HOW do you bring attention to and action on issues of national and even international significance but which are glossed over and ignored by national decision-makers who, despite their pronouncements to the contrary, deem them insignificant and of local application?
Of issue here is the Cordillera, this mountainous region that, time and again, is proclaimed – because it really is – as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon and the nation’s resource base, its water harnessed and its gold extracted to spur national development.
Of issue here is a historical injustice, yet an irony deemed insignificant in the over-all equation of national progress. What we have here is a region of substantial wealth that, for generations now, spurred national development, yet remains one of the country’s poorest. In the halls of power, planners of development gloat on the success of their actions yet brush aside the sacrifices of resource communities for a nation’s progress.
Despite what her critic say, then President Arroyo, was one of the few who listened. She made the Halsema National Highway a reality, not the misnomer that it was for generations that it was actually a mountain trail linking Cordillerans to each other.
For years, the image on my mind is a Cordillera begging for its due share from the exploitation of its region’s wealth, whose plea for a share of the fruits is a howl in the wilderness, a child whose mother’s milk is repeatedly seized to nurture growth of others down there.
The image is reality. Before they were privatized, the two dams in Benguet built in the 1950s were on their death throes but some of the villages around them remained without electricity. Whjat remains of the gold mines in Benguet are being mined out but then Benguet Governor Raul Molintas told me the national government held on to the province’s share from the national wealth for years. Ifugao, which rivers turn the turbines of Magat Dam, had to ask its mumbaki (native priests) to pray for national decision makers to see that it’s within its town of Alfonso Lista, not in Isabela, and is therefore entitled to a share from the benefits of power generation.
Then Ifugao congressman Solomon Chungalao years ago tried to draw attention to this gross and insensible inequity. He filed a bill to allow the production of marijuana on limited and highly secured atmosphere, for medical research purposes, particularly on the medicinal values of the weed.
The measure, as he expected, triggered controversy. His peers readily pounced on the proposal, with innuendos that he was under the influence when he filed the bill. A front-page cartoon in a national daily depicted him and Pampanga solon Mikey Arroyo, who supported the bill, high on a pot session in a car. The image conjured was that of the world-famous rice terraces teeming with "five fingers" and "buntot pusa."
His actual purpose, as he told me in the wake of the shelving of the bill, was to bring national attention to the poverty gripping the people of the Cordillera. Drawing from the number of cases he handled as a lawyer, Chungalao noted that majority of those languishing in jail for marijuana production, shipment and trafficking were (and still are) his fellow Ifugaos and Igorots. It was their way of coping with, and hopefully, their way out of economic misery in their region of natural and national wealth.
I recall having tried three times to convince national officials to look at the Cordillera not from the user’s end of a one-way mirror but two-way, through a window, from our side of the pane or looking glass.
Up here on a campaign sortie, then Senator Rodolfo Biazon (whom I respect so much for his non-traditional approach by openly sharing his views even if it would cost him votes), focused on the wisdom of adopting the build-operate-transfer scheme of pushing development.
Out of the blue, I offered the information on how the Cordillera pioneered the BOT strategy for the country, long before the phrase was coined. “Sir,” I said,” di ba they built the gold mines and hydroelectric dams up here?, They operated the mines and dams and then transferred the gold and electric power to Metro-Manila.”
I took another tack when then Energy Secretary Vincent Perez held a press conference before a public hearing here to gather possible provisions for the implementing rules of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act. I suggested that the definition of a “host community” to be entitled to shares from the one-centavo-per-kilowatt-hour fund from production, say, of the San Roque Dam in Pangasinan, be river-basin based, not infrastructure-based. The dam is in Pangasinan but the water the runs it comes from Benguet.
“That’s a very insightful observation,” he noted and I was elated to have contributed to the purpose of the public hearing. He promised to consider the same. When the implementing rules came out, the “host community” definition remained infrastructure-based, lifted entirely from that of the Energy Crisis Act of 1992.
When then Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes held a press conference while gracing an energy seminar here, I took another angle. Told him villagers in my parents’ hometown of Hungduan, Ifugao were keen on diverting the flow of the Hapao River, a major tributary to the Magat, because of lack of government incentive policy for them as keepers of the watershed to the dam.
As fellow journalist Malou Guieb wrote for the Business Mirror after the encounter, the revelation startled the Secretary, who said the villagers should be open to a dialogue, instead of acting on their own. Told him mine was actually a joke, done to bring attention to the neglect of the watersheds up here and their keepers. But the joke can still be reality, given the ingenuity of the Ifugaos who are known not only for their irrepressible sense of humor but for having carved out of whole mountainsides beautiful and extensive terraces with the crudest of tools. The terraces were, for generations, models of what development workers now call "sustainable development."
Likewise I read Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat’s lament about lack of government support to his drought-stricken province, particularly in sustaining the traditional terraced rice farming which, without government intervention, the Ifugaos sustained for generations.
How do you tell national decision-makers we Cordillerans had sacrificed so much and also need national attention to also improve our own lot and sustain our role in national development? How can they now listen to us when they almost never did?
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