Villanueva: Cordillera Autonomy: Deal or no deal?

TOMORROW, July 15, 2017, we are celebrating the 30th Cordillera Day. This day is meant to recognize the efforts of the Cordilleran people to have a voice, a meaningful participation, in the goal of achieving peace, and economic and social development in the region.

Executive Order 220 was signed into law by then President Cory Aquino on July 15, 1987, creating the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), as a reasonable measure to immediately provide opportunities to the people of the Cordilleras to actively participate in the pursuit of peace and development in the region.

To establish the autonomous region, Congress should convene and an Organic Act should be passed into law, and ratified through a plebiscite that will be conducted in the whole of the proposed autonomous region.

There were already two opportunities in the past to enact and ratify laws creating an autonomous region in the Cordillera. In both occasions, the organic acts were rejected by majority of the provinces and city that voted in the plebiscite.

Recently, another attempt is being done to pass an organic act establishing the Autonomous Region of the Cordillera (ARC) under HB 5343.

Tribal elders, representatives from civil society groups and political leaders from the Cordilleras are urging President Duterte to certify as priority and urgent this organic act.

Inasmuch as the social and political aspect is a good topic to discuss, I am more concerned of the economic impact of the establishment of the ARC.

There will, of course be benefits as well as disadvantages that go along with the idea of Cordillera autonomy.

There are several benefits of regional autonomy that may be expected.

First, the autonomous region will manage their resources based on their own regional development objectives. The Regional Government will be familiar with the set of resources that they have, as well as the major competencies of the region, in terms of the region’s agriculture, tourism, environment, infrastructure and industries in order to produce specialized products, goods or service, unique only to the Cordillera.

Secondly, there is an opportunity for the Regional Government to create their own revenue sources from taxes, fees and charges. Although, the region is mandated to share in the national taxes, it is also entitled to have an equitable share of the national wealth.

Thirdly, the Regional Government has the liberty to formulate and implement projects and programs that are fit to the conditions, needs and priorities of the Cordillera region. Policy makers are already nearer the grassroots, so they may properly identify these sectors’ needs so that they can be able to formulate projects and programs that will effectively help these marginalized members of society.

Lastly, the ultimate goal of an autonomous region is, is to be self-reliant and independent from the National Government. This means that region shall be essentially on its own, fully utilizing their resources, and knowledgeable of their weakness, and look for the best combination in order to maximize their potential. In this way, the region can rely on its own assets to improve the welfare of their people, without much aid from the National Government or other donors.

The proposed autonomous region also has some identified disadvantages, some are political and social in nature but the most related disadvantage of autonomy to Economics may be excessive taxation.

Since the autonomous government has the liberty to create new sources of revenues, the people may be burdened with more taxes, especially local business enterprises and residents. Businesses may be in prone to double taxation, because taxes/fees may be paid to both the regional and national government. While residents may be burdened with more fees and charges, when transacting with government agencies.

Finally and the most important, one of the concerns of those who are opposed to the autonomy from the two earlier plebiscites is the possible abuse of those in authority, zeroing on corruption.

The Regional Government, having the liberty to allocate and disburse funds for the projects that they, the Regional Government, themselves have decided and approved, officials may be put their self-interest first over the interest and welfare of their citizenry.

Corruption was already proven in many studies done around the world to be the main reason why people remain to be poor. Corruption steals the economic opportunities of citizens to be productive from the equal utilization of resources, and income equitably redistributed in order to improve their welfare.

The benefits of having autonomy outnumber the disadvantages. The benefits are ideal. It will definitely help the citizens, especially those from the marginalized sectors.

However, if corruption will not be solved or removed from our government system, we, ordinary citizens, cannot reap the benefits of autonomy in the future, no matter how ideal, no matter how noble the purpose of autonomy is.

So, what is more needed to be explained to the people, through education and information campaigns for the plebiscite later on, is not really the importance, benefits and positive results that the autonomous region can bring about. The Cordilleran people are intelligent. We are one of the best English speakers and writers in the country. We can read and understand the provisions of the organic act.

The essential matter that should be focused on is how people will be convinced that this idea of autonomy is foolproof against corruption. We could already smell the hidden agenda of people eyeing positions in the Regional Government. They have been milking our provinces and city for the longest time.

The creation of ARC would provide them more opportunities to drain the coffers of the government, foregoing a lot: the protection of the environment, the improvement of the welfare of the poor, proper urban and rural development, peace and order, etc.

Convince the people of the Cordilleras that no traditional politician or a member of their dynasty or any of their cohorts would not ever set foot into the autonomous government, maybe, just maybe, the dream of many of finally achieving autonomy would seem to be more real. Otherwise, we will just remain dreamers.
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