The silvery Chico River sparkles in the mid April sun as one traverse the enchanting Cordillera highlands in Northern Philippines. The green lush forest and famed rice terraces beholds the River as it permeates through the vast expanse of Cordillera Highlands, referred to as the “Hills of Gold” by the Spanish. The stunning water of the River reflects the abundance of forest and richness of the ancestral domain of Cordillera. The mesmerizing Chico River bears unique tales to tell for its people as it flows through history and the lush green forest and rice terraces beyond. The River’s history is impregnated with tales of its legendary people, sacrificing their life and sacred bloods to defend the sanctity and spirituality of the land and for an unhindered flow of waters of the land.
During the Marcos Dictatorship regime in the Philippines in mid 1980’s, four mega dams were envisaged for construction across Chico River with World Bank support. The idea, bereft of any consultation and consent, infuriated the community elders, who denunciated the idea of obstructing a free flowing river and to curtail the myriad life it sustains? How can a free flowing river be denied its natural rights to flow free? How can one separate the people from the River it lives with and cares for generations? How can one stop the forest to sway freely in the light breeze of the Easterly winds? Should communities sacrifice the sanctity of their waters, forest and land and the future of generations to benefit those pursuing unbridled plunder of the world’s last remaining resources?
The Chico Dam plan provoked the spirits of all in Cordillera for a stance to struggle and defend the free flow of Chico River and for their people to define their rightful destined destinies. The elders of Cordillera led the peoples’ struggles to defend their land and water, and the State military responded with suppression and merciless brutalities. On 24 April 1984, personnel of Philippines military supporting the corporate expansionism in Chico River shot dead Mcling Dulag, a legendary leader and an ideologue. The brutal state militarism confirmed once and for all that the mega dams planned and the ‘development’ tag attached to it is simply anti-people and anti-nature and exposes the corporate, state and military nexus in subduing peoples’ rights. The merciless incident and sacrifice of Mcling Dulag inspired and strengthened peoples’ resolve to sacrifice and defend their land.
Today, the Chico River is free of any ‘Dam’ that will curtail the freedom of its waters to flow free. The River today represents the ultimate instinct, hopes and aspirations of the Cordillera Highlanders, whose elders fought the Spanish, Americans and the Japanese Colonial powers from aggression, imperialism and colonial expansionism. A sacred flame of hope emanates from the Chico Dam resistance and grows brighter and brighter as days goes by. A unique culture, of an effort to forge unity among indigenous peoples beyond frontiers, to foster self determination over their land and to deepen international solidarity against all forms of imperialist expansionism and oppression, slowly emerged. The Chico River, life for many, infused fresh leash of life for the people of Cordillera, to rethink their past and to act for their future. The River inspired people to challenge and resist fast unfolding nefarious designs and militarism of proponents of imperialist led development.
As indigenous youths, women and elders played traditional instruments and danced during Cordillera day, held annually to commemorate the sacrifice of Mcling Dulag for defence of ancestral domains; one could feel their dynamic urge and determination to keep the wishes and spirits of Mcling Dulag alive. Indeed, Dulag’s spirits, wise words and ideals, deeds resonate again during Cordillera Day celebrationsat Guina Ang, Pasil, Kalinga on 24 April 2014. The deep reflection of myriad political and economic challenges throughout the celebration offers ray of hope for indigenous communities in Cordillera and beyond with identification of appropriate strategies to respond to these challenges.
The cascading flow of the blue waters of Chico River is in full consonance with the rhythmic music of the gongs and the graceful dances of indigenous communities from Ifugao, Kalinga, Abra, Mountain Province etc, all enduring to keep their cultures alive. The music of the gongs and chants of the traditional songs flows like the water of Chico River, free in spirits and will. The Chico waters today reflect the aspirations and dynamism of indigenous peoples of Cordillera to remain attached to their land, forest, water and cultures. The river rekindles the flames of a free mind and deeds and enlivens the traditions and political belief of the land. The struggles to defend the River’s free unhindered flow already inspired peoples’ wishes and aspirations to be free in their own land.
