The Cordillera: Rich resources, primitive ways

BAGUIO CITY, Benguet—It has rich natural resources, it has a cool climate, it has pristine surrounding, dense woodlands and watersheds --- welcome to the Cordillera region, which is also ravaged by a scourge of poverty and the indigenous tribes remained stuck in their primitive ways.   

Cracked earth. A woman walks on the parched rice field in the Mountain Province during a prolonged dry spell as a result of climate change. Images by Dexter See
Somewhere among the magnificent rice terraces, which are known worldwide for its beauty and grandeur, seven upland tribes --- the men in loin clothes and the women barebreasted ---  exist in their old world practices, and they seem frozen in time: no roads, bridges, and modern amenities such as electricity and tap water.

“The Cordillera is one of the poorest regions in the country. It’s economic growth last year was 1 percent,” said Milagros Rimando, regional director of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) in the region.

The Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR), which was created under an executive order issued by former president Corazon Aquino in 1987, is composed of the provinces of Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, Mountain Province and the cities of Baguio and Tabuk.

Its mountainous terrain require expensive engineering projects to attract investors, and lack of communication facilities render many areas unreachable. The main source of livelihood is rice and vegetable terraces farming --- the farmers use the same method that their forefathers have relied on in 2,000 years.

Binga Dam in Itogon, Benguet.
Rimando said, in terms of fund allocation, CAR gets only 1.4 percent of the P2.23 trillion national budget or P30 billion compared to its neighbor Cagayan Valley, which is 1.8 percent or nearly P40 billion. 

“Through the years, CAR had always been receiving the lowest in terms of the national agency budget and even up to next year, we will be the lowest,” Rimando said.

Virgilio Bautista, private sector representative to the Regional Development Council, said the region is poor because it could not attract investors due to poor public infrastructure, inadequate telecommunication facilities and very few people can own land because of its mountainous terrain.

He said land with 18 degrees elevation are considered forest land and cannot be titled to private individuals, and out of the region’s 1.8 million hectares, about 85 percent are classified as watersheds and forests.

“Regional autonomy is still the best option available for us to accelerate the development of the region. We want to control our own natural resources. We want to design and formulate our own policies,” Bautista said.

Photo shows jeepney making its way across an eroded portion of the highway.
Philex Mining Corp, the largest producer of gold and copper in the country; Benguet Corp, the oldest mining company; and Lepanto Consolidate Mining, one of the top copper mines  --- they are located in the CAR.

Baguio City is also known as the home of the Philippine Military Academy, the premier military school in the country. 

But poverty incidence is 17.1 percent, which translate to 220,000 people living below the poverty threshold level, and, while a decent wage for a family of five people is P6,600 a month, many earn below P5,000 a month.  

The Cordillera tribes --- Ybalois, Kankana-ey, Kalanguya, Tingguian, Isneg, Ifugao and Kalinga --- plant vegetables during the dry season and rice during the rainy season and most of them live in remote villages.

They fetch drinking water from the spring, and make most of their washing in the river. Children have to hike five hours to attend classes in the nearest public school, which account for a low literacy rate in the area.

Clean up. Miners of Philex Mining Corp join a massive clean-up of the Balog Creek following a leak in the company’s tailings pond. DEXTER SEE
Health facilities are almost non-existent and members of the tribe have to walk almost the whole day to get medical attention in the government health clinics.

Edilberto Carabbacan, regional director of the Department of Public Works and Highways, said building roads and bridges in mountainous terrain is more expensive than the infrastructure in the lowland.

“We are a landlocked region. Building the kind of infrastructure that we need require huge amount of money that we don’t have,” Carabbacan said.

Baguio City Mayor Mauricio Domogan said residents must pursue the establishment of the Cordillera as an autonomous region as mandated by the Constitution so it can manage its own resources and steer its own destiny.

He said the national government should release at least P1 billion to provincial and city governments in the next 10 years for their development projects and “it will translate to more investments and increased employment for the people.”

Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan said the people must be told of the benefits of autonomy so an appropriate law can be drafted and presented to the people in a plebiscite in the next several months.

“Once the region achieves autonomy status, we will be able to craft our own programs and projects that are suitable to the interest of the region,” Fongwan said.

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