The Forgotten Story of Indigenous Resistance in Northern Philippines

The Forgotten Story of Indigenous Resistance in Northern Philippines
The members of Butbut tribe are known to be among the fiercest and artistic peoples in Northern Philippines. This photo was taken during a Traditional Tattoo Festival in Buscalan Village, Kalinga in December 2015. Photo Credit: Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio.

What you need to know

'The story of Butbut tribe and the peoples of Cordillera provides us a picture of why resistance and solidarity, albeit rarely presented in mainstream media reports, remain relevant these days.'

Almost 500 kilometers north of the Philippine capital Manila lies the landlocked province of Kalinga in the Cordillera region. It is home to various indigenous groups like the Butbut tribe. In the old days, the tribesmen used head hunting as a means to protect their villages from foreign invasion. Kalinga is also known for indigenous tattooing. It prides itself of Whang Od, known as the last living mambabatok (or Kalinga tattoo artist). From January to September 2016 alone, the province attracted almost 100,000 local and foreign tourists, including those who wished to get inked by the women villagers of Buscalan.

But behind the online media hype on indigenous tattooing and tourism lies another – the story of indigenous resistance and solidarity.

On April 24, 2017, the 33rd Cordillera Day was commemorated. It is a solidarity movement aimed at celebrating the historic struggle of the indigenous peoples of Cordillera, an event which was originally dated in line with the killing of Macliing Dulag. Dulag was one of the leaders of Butbut tribe who opposed the Chico Dam Project, a 1,000-megawatt hydroelectric power project that could ravage as many as 100,000 indigenous residents living along the rivers and rice fields in the region. The project was initiated by the tyrannical government of then Mr. Marcos and was funded by the World Bank. As a consequence of his vehement resistance to the project, Dulag was gunned down by members of the Philippine military on April 24, 1980.

Alongside Dulag were two other indigenous leaders who mobilized other tribes to oppose the said project. Pedro Dungoc Sr. was a farmer and teacher who helped Dulag in forging a pact of resistance among the elders of Cordillera. He was able to escape the assassination plotted against Dulag and himself, and later joined the New People’s Army (NPA) — the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Lumbaya Gayudan, another peace pact holder and known as Father of the Tribe, conducted community dialogues with different tribes and articulated the devastating impact of the project to their villages. Like Dungoc, he later joined the NPA where he continued organizing the indigenous peoples of Cordillera.

The indigenous groups had successfully resisted the Chico Dam Project. But the fate of Butbut tribe continued to be marred with violence.

In the late 1980s, after the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown by the peoples’ uprising dubbed as People Power Revolution, the members of Butbut tribe had to move out of their ancestral land due to continued threats unleashed by the military and paramilitary forces under the government of then Mrs. Aquino. The reported paramilitary force of the government, the Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army, ransacked the villages and accused the villagers of helping out the NPA in consolidating resistance to the projects of the government. As a result, the villagers were forced to look for a new “safe” place. At the time, they found the grassland of Rizal, Kalinga, roughly a 100-kilometer away from their upland ancestral land.

The catastrophic fate of Butbut tribe and the demise of Dulag and other martyrs of the land have since intensified the struggle of the peoples Cordillera.

In 2012, the government of then Mr. Aquino III proposed the Upper Tabuk Hydro Power Electric Dam or Dupag Dam Project which claimed could produce 10-17 megawatt hydroelectric power relevant for farming and irrigation in the region. But the indigenous groups protested the proposal and maintained that once it is implemented, the project would result in flooding, siltation and further destruction of indigenous farming systems in the villages.

Early this year, a similar attempt in the guise of the proposed PHP 2.67 billion (US$ 52 million) 52-megawatt hydroelectric dam project known as the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project prompted opposition from the members of Naneng, Dallak and Minanga tribes. The present government of Mr. Duterte claimed that the irrigation project will benefit 4,350 farmers in 21 barangays in the provinces of Cagayan and Kalinga. But the affected tribes asserted that the project could only damage their villages and ancestral lands.

The only hope that these groups can hold on to right now is vigilance through solidarity. The story of Butbut tribe and the peoples of Cordillera provides us a picture of why resistance and solidarity, albeit rarely presented in mainstream media reports, remain relevant these days. For the indigenous peoples, the ultimate cause of living is life. And life is only possible given the condition of peace in their own land.

Today, the fascination of getting tapped with indigenous tattoos through a “tourist visit” in indigenous lands like Kalinga seems to overshadow the memory of struggle – the struggle for ancestral land, self-determination and life. In a way, our sense of attachment with the indigenous “culture” is limited to the surface of popular discussions on online media, say, about the popularity of Whang Od and the “peculiar” attributes of the indigenous, and not exactly about the story of their “way of life.”

Editor: Olivia Yang