HOW do you bring attention to national government 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 these insignificant and of local application?
Of issue here is the Cordillera, this mountain region that, time and again, is being proclaimed (because it really is) as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon and as the nation’s resource base, its water being harnessed and its gold being 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, for generations now, remains one of the country’s poorest regions.
The feeling up here is that, in the halls of power, planners of development gloat over the success of their actions yet brush aside the sacrifices of resource communities for the nation’s progress.
For years, the issue is about a Cordillera begging for its due share from the exploitation of its wealth, its plea a howling in the wilderness, not unlike that of a child whose mother’s milk is repeatedly seized to nurture growth of others down there.
That image is reality. The two dams of Benguet, until recently on their death throes, spurred the industrial and business progress of Metro-Manila and the lowlands, with the communities surrounding these power plants the last to be energized with the electricity produced by them.
The gold mines of Benguet are about to be mined out, yet then Gov. Raul Molintas told me the national government withheld the province’s share from national wealth taxes for years. Ifugao Province, which rivers and mossy forests run the turbines of the Magat Dam, had to ask its mumbaki (native priests) to pray for national decision makers to see that the hydropower plant is within its town of Alfonso Lista, not in Isabela, making Ifugao the host community entitled to a share from the benefits of power generation.
Then Ifugao congressman Solomon Chungalao tried to draw attention to this gross and insensible inequity. He filed a bill to allow the production of marijuana on a limited and highly secured atmosphere, for medical research purposes, particularly on the medicinal values of the wed.
The measure immediately drew controversy. His congressional peers readily pounced on the proposal, with innuendos that he was “stoned” or 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, as high while on a pot session inside a car. The image conjured was that of the world-famous Ifugao rice terraces planted and teeming with “five fingers” and “buntot pusa”.
His real 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 a number of cases he had handled as a lawyer, Chungalao noted that majority of those languishing in jail for marijuana production, shipment and trafficking were 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.
It’s sometimes quixotic to try to convince national leaders to look at the Cordillera not from the user’s end of a one-way mirror, but on a two-way arrangement, through a window, or from our side of the pane or looking glass.
When he was up here to campaign for a new term, then Senator Rodolfo Biazon (whom I respect so much or his non-traditional approach of 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 that the Cordillera actually pioneered the B-O-T strategy for the country’s development, 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, and the taxes to Makati.”
I took another tack when then Energy Secretary Vincent Perez held a press conference before attending 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 the production, say, of the San Roque Dam in Pangasinan, be river-basin based, not infrastructure-based. Under the present definition, the “host community” is where the dam is located, so that while the water that runs the San Roque comes from Benguet, the province is not entitled to benefits as the host community is limited to Pangasinan.
“That’s a very insightful observation,” Secretary Perez noted. I was elated to have contributed to the purpose of the public hearing, especially so that he promised to consider the same. When the implementing rules came out, however, the original “host community” definition remained, as it was entirely lifted 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 Dam. I explained the threat was triggered by the lack of government support to them as keepers of the watersheds that are the life-=blood of 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. I explained the villagers just would like to draw attention to the neglect of the watersheds up here and their keepers.
Still, the threat, a joke as it might be, can still be a reality, given the ingenuity of the Ifugaos who are know n for their irrepressible sense of humor and their having carved out of whole mountainsides those extensive rice terraces using the crudest of wooden tools.
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