Cordillera autonomy - Miriam Coronel Ferrer


Posted at Apr 09 2010 01:06 AM | Updated as of Apr 09 2010 09:36 AM

Cordillera autonomy - Miriam Coronel Ferrer 1The 1987 Constitution mandated the creation of an autonomous regional government each in “Muslim Mindanao” and the Cordillera to allow for greater self-governance in these two geographic areas in the country with a distinct historical and socio-cultural heritage. But while the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was set up in 1989 in the country’s south, no such body has been put in place in the Cordillera in the north.

Two laws have been passed to realize the constitutional mandate: the original Organic Act for an autonomous Cordillera region (Republic Act No. 6766) in 1990, and the amended law, Republic Act No. 8438, that was passed in 1998. In both instances, voters turned down the law.

In her newly published booked entitled Discourses on Cordillera Autonomy, University of the Philippines political science professor Athena Lydia Casambre provided an engaging analytical angle as to why the regional autonomy project never saw the light.

Casambre’s analysis goes deeper than the basic explanations as to why voters rejected the creation of the autonomous government that will finally replace the Cordillera Executive Board of the transitional Cordillera Administrative Region. As summarized by Lydia, the basic empirical explanations are ignorance, indifference, skepticism and disagreement over the law.

While all these factors played a role, for Lydia, the bureaucratic and legalistic frames that governed both the blueprint and state-initiated consultations on an autonomous government were the main culprits. “(T)he text of RA 6766 reflects the preoccupation with the conventional structures and functions of local government … It is clearly authored by legislative staffers trained in the convention of local government bills, but only superficially informed by Cordillera consciousness,” she wrote. She also criticized the constricting formats used in consultations post-referendum that limited options and were guided more by the standards of technocratic efficiency than indigenous ways.

The frames used by non-state proponents of regional autonomy – be it the national democratic frame of the Cordillera People’s Alliance or the socialist-inspired imagining of a Cordillera Nation of the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army – were also problematic. They not only advocated two radically different projects, thus dividing the pro-autonomy constituency, they were equally alien from indigenous practices.

The CPA’s advocacy of Kaigorotan as a pan-regional identity, wrote Lydia, was built “on an unwarranted reference to a Cordillera ‘ancestral domain’ … from the premise that there are ‘Cordillera ‘ancestral lands.’ This was a patent fiction…” Despite a shared history and some common features, Cordilleran communities are governed by diverse customary practices and operate on different property regimes. Moreover, the CPA’s advocacy was part of a bigger national democratic project that unduly subsumed the regional agenda.

The CPLA also tended to romanticize and homogenize customary practices, using these essentialized features as the foundation of its imagined socialistic Cordillera Nation.

To overcome the disjuncture in rhetoric, vision and viability, Casambre called for a more ‘authentic” discourse on Cordillera autonomy. Such a discourse should be driven by anthropological knowledge, rather than ideological or bureaucratic-legalistic conceptions. Three important areas that should inform the construction of an autonomy scheme are land rights, resource management and conflict resolution, as differently and distinctly practiced in the villages of the Cordillera highlands.

Lydia’s other recommendation may be considered antithetical to the very essence of a regional government. For her, the locus of self-governance should be returned to its traditional location: the ili, or the village. If there should be a regional government, it must not be an imposition on indigenous village autonomy. It cannot be “a mirror image of the national government and mainstream local governments” if it is to be a form of autonomy for and from the grassroots.

Moro self-determination advocates, who are also seeking a more “authentic” expression of the right to self-government for the Muslim ethnic communities in Mindanao, should find Lydia’s insights valuable. Although the Bangsa Moro project is much older than the Cordillera/Kaigorotan identity pursuit, Muslim Mindanao is as linguistically and culturally diverse as the Cordillera.

What combinations and variations in autonomous arrangements are suitable to the Moro and Cordillera contexts of being distinct as a whole from the Filipino majority but variegated within? At what level of politics and administration can meaningful and effective self-governance best be operationalized – the tribe, the village, municipality, province, region, the whole country shifting to a federal system, or somewhere in-between these categories? What added value would a supra-provincial unit contribute to enhancing autonomous governance, or will it only be an added financial burden?

Deeper comparative analysis on the two special regions in the country should be done, drawing on insights that have emerged from the individual case reviews, such as those offered by Lydia’s book.


Lydia’s collection of three articles—the first written in 1991 and the other two in 2000 – was published by the UP Cordillera Resource Center and launched during the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA) conference this week at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City, where more than 100 political science professors, instructors and graduate students from the whole country have gathered for their annual academic jostling.

The Politics of Change in the Philippines, edited by Yuko Kasuya and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo and published by Anvil, was also launched at the conference. The thick anthology puts together 16 articles looking at areas that are important to understanding and transforming Philippine politics – elections, civil society, the mass media, IT, the various classes, and the state.

The book’s theme jibes well with this year’s conference theme, “Transitions”. As defined by keynote speaker Prof. Temario Rivera, transitions are moments when opportunities for addressing basic socio-political issues are established and hopefully sustained. Because they involve choices and decisions, transitions are necessarily political.