Indigenous Institutions as Pillars for Leadership and Self-Determination

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“I was part of the Chico Dams struggle from the 1970s to the 1980s. The mighty river would not be flowing freely today had we not opposed the project. The communities and farmlands would have been inundated without our fierce opposition. Today, the Chico River is still targeted for a series of hydropower projects. We have to fight for our rivers, forests, and ancestral lands which are the source of life and wellbeing. The youth as the next stewards of our land should be vigilant and critical, and learn our history of struggle for self-determination.” Ama Banag Sinumlag is a Kalinga elder and pioneer of the Cordillera Elders Alliance (CEA). He and the other indigenous peoples in the highland Cordillera region in Northern Philippines know they have to strengthen their traditional institutions in the wake of tremendous changes and threats brought on by globalization and political-economic interests. Towards this goal, the CEA launched a series of activities on leadership and self-determination.

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The CEA Regional Council planned and conducted trainings on organisational strengthening, education and capacity-building for the next line of leaders. They held learning sessions with the youth, mobilised communities to participate in activities that will amplify and make visible the indigenous peoples’ concerns, pursue advocacy, and strengthen solidarity with other sectors.

The historical role of elders such as Ama Banag was shared in a provincial assembly attended by indigenous elders from municipalities where the struggle for ancestral land continues. Indigenous women elders actively participated in the process and were vital to consensus building, decision-making and the establishment of the Benguet Elders Alliance with mostly women at the helm of leadership.  In Baguio City, the Metro Baguio Tribal Elders and Leaders (MBTELA) likewise held their Assembly that coincided with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The Ibalois who are the original indigenous inhabitants of the city, were welcomed as new members.

Regional Autonomy was the main topic of a forum attended by 100 elders from different provinces. The history of the Cordillera peoples’ struggle was revisited. How local autonomy and self-determination were practiced in pre-colonization period was likewise discussed. It was understood that in the course of time, these practices are both persisting and disintegrating in varying degrees in different areas. The elders strongly urged the younger generation and professionals to put more effort in understanding their history and traditional concepts, more so because they are influenced by the mainstream educational system and government policies that run counter to their traditional vision and indigenous practices.

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Bontok elder Evelyn Miranda observed that “The youth these days are forgetting their roots. They’re not proud to wear our indigenous attires, don’t learn how to play our musical instruments, and some don’t appreciate our stand against so-called development projects that threaten our lands and resources. It is our duty as elders to tirelessly teach them for as long as we can.” Thereafter, the Elders and Youth Exchange and Cultural Workshop were held with 100 indigenous youth participants. Elders shared the history of national minorities and the Cordillera indigenous peoples’ situation. They also discussed the sacredness and relevance of indigenous socio-political systems. The youth expressed appreciation for the new insights on the context of their dances, songs, musical instruments, and indigenous attire.  

The Leadership Trainings for the CEA Regional Council and chapters resulted in the elders and youth gaining of additional knowledge and skills in promoting indigenous governance, mediating tribal conflicts and advancing Cordillera indigenous peoples’ rights. The elders mediated in communities involved in inter-tribal conflict and tribes agreed to renew their peace pact and peacefully resolve their existing conflict. These interventions by the elders prevented the outbreak of tribal wars, the unnecessary loss of lives, and disruption of livelihood.

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All these activities contributed to the CEA’s strengthened leadership and clearer platform for self-governance and conflict prevention. Emerging elder-leaders practice their wisdom and skills in tribal conflict mediation, promotion of indigenous socio-political systems and governance, advocacy and networking. Alongside is the recognition of the elders’ role in promoting indigenous governance and Free Prior and Informed Consent, in campaigning and advocating against destructive energy projects, militarization of communities and human rights violations.

The precarious human rights situation in the region is a continuing challenge to both the CEA and CPA in their project implementation and beyond. Amid the worsening attacks against indigenous peoples, CEA held its Regional Congress in November 2018 to strengthen its organization and leadership to be able to more effectively address challenges and issues.

“Changes in society are fast-paced. Cash economy affects our ways of life. Our traditional values and practices are fast disintegrating. It is our duty as elders to promote these, educate the people on the importance of safeguarding our ancestral lands and resources, and assert our indigenous ways of governance and resolving conflicts to prevent tribal wars.” This precise analysis of CEA pioneer Abraham Batawang frames the continuing role of indigenous institutions in their survival.

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The project “Strengthening Indigenous Institutions for Leadership and Self-Determination” was implemented by the Cordillera Elders Alliance in August, 2018 with the support of PAWANKA Fund.