In the mid-1970s, the Igorot people won fame for fighting the largely World Bank-funded Chico River Dam project. Now, their survival is increasingly linked to changing the rules of international trade, as a leading advocate explains
I had become a student activist after living in Manila at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, but I was firmly convinced that my future lay in going back home to help organize my native people, the Igorots . Since martial law had been declared in 1972, the only legitimate way for us to operate was through NGOs. Six years later I created one to organize villagers and set up community-based health programmes.
We raised the social and political awareness of our people, and mobilized them against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. We understood that we were oppressed and discriminated against as indigenous people, and that therefore we should struggle for self-determination and regional autonomy. In the 1980s, the government was finally forced to cancel the Chico River Dam Project because of our sustained opposition. This project would have displaced around 300,000 Igorots.
At the time we could already see the value of international networking to gather support for our struggles against military rule in many of our communities. We discovered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and used it to strengthen our cause.
Indigenous peoples also became active in lobbying the United Nations to address human rights violations of indigenous peoples. Since the creation in 1982 of a UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, indigenous peoples have regularly taken part in drafting minimum standards for the protection of their rights. I am, however, a strong believer in the primacy of local and national struggles over international action. Without strong resistance on the ground, international campaigns will fail. The fall of the Marcos dictatorship came about primarily because of the protests of the poor majority, which had built up for more than 20 years within the country. Only once the regime became widely unpopular did the elite Filipinos and the international community start to withdraw some support from it.
But I have also seen how decisions or agreements reached by international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can erode gains achieved locally. From the late 1970s to the 1980s, I helped to set up community-based health programmes, only to see the structural adjustment policies and programmes of the World Bank and IMF lead to budget cuts in health, while liberalization of our investment and trade laws set back much of our progress.
The struggle for ancestral land rights, for instance, was undermined by the Mining Act of 1995, which allows foreign mining corporations to have 100 per cent foreign equity and a 75-year lease on a maximum of 81,000 hectares of mineral lands. The Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA), a new law passed in 1998, rectified some of the damage but falls short of what we want. The mining corporations have nevertheless filed a suit in the Supreme Court questioning its constitutionality.
We were told that to develop, we have to shift from producing for our domestic use to producing for the world market. But those who shifted to cash crop production are now going bankrupt because of the dumping of highly-subsidized, imported agricultural products from foreign countries. Cheap ready-to-fry sliced potatoes, corn, oranges and pears, frozen-dressed chicken and other foods are being dumped in the country, destroying the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers. The commitments of the Philippine government, particularly relating to agriculture as part of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has allowed this to happen. …