Soon after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he tried to build four huge dams along the Chico river to be funded by the World Bank. At the same time he awarded 200,000 hectares of forest land to the Cellophil Resources Corporation as a logging and paper pulp concession to his crony Herminio Disini. These were so-called priority “development projects” of the Marcos dictatorship throughout the dark years of martial law. In defense of indigenous life, ancestral land and cultural integrity, the Kalinga and Bontok people waged sustained struggles against the construction of the Chico dams, followed soon after by Tinggian opposition to the Cellophil Resources Corporation.
These indigenous peoples of Bontok, Kalinga and Abra, considered by many as among the most neglected and powerless sectors of Philippine society, were able to stop the development aggression against fearsome odds, by asserting their collective human rights to ancestral land and self-determination. In their steadfast and uncompromising defense of their life, land, livelihood and resources, they earned the respect and support not only of the other national minorities in the region, but also other progressive forces both here in the Philippines and abroad. When they finally resorted to armed resistance after peaceful methods to seek redress of grievances had proved futile in the face of unbridled militarization, many were convinced that this was but a logical step for these warrior societies in the defense of their indigenous peoples’ rights.
During this period, many of the finest of the sons and daughters of the indigenous communities in the region joined the CPP-NPA. In 1981, the revolutionary movement articulated its program for the Cordillera People’s Democratic Front (CPDF). The 8-point CPDF program included the recognition of the right to ancestral land and regional autonomy as the form of self-determination for the Cordillera. The CPDF was projected as the umbrella organization of all revolutionary forces in the region allied with the National Democratic Front. In truth, it was the revolutionary movement which first articulated the demands of the indigenous peoples for ancestral land and self-determination.
The Chico and Cellophil struggles were a great learning experience into the reality of indigenous peoples’ rights. During this period the concept of ancestral land and self-determination were vague abstractions for many. The Chico and Cellophil struggles educated them that this was concrete reality for indigenous peoples.
Chico and Cellophil gave a deeper dimension to human rights, going beyond the narrow definition of individual civil and political rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the collective human rights of indigenous peoples.
The Chico and Cellophil struggles were waged in uncompromising defense of ancestral land and the right to self –determination, or the right of the indigenous communities to freely determine their continued existence as distinct peoples, and the right to freely determine their political status, and their economic, political and socio-cultural development, at a pace which they themselves define.
The unfolding Chico and Cellophil drama ignited dormant Igorot nationalism. Numerous activists and mass leaders espousing their rights as indigenous peoples emerged. The different Cordillera tribes were challenged into the recognition of the pressing need for a greater unity among themselves if they hoped to succeed in the defense of their collective human rights as indigenous peoples. Igorot students and intellectuals put their energies into the more serious discussion and study of what it meant to be indigenous peoples and national minorities.
This increased introspection and self awareness among the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera paved the way towards a pan-Cordillera mass movement, as it marked the shift from spontaneous reaction to conscious and concerted unified action. As the different Igorot tribes and sectors were increasingly exposed to each other in mass meetings, inter-tribal activities and bodong conferences, there was the opportunity for dialogue and mutual sharing and learning. From here, the different groups realized that they shared a common history of national oppression; a common geography and territory – the Cordillera mountain range; a common persistence of their indigenous cultures, albeit in varying degrees; common problems and common enemies.
The heroic Chico and Cellophil struggles also served to inspire and motivate many non-indigenous advocates, in the region, the nation, and abroad, which made it possible to generate broad national and international support to sustain the growing mass movement. There were broad solidarity and advocacy for the popular resistance in the region from academics, environmentalists, church groups, the mass media, NGOs and a wide array of solidarity organizations. The Free Legal Assistance Group of the late senators Jose Diokno and Lorenzo Tañada offered their legal assistance. Anthropologists and academics wrote numerous treatises. Progressive media practitioners provided good press coverage.
Chico and Cellophil brought to the fore the fact that the present-day problems of tribal peoples and indigenous communities are much bigger and more complicated than any faced in earlier historical periods. More concretely, Chico and Cellophil showed the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera that their problems cannot be taken in isolation from the wider Philippine realities, and the incursions of imperialist globalization.
The indigenist romanticized view of tribal society as a static autonomous entity which should be preserved in its pure form shattered, as Igorots united with as broad an alliance as possible for the defense of indigenous rights. Although the Chico resistance at the start was the spontaneous tribal response to outside threat, it soon positioned itself firmly within the mainstream of the national democratic struggle.