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The Indigenous Women of the Philippine’s Cordillera Region

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) opens on September 20, 2014, it will feature many exhibits about the rights of Indigenous people in North America and around the world.  Many of the Museum’s inaugural exhibitions will focus on Indigenous Rights in Canada, but as the CMHR grows new voices will be added to the galleries, such as those of the Indigenous women of the Philippine’s Cordillera region. The author would like to thank the members of the Cordillera community in Winnipeg, who have so kindly provided guidance in his research.

Few people in Canada are familiar with the Cordillera Region of the Philippines, a mountainous area of some 1.8 million hectares located on the Northern end of Luzon Island. As of 2001, it was home to approximately 1.3 million indigenous peoples. The people of the Cordillera long resisted the incursions of Spanish and American colonizers, and maintained a unique culture and lifestyle. In more recent years the Cordillera has attracted attention due to a wealth of natural resources, including minerals, lumber and hydroelectricity. Unfortunately, the extraction of these resources has often been done at the expense of Indigenous people’s rights, such as the right to self-determination outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

In 1970s, a hydroelectric dam project was begun on the Chico River that would result in the displacement of tens of thousands of Bontoc and Kalinga peoples from the Cordillera region. Sixteen villages would be partially or totally destroyed, and 2,753 hectares of rice terraces the people had depended on for their way of life for countless generations would be washed away. The Indigenous ways of life would be destroyed, and so the Cordillera peoples decided to resist.

Women were active in the struggle, setting up barricades to prevent construction workers from entering construction sites. When soldiers showed up with construction workers and began to set up their equipment, the women entered the site to speak with the men. The troops would not listen, so the women dismantled their tents and marched them back to the army barracks many miles away. After many years of fierce resistance in which a number of people died, the Chico dam project was abandoned – the people of the Cordillera had upheld their right to self-determination.  

The Chico dam was only the beginning. The Indigenous people of the Cordillera often found themselves resisting large projects that threatened to dislocate them and end their traditional ways of life. Advocates of these developments often promised it would help the economy, but often the people of the Cordillera found that they did not benefit from the projects.  Many inhabitants found themselves mired in poverty. The situation was even worse for women, who are still often paid less for their work than men.  

In 1987, women of the Cordillera established what would become the Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center (CWEARC) in order to coordinate efforts to help their people escape poverty and protect the environment, their rights and their cultures. CWEARC is not the sole organization that has arisen from the Cordillera indigenous women’s movement.  Innabuyong was formed on March 18, 1990 as an alliance of women’s organizations in the Cordillera. Innabuyong started with 24 such groups, but by 2010 the alliance consisted of 130 member organizations. 

CWEARC, Innabuyong and other groups continue to work together, improving the lives of women in the Cordillera, protecting their people’s traditional lands and ways of life and providing food security to their people through traditional agricultural methods.

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