envelope and go.”

The people utilized their indigenous social-political structures and processes, such as the peace pact (Kalinga vochong/bodong, Bontok pechen, Tinggina kalon, although with dynamic modifications in the face of the new challenges. The traditional peace pact is a bilateral agreement (pagta) between two communities. There is a wide network of bilateral peace pacts among the binodngan communities in Kalinga, Mountain Province and Abra. In the opposition to both Chico and Cellophil, multi-lateral peace pacts were organized to forge intra-village and intra-tribal pagta agreements to unite the many different home-villages (ili) affected by these mega-projects. From the first Vochong Conference held in St. Bridgets in Quezon City in May 1975, multilateral bodong conferences were then regularly convened to widen and consolidate the opposition to the dams.

The people resorted to active civil disobedience, escalating in scale in response to the actions of the fascist dictatorship. The following are only a few among the vivid images of active civil disobedience against Chico and Cellophil.

In 1974, the NPC work camps, which were set up in Maswa, BAsao for survey purposes, were dismantled twice by the people. A number of tribal leaders were picked up and confined at the stockade, sparking off a long line of maltreatment, arrest and detention of Kalinga natives in relation to the project.

The people resorted to bodily prevention of the survey work by physically disallowing the NPC to unload their equipment in the survery sites. At Tomiangan, the site for Chico IV, the PC- Police and the NPC tried to set up their work camps four times under armed protection, and four times were these camps torn down by the people, even under threat of death. The fourth time, the people carried the materials from Tomiangan to the PC-Police camp at Bulanao, a distance of 35 kilometers, in a silent protest march of around 250 people, lasting through the night and the curfew hours.

The people’s resistance drew widespread support from inside and outside the country. There was broad solidarity and advocacy from academics, environmentalists, church groups, the mass media, NGOs and a wide array of solidarity organizations. The Free Legal Assistance Group of the late senator Diokno and Taňada offered their legal assistance. Anthropologists and academics wrote numerous treatises on Chico and Cellophil. Progressive media practitioners provided good press coverage.

A kid drying off on top of a flood control after a swim at Chico River.
A kid drying off on top of a flood control after a swim at Chico River.

The Marcos dictatorship, with its World Bank funding for the project, was caught flat-footed. They did not reckon with the strong communal ethos still existing then between the Bontok and Kalinga, which allowed them to forge agreements among the binodngan – peacepact – practicing communities along the Chico river in opposition to the project. Nor did they expect the people to muster widespread national and international support.

Because of the sheer determination and courage of the dam-affected peoples to stop the project by all means, the World Bank decided to withdraw its funding for the dam project. In fact, it was the experience of the World Bank on the Chico Dam that it formulated its operational guidelines of projects affecting indigenous peoples.

Yet there was an added vital ingredient in the people’s struggle. This was the threat and eventual resort to armed resistance after peaceful methods to seek redress of grievances had proved futile in the face of unbridled militarization in the project areas. This was but a logical step for these warrior societies in the escalation of the struggle for the defense of ancestral land and their self-determination to continue their existence as indigenous communities.

The cordillera increasingly turned into a battleground in defense of indigenous people’s rights. This meant that military operations were escalating, with a corresponding increase in human rights violations, as government troops vented their anger not only on the rebel army they were unsuccessfully chasing, but also on the civilian population, which they suspected as being New People’s Army supporters.

On April 24, 1980, military troops of the Marcos dictatorship gunned down Macliing Dulag, a Kalinga tribal chieftain at the forefront of the Chico opposition in an attempt to intimidate the people.

The people refused to be cowed. Instead, Macliing’s death has since been commemorated with a bigger AND BIGGER celebration each year to remember the martyrs who have given up their lives for the Cordillera struggle and an occasion for solidarity with Cordillera advocates. Since 1985, April 24 has been commemorated as Cordillera Day, and is the annual regionally coordinated mass-action of the Cordillera People Alliance.

Historical Lessons

The period from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties was a decade of ferment and upheaval throughout the Cordillera region as the indigenous peoples here drew on the lessons from Chico and Cellophil and learned to assert their rights. The decade of ferment led to increased coordination among the growing number of Igorot organizations and more concerted efforts towards defining a program for self-determination of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera.

The Chico and Cellophil struggles were waged in uncompromising defense of ancestral land and the right to self-determination, or the right of the indigenous communities to freely determined their continued existence as distinct peoples, and the right to freely determine their political status, and their economic, political and socio-cultural development, at a pace which they themselves define.

This unfolding drama ignited dormant Igorot nationalism. Numerous activist and mass leaders espousing their rights as indigenous peoples emerge. The different cordillera tribes were challenged into the recognition of the pressing need for a greater unity among themselves if they hoped to succeed in the defense of their collective human rights as indigenous peoples.

White water rafting at Chico River
White water rafting at Chico River

This paved the way towards a Cordillera-wide movement for the defense of ancestral land and for self-determination. As the different Igorot tribes and sectors were increasingly exposed to each other in mass meetings, inter-tribal activities and bodong conferences, there was the opportunity for dialogue and mutual sharing and learning. From here, the different Cordillera tribes and ethnolinguistic groups realized that they shared a common history of national oppression; a common geography and territory – the Cordillera mountain range; a common persistence of their indigenous cultures, albeit in varying degrees; common problems and common enemies.

This growing unity found organizational expression in June 1984, when more than three hundred representatives from twenty-three organizations all over the Cordillera came together in a Cordillera People’s Congress in Bontoc, Mountain province and organized the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA) for the Defense of the Ancestral Domain and for Self-Determination. Many of the foregoing activities reached a better level of coordination and assumed Cordillera – wide scope after the CPA was organized. To date, the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance has distinguished itself as the leading group and organized expression of the Cordillera mass movement in defense of ancestral land and for self-determination.

On a boarder scale, the Chico and Cellophil struggles served to inspire and motivate many people, both here and abroad, which made it possible to generate broad national and international support to sustain the popular resistance.

In addition, Chico and Cellophil brought to the fore the fact that the present-day problems of tribal peoples and indigenous communities are much bigger and more complicated than any faced in earlier historical periods. More concretely, Chico and Cellophil showed the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera that their problems couldn’t be taken in isolation from the wider Philippine realities, and the incursions of imperialist globalization.

Dantay, Mountain Province
Dantay, Mountain Province

The Kalinga and Bontok tribes people managed to stop the construction of the four huge hydro-electric dams which were a priority energy project of the Marcos government throughout the long years of martial rule. They were able to stop construction against fearsome odds by asserting their tribal people’s power. In their steadfast and uncompromising defense of their ancestral lands and their indigenous way of life, they earned the respect and support not only of the other national minorities in the region, but also the progressive and democratic forces both here in the Philippines and abroad.

See also: The Forgotten Story of Indigenous Resistance in Northern Philippines


Born Igorot, Die Igorot


Bontoc Cordillera environment Igorot Kalinga Chico river dam

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