Dacawi: This Conundrum called Cordillera Autonomy

(Hereunder is my sharing on Cordillera autonomy with incoming municipal councilors of Benguet in a forum hosted by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. The focus was my appeal to them to take the stance of the Bengeut Electric Coooperative and also plead to the National Economic and Development Authority in this region to ask for a moratorium on the issuance of “water rights” over water resources in the Cordillera by the National Water Resources Board and permits for private companies to develop hydroelectric plants by the Department of Energy. At the rate these permits are being issued, nothing will be left tp ump-start self-rule should the region finally opt for autonomy. – RD.)

Apprehensions just kept coming during the initial push for autonomy in the Cordillera. At the failed first and second attempts to explain why this upland region should go for self-rule , resource persons underscored that autonomy would speed up the region’s development, something it had sacrificed by having immensely contributed its gold and other natural resources for national development.

The plan was that autonomy would allow the national government to pay back the region for having exploited the Cordillera of its natural and mineral resources -= specifically gold and water-generated electric power - that spurred progress for Metro-Manila and the lowland provinces.

At a forum in Kalinga, the late Gov. Leonard Mayaen of Mt. Province was asked whether autonomy would mean that under an autonomous set-up, Benguet Province would have to share what remains of its gold, water and energy resources with the provinces of Kalinga, Apayao, Benguet and Ifugao, and the cities of , Baguio and Tabuk.

Perhaps having been asked about the issue several times before, the governor went oblique: “We in Mt. Province, which mines have yet to be exploited, are in favor of autonomy.”

Fellow newsman and autonomy speaker Delmar Carino and I heard the same apprehension in another autonomy forum organized by Philex the gold and copper mines in Tuba, Benguet. We heard that apprehension again at a forum organized and attended by Sangguniang Bayan and Sanggunian Panlalawigan members of Benguet just before the last local polls.

That issue about who benefits from Cordillera minerals, together with other questions posed during those series of autonomy forums we attended prompted me to pool issues which I turned into the following editorial on issues haunting efforts to deliver the basics for the Cordillera through autonomy:

Autonomy within autonomy.

This principle is the quintessence of this third try to establish an autonomous region for the Cordilleras.

This means that the powers and benefits presently being exercised and enjoyed by local cogernment units in the Cordillera Administrative Region under the Local Government Code and other existing laws under an administrative set-up shall not be reduced or diminished under an autonomous region.

This means that the existing barangays, municipalities, cities and provinces shall continue to exist and to function and to be governed as such. As such, they will continue to be represented in governance by their respective punong barangays and barangay kagawads, mayors, vice-mayors and members of the sanggunian, and governors and vice-governors, as the case maybe.

This means that the present congressional or legislative districting of one each for the six Cordillera provinces and the City of Baguio shall be maintained.

This means that under autonomy, each of these aforesaid local government units shall continue to receive their Internal Revenue Allotments and their share from the national wealth and other taxes and all benefits presently due them under existing laws.

To stress the point, this much is clear: what is due to each local government unit under present laws shall not be withheld or shared with other local government units. This is the spirit of autonomy. It is autonomy within autonomy.

Specifically, this means that what was, is and will be the share of a certain LGFU from national wealth and other taxes from the operation of gold or copper mines and hydro power plants within any of the provinces of the region shall totally and solely accrue to the local government unit.

{On this, then Benguet Gov. Raul Molintas lamented that the national government was withholding taxes generated from the operation of the gold mines in the province. It is a basic aim of autonomy to increase national fund support for the development of the Cordillera to correct this injustice of using the region’s natural wealth to speed up national development at the historical expense of the Cordillera.)

What would be shared by the LGUs under the autonomous set-up shall be new or additional subsidies and tax incentives and overdue development support from the national government for the autonomous region as specified in the autonomy bill.

It must be made clear here that autonomy would legally allow the national government to release these additional fund support and subsidies over and above what the LGUs are receiving under an administrative set-up. The arrangement is a payback of sorts.”

(This arrangement of providing preferential treatment to an autonomous region in recognition of the Cordillera’ s contributions to national development over the years may be untenable under an alternative federal set-up being proposed , as other regions would also clamor for the same preferential treatment.)

The autonomy bill likewise provides that the shares of provinces and cities from the national taxes shall be paid directly to them. This means that such shares shall no longer be coursed through the national government which, under the present set-up, had withheld the same.

The autonomy draft committee spelled out these principles and guidelines, stressing any breach of which would undermine the meaning and substance of self-rule which is, to repeat, autonomy-within-autonomy.

The questions (and fears) as culled from the latest autonomy information drive, remain anchored on these basics. Their repeated recurrence during consultations is signal for greater emphasis on the issues raised, like mined gold resources in Benguet, including energy generated by its dames being tapped by the lowlands and Metro-Manila instead of adjoining provinces.

While the answers are found in the printed autonomy bill and other reading materials being distributed, these need to be strengthened by more and more political leaders who leave the crucial autonomy advocacy to Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan and a few other government officials, including those whose positions were created under the interim regional administrative set-up so they could advocate self-rule.

Yet Domogan’s passion in advocating autonomy for the region has inspired politically inclined critics of self-rule to add to this conundrum their speculation that his personal push is to run for regional governor under the autonomy set-up.

“If only it’s allowed, they could include in the organic act a provision disallowing me to ruin for governor,” the mayor retorted. “It would help them focus on autonomy which should be the future of the Cordilleras.
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