Why we should be an autonomous region
by Joel B. Belinan
July is the Cordillera month celebration and hence it is good to discuss some of the reasons why we should become an autonomous region. Even if these reasons and issues were already the subject of hundreds, if not thousands, of debates in many fora, it is still worth talking about these again due to its importance to us.
Regional autonomy means some degree of independence from the national government. Some equate it with self-determination.
Firstly, the framers of the 1987 constitution in putting the provision that provides for the establishment of the Cordillera Autonomous Region and the ARMM is an admission that the central government had neglected these areas in terms of development since the establishment of this republic.
Secondly, the Cordillera region is unique from the rest of the country in many ways, in culture and traditions, topography, climate and the environment, in general.
Thirdly, that the Cordillera maintained its Indigenous identity unlike the lowland regions that were subjugated by the Spanish colonizers erasing most of their pre-colonial ways.
For the first reason, if we are to take out Baguio City from CAR there would not be enough economic activities for CAR’s population except those mega-dams and large mines whose benefits do not really accrue to us but instead to the national government and Metro Manila.
To date, in terms of public infrastructure, the Cordillera remains to have the shortest span of paved roads even though it has one of the biggest land areas.
Autonomy advocates say that with the admission of the almost a century of neglect by the government, it needs to invest more for this region for it to catch up in terms of development.
But the opposition would argue that even without autonomy the government can provide more development funds to the region.That, however, has no legal basis. Funds are given to regions and local governments based on population, land area, and income. Looking at these, the Cordillera is already at a disadvantage. We have the least population, the smallest income. Hence, our regional share of funds is always at the bottom.
If we are an autonomous region, as provided for under the proposed organic act that is now pending in both houses of Congress, a huge amount of funds shall be given to the region up to a certain number of years for us to catch up in terms of economic development. These additional funds shall be over and above what the various national line agencies in the region, the provinces, cities, municipalities, barangays, government-owned corporations, and state universities and colleges, among others, are currently getting.
On the second reason, indeed the Cordillera is very different from the rest of the country. The Cordillera may be large but has a very rugged terrain where development is much more difficult and costs higher. The best example is in the improving of a road. Due to the mountainous terrain, computations will have to include the hauling of aggregates from very far sources, retaining walls have to be built, including big drainage canals. But the central government imposes its standards on the Cordillera which creates all sorts of problems and in most cases result in waste of money.
The third reason is that while we Cordillerans were relatively successful in resisting the more than 400 years of colonialism and we preserved our Indigenous ways, we were discriminated against instead of being looked at as heroes. Igorots were projected as inferior because of our costumes and traditions including all sorts of invented stories that tend to demean and discredit us. The central government in most cases is a party to such acts as they usually just looked at the other way. With the trending acknowledgment in the international arena, including the United Nations, that the Indigenous peoples of the world possess the age-old practices that could protect and preserve the environment and restore eco-balance, reforms started to be enacted in our laws. Most important of these is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act. But even this very law is being suppressed or altered by the national government due to several reasons that affect the ruling business elite’s interest.
To me, these are the most important reasons why we really should become an autonomous region, for us to determine the course of our destiny. Why should an office far away from the Cordillera be giving a water permit over our creeks or rivers? Why should the central office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) decide on mining permits over mining claims here? They don’t know the actual situation? Why do big companies like SM, mining companies, mega-hydroelectric dams pay their corporate taxes in Makati or any place else where their head offices are located depriving us of billions of taxes, instead of paying here? Are you aware that our Philippine Economic Zone Area in Loakan, Baguio City might be the smallest but produces the biggest value of goods among all the economic zones in the country? We are also considered the hydro capital due to the presence of many mega hydro-dams and micro and mini-hydros. We are also the Watershed Cradle of the North.
In short, aside from Mindanao, we are a resource base of the Philippines and that is the reason why the national government and would be affected members of the business elite are making all sorts of issues to deny us our Cordillera Autonomy. Unfortunately, there is no viable armed group here in the Cordillera that could start a credible incident to force our central government and hasten the establishment of the Autonomous Region of the Cordillera. Or is there? **