Cordillera Mountains

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The Cordillera Central is a massive mountain range situated in the northern central part of the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. Several provinces bound it, namely Benguet, Abra, Kalinga, Apayao, Mountain, Ifugao, and a city located entirely within it, which is Baguio City. In the north, it terminates at Pasaleng Bay, Ilocos Norte, where the coastal bridge Patapat Viaduct winds through. It links with the Sierra Madre through the Caraballo mountains in Nueva Vizcaya province. The whole range was formerly termed as Nueva Provincia, or New Province, during the Spanish times.

Its inhabitants are presently Ilocanos, and the Igorot, a loosely-connected federation of tribes belonging to the mountains. Most of them speak English, due to the presence of a former American base in the mountain ranges, John Hay Air Base.



Gran Cordillera is the highest and largest mountain range in the Philippines. It comprises about 1/6 of the whole Luzon island with a total area of 18,300 km². The Philippines, as an archipelago of 7,100 islands, is situated between the South-China Sea to the West and the Pacific Ocean (Philippine Sea) in the East. Its main islands are Luzon (on which the capital Manila is situated), Mindanao and Palawan. Total surface is 301,000 km².



The population of the Cordillera is about 1.1 million, about 2% of the Philippine population. It is the ancestral domain of the Igorots ('people from the mountains'). It is divided into five provinces and seven ethno-linguistic groups: Kalinga-Apoyo (home of the Kalinga and the Isneg), Abra (Tinggian), Mountain Province (Bontoc and Kankanaey), Ifugao (Ifuago), and Benquet (Kankanaey and Ibaloi).

Culture and Language

Although each of the seven ethno-linguistic groups has its own language, they share a common cultural background and language, which is called Ilocano. As an indigenous people the Cordillera people are different from the Philippine majority in their perception of land ownership.

The Igorots view land as the source of life, an integral part of a cultural identity that traces its origins from the land. The land is considered sacred and can neither be owned or sold, but it should be nurtured to produce life for the communities. For the Igorots, the loss of their land, or their alienation from it, is the same as taking their lives. It is because of this believe that the Cordillera forbears have willingly shed blood to defend their domain from colonisers, and why countless Igorots have since then fought for the right to remain on their land.


The Cordillera is one of the richest regions in terms of natural resources. It is a major resource base of the Philippines: 11% of the total area is agricultural rice fields, orchards, swine farms and pasture lands; 60% of the country’s temperate vegetables are produced in the area. It is the premier mining district; there are eight big mining companies operating which are mostly foreign controlled. Some 80% of the total Philippine gold production comes from the Cordillera.

Another important aspect with respect to potential resources is that the Cordillera is home to the headwaters of the major rivers in Northern Luzon. If these rivers were to be dammed it could provide at least five million kilowatts of the total electrical needs (some 56%) of the entire country.

Environmental problems

Two major problems threaten the living environment of the people in the Cordillera. The first problem concerns the dam projects; through these projects many people have to flee their houses and seek refuge in other areas. The second problem concerns the foreign mining companies; through these projects mineral resources ate taken away from the tribal lands and the environment is being destroyed.


The Philippines, named after King Philip II of Spain in 1618, was already of interest to Spain before the Spaniardseven reached the land. In 1565, reports of huge gold mines in the Cordillera reached the Viceroy of Mexico, which led to the first official Spanish expedition to the Cordillera in 1576. King Philip III, waging the Thirty Year War which needed funding, sent orders for large expeditions to the Philippines.

In 1620, Captain Garcia de Aldana Cabrera offered the resisting Igorot tribal leaders clemency if they were willing to accept Catholic religion, obey the Spanish government and pay a fifth of all their mined gold to the Spanish King. They refused and the Spanish conquerors built forts and organized military troops to start the exploitation of the gold mines.

During the years that followed, the Spanish managed to trade gold despite setbacks from the Igorots, who because of their resistance remained relatively independent from Spanish rule. The price that the Igorots had to pay for this independence was that they became different from their colonised brothers. The Philippines staged Asia’s first nationalistic revolution in 1896, and declared its independence on June 12, 1898.

The newly founded country was soon taken over by the United States of America. The US was the first foreign nation to fully invade the highlands of the Gran Cordillera to push the mining operations in the territory.

On September 27, 1927, the Benquet Concolidated Mining Company discovered one of the richest veins of gold ever, at a time when the USA was entering the Great Depression. This was the start of a real gold rush into Cordillera region: in 1929, there were 94 mining companies, by 1933 there were 17,812.

