Election season is in full throttle in the Philippines, and Tabuk, the capital of the mountainous northern province of Kalinga, has fully embraced the tarpaulin-dotted fervor enveloping the archipelago at large as local and parliamentary candidates brave the brutal heat in their quests for votes. This year, electoral madness served as the backdrop to Cordillera Day, an annual celebration held on April 24 by the local Igorot, a catch-all term encompassing the handful of indigenous tribes which make up about two-thirds of Kalinga’s population.

Cordillera, a region consisting of Kalinga and five neighboring provinces, is known for its sprawling and lush mountain vistas dotted with tracts of farmland from which many of the region’s residents make a living. It is also known for a culture of fierce indigenous-led opposition to efforts by outsiders to develop the land – and as of late, Tabuk has become a hub for the fight against the China-funded Chico River pump irrigation project. Residents of Tabuk, neighboring Pinukpuk, and surrounding villages fear the project will disrupt their ways of life and say they were not properly consulted before a controversial loan agreement was inked by the Chinese and Philippine governments.

Taiwan’s indigenous population understands the bad blood towards Beijing. In January, 31 indigenous representatives signed an open letter to Chinese leader Xi Jinping decrying his Jan. 2 speech on Taiwan, in which he called unification between China and Taiwan “inevitable.” At this year’s Cordillera Day, mutual enmity towards the Chinese government became common ground for the Igorot attendees, who traveled to Tabuk from throughout the region, and a delegation of Taiwanese indigenous peoples visiting on a trip organized by the Hunter School, founded in 2005 by Paiwan writer and hunter Ahronglong Sakinu to educate young people about Paiwan culture.


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

The Taiwanese indigenous delegation gathers outside Tabuk City Hall ahead of Wednesday's Cordillera Day activities.

“Not until today did I realize that we resist the same thing, which is China,” Sakinu told a gathering of Cordillera Day celebrants on Wednesday. “I’ve heard a lot from you that China is signing a very unjust, a bad loan agreement between the Philippine government and the Chinese government. I understand your pain.”

Sakinu told The News Lens he first visited Cordillera in 2002 and has since led or organized indigenous delegations to the area every year to promote cultural exchanges between indigenous peoples in Taiwan and the Philippines. This year, about 30 first-time visitors, including several children, joined the traveling group.

On Tuesday, the group piled into several jeepneys – the colorful and indestructible transport vehicles that link towns and cities within a fair amount of the country’s 7,000 islands – and set off for the site of the Chico River project, visiting lands which locals fear could be dried out by a water shortage which the irrigation project may worsen.


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Farmlands near the Chico River project site, such as this one near the town of Pinukpuk, may be at risk of destruction.

Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Locals fear the water supply of the Chico River will be diverted by the China-funded project. This could potentially displace communities and destroy farmlands in the region.

The next day, the delegation joined in a rally opposing the Chico River project in the streets of Tabuk, which preceded the long day of music, dance and impromptu political pep rallies – opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte, after all, have gained ground on the popular leader’s allies by bashing his unpopular embrace of Beijing – that made up this election-year Cordillera Day.


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

An Igorot woman marches in the streets of Tabuk in a rally opposing the controversial Chico River pump irrigation project.

Hunter School organizers said the visits to Cordillera give Taiwan’s indigenous peoples the chance not only to understand Igorot cultures, but to embrace their own roots – after all, Taiwanese indigenous peoples have significant cultural and linguistic links to indigenous communities in the Philippines and throughout Asia. In Cordillera, Taiwan’s indigenous find a connection that does not always exist between them and the country’s Han Chinese population. “In terms of blood, in terms of language, Taiwan is closer to the Philippines because we all belong to Austronesian peoples,” Sakinu said.

The annual trips to Cordillera also give Taiwanese indigenous peoples the chance to learn how to organize themselves, according to Abby Chang (張雅敏) of the Hunter School.

In Cordillera, indigenous communities have fought incursions onto their ancestral lands since the days of Spanish colonization and into the 1970s, when Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country under a decree of martial law. This spirit of activism has persisted despite what the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, which organized the event, says is an increasingly hostile environment in which indigenous activists have faced harassment and “red-tagging” – being accused of links to the communist New People’s Army (NPA), usually without evidence, and subsequently being subjected to arrest on questionable charges or, in some cases, extrajudicial killing.

Indigenous organization in Taiwan, meanwhile, has often become fragmented throughout decades of outside infiltration, during which communities were forced from their lands by colonizers from Europe in the early 1600s, China decades later, Japan beginning in 1895, and finally the Kuomintang (KMT), which fled China for Taiwan in 1949.

“In Taiwan, indigenous peoples do not really unite together. They aren’t like indigenous peoples here who unite,” Chang told The News Lens. “That’s one reason why we come here, to learn from their people and how they unite together.”


Credit: Nick Aspinwall

The Taiwanese delegation gathers before performing a musical number for the 1,000-strong Cordillera Day crowd.

Credit: Nick Aspinwall

Taiwanese and Filipino indigenous attendees dance at the Cordillera Day celebration.

Indigenous peoples in Taiwan have a sometimes fractious relationship with the government of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), which has made strides to reach out to the country’s indigenous community but angered many when, in 2017, it announced a plan to recognize indigenous land claims which would exclude all lands currently held by private owners. While some are supportive of Tsai’s Council of Indigenous Peoples and her approach towards resolving disputes over ancestral domain, others sympathize with indigenous activists, led by key figures such as singer Panai Kusui and filmmaker Mayaw Biho, who have staged an occupation in downtown Taipei in protest of the 2017 land rights plan for over two years.

In Cordillera, however, the Taiwanese delegation was happy to share their own experiences with what Chang called “bullying” by the Chinese government – which itself does not recognize the term “indigenous peoples,” instead calling its own indigenous populations “ethnic minorities” and denying them the right to submit ancestral domain claims.

“China has tried to break all the friendship and connection between our friend countries and Taiwan,” Sakinu told the Cordillera Day gathering on Wednesday.

“We know that the Chinese government will not respect the greatness of Chico River,” Sakinu said. “As Taiwanese, we have the responsibility to make friends with other countries and let you know that our country is Taiwan and we are isolated by China, so you know how bad the Chinese government is.”

Sakinu then added, to a loud round of applause: “And Taiwan does not belong to China.”

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