As the Cordillera Day celebrations progresses, it is inspiring to witness politically conscious indigenous youths joining elders to trace the history of their land, to form part of the struggle, and standing firm to protect the rich heritages and cultures of the land and its people. It is stirring to see youths deepening determination and preparing to assume their role and responsibility over their land and future and learning to build unity, skills for greater unity, equality and freedom. When children and younger generation are already deep in the process to nurture and cherish the beauty and integrity of the land, how we can ever lose hope of the land? The confident faces of the youths playing gongs and with graceful dance moves affirms time and again this land will certainly persists for long into eternity. Could the waters of Chico Rivers cease to flow at a time when the energy and spirits of youths are already high to assume leadership and stewardship over their land?
The expressions of astonishing leadership of women, of elders taking leadership role, of clarity of vision and thoughts, of belief in internationalism, and forging unity and provoking those in deep slumber and fresh minds towards vivacious feelings of nationalism, of instilling hopes for the future, revitalized in the spirits of hopes and determination, are what that showers hope for this land. The expression of the collective aspiration to flow free like the Chico River traversing over rocks and difficult terrains in overcoming all obstacles of corporate interest, to state militarism to rights violations on its peoples are also what that will give life to this land for long.
Cordillera indeed is rich and bountiful in water, rice fields, minerals, the culture, heritages and its people. As the world embarks on ceaseless moves to consolidate wealth by few profit mongering corporations and people with insatiable greed, there’s fresh moves to destroy the land, forest, water and all remaining resources. The indigenous peoples of Cordillera and Philippines have far greater challenges today with multinational corporations and cohorts of imperialist countries savoring for more land, resources and profits. There’s increasing mining concessions, increased militarization in their land and worsening political killings. Of late, the Chevron’s proposed geothermal energy projects generate controversy over non recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in Cordillera.
Subsequently, the efforts and relentless struggle to defend cordillera’s land and resources and the future of its people consolidates and nurture further. There’s increasingly assertion of peoples’ move to assert genuine regional autonomy in Cordillera towards a stronger defence of ancestral domain. The Government of Philippines only insisted on regional autonomy in a process towards facilitating further corporatization and transfer of indigenous peoples land and resources in Cordillera to powerful multinational corporations. How can one talk of autonomy without addressing militarization, development aggression, mining, dams and worsening rights violations? How can there be genuine political process without addressing peoples’ rights and wishes?
The spirits, wise words, courage and determination of the legendary leader, Mcling Dulag, who sacrificed his life for the greater defense of the land and resources of Cordillera for intergenerational survival, continues to be source of inspirations. His words and thoughts guide the Cordillera peoples’ struggles for Self determination and liberation of their land. The sacrifice of Mcling Dulag already inspired indigenous communities far and wide and today, the indigenous peoples of Manipur can also drew a significant inspiration to fend of fast unfolding destructive development trend in Manipur, which increasingly corporatizes and privatize our land, territory and resources and undermining indigenous peoples rights with militarism. When the spirits, aspirations and zeal to defend their land is high, one ponders what will stop them? The caves of Sagada in Cordillera take time for the unique and beautiful rock formations. How long can rocks withstand the perennial flow of water and gushing wind? Nature provides lucid answers to many of the persisting challenges. The beautiful rock formations in Sagada caves testify how rocks succumb to forces of nature.
The yearnings of Chico River to flow free are a symbolism of its peoples’ determination and relentless efforts to live free in their own land, and this is exactly what will shape the future and destiny of this land. One hopes the resolve, spirits and determination of the indigenous peoples of Cordillera to assert their right to self determination over their land, territories and resources rigidifies as the waters of Chico River flows descends into moments of passing times. One hopes the rich and pungent aroma of the fast ripening rice in the terrace fields across Cordillera continues to fill the air for all coming generations to nurture in its entirety. One hopes the waters of Chico River further deepens the spirituality of the land, adds more beautiful melodious notes to music and dances of the land, sharpens the commitment and dedication of youths to defend their land and future and showers visions for all indigenous peoples beyond frontiers towards a destiny emboldened with hopes, equality, freedom and liberation for all. One hopes the cascading rhythmic notes of flowing Chico waters fill the heart, mind and soul of all, till it rejoices to the moments of liberation of all.
*** This article was also published in Huiyen Lanpao on 4th May, 2014. Click here