This extreme growth had tremendous results for the landscape; it changed the original one way Mountain Trail into a busy highway despite the road slides and cuts that occur up to this day. Again, similar to the fight against the Spanish, the indigenous inhabitants protested against the destruction of their land and the neglecting of their rights. Mining operations continued to grow and by 1939 the Philippines ranked among the world’s leading gold producers, and second to the state of California among US producers.

From 1936 to 1946 the Philippines was granted domestic self administration under the Commonwealth of the Philippines as a transitional period to complete independence. From 1941 to 1945 the country fell under Japanese rule, and was liberated by the USA. The USA subsequently recognized Philippine independence on July 4, 1946.

The independent republic’s policy shifted towards the integration of the ‘cultural minorities’ into mainstream culture. In 1966 the Philippine Congress passed the ‘Separation Bill’, dividing the old Mountain Province into four new ones: Banquet, Mountain Province (Bontoc), Ifago and Kalinga-Apayo. The political elite hoped that the creation of several provinces would, by increasing the region’s representation, increase development spending in the area.

Under the Marcos’ administration, politicization of the Cordillera took a new turn. National government development projects in the area were against the interests of the indigenous peoples, and were strongly resisted by them. Particularly important were the Chico River Dam project and the Cellophil project. The first threatened to inundate traditional villages, the second gave outsiders control over vast forest lands. Resistance resulted in increased regional consciousness rather than local ethnic consciousness.

This period is known for its arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture. With the killing of Benigno Aquino in 1983, the human rights situation further deteriorated.

In 1986, because of financial fraud, Marcos had to step back from office and was succeeded by Corazon Aquino. Under her leadership the human rights situation started to improve; political prisoners were released, repressive laws were repealed and all relevant UN Conventions were ratified.

However, the Aquino administration failed to tackle substantial issues such as land reform and the restructuring of the economy. After the collapse of the negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF), Aquino declared the “Total War Policy”, aimed at recovering New People’s Army (NPA) controlled areas and to destroy the NPA’s organizational and infrastructure base. The NPA had moved into the Cordillera to assist in the resistance against the projects.

Current events

In September 2000, the municipal council of Itogon, Benguet withdrew its endorsement of the San Roque Dam project. The project had met a lot of resistance, because of the reported failure of its proponents to update its Environmental Certificate of Compliance (ECC) and to submit a watershed management plan required for a project of that magnitude. The San Roque Dam was to become one of the biggest dams in the world and would threaten the living environment of the Igorot.

The CPA, in co-operation with other organizations, had highly resisted this project and thus booked a little victory. However, in May 2001, president Arroyo declared that the San Roque Dam project would continue anyway because it had already started and therefore was difficult to stop. At the same time she promised to not sacrifice the environment, to resettle the people who will lose their houses, to compensate other people, and to initiate no other large scale irrigation projects in the future. Time will prove whether she will keep that promise.

In December 2000, the Supreme Court of the Philippines dismissed a petition that questioned the constitutional legality of the IPRA. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act came into existence in 1997 and gave the peoples of the Cordillera decisive influence over the establishment of foreign mining companies. In this act, ownership over the lands was regarded as communal, rather than individual and thus coincided more with the view on ownership of the Igorot. The IPRA was totally different in tone than the 1995 Mining Code.

Without consulting the Cordillera people, this code gave companies the freedom to devastate tribal lands, allowed 100% foreign ownership, and gave companies the right to displace and resettle people within their concessionary areas. Some influential people filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against the IPRA, because it contradicted with the Mining Code and would therefore be unlawful. The fact that the Supreme Court had to dismiss the petition, because the vote had been 7-7, could be understood as another victory of the CPA.

In February 2001, president Arroyo spoke with officials from the Cordillera Administrative Region, and promised to start rebuilding the infrastructure and offered the Cordillera people financial assistance for development projects. Some people were surprised when they found out that Arroyo spoke fluently Ilocano (the common language of the Igorot).

Let’s hope that this fact can prove to be an essential tool in improving mutual understanding and strengthening the dialogue between the parties.

The Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance

The Cordillera peoples are a founding Member of UNPO. They are represented by the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA), which is a federation of organizations of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Founded in 1984 by seven Igorot peoples’ organizations, it grew to over sixty members in its first year. Today the CPA has more than 120 member organizations. The areas on which it is active vary from land issues to political items. Its major aim is to unite the Igorot people to fight a common cause. The CPA is committed to advance the collective interests and welfare of the indigenous people of the mountain provinces.

Coordinates: 17°20′N, 120°57′E

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