Section 15 Article X of the 1987 Philippine Constitution mandates the establishment of separate autonomous regions in the Cordillera and Muslim Mindanao as the government’s simple and most legal way of addressing the injustices that it committed against both regions considering that both areas were neglected by the national government over the past several decades. Autonomy allows the regional government to be established to be able to craft its policies that are suitable to the prevailing situation in the said areas considering that most national policies seem not to conform with the actual situation on the ground.
Even history dictates that since time in memorial, most parts of the Cordillera have been neglected in terms of development which should have spurred economic growth in the countryside and could have uplifted the living condition of the people. Before, Bontoc, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Apayao previously compromised the old Mountain Province that eventually resulted to the crafting of the Division Law that established the four sub-provinces into independent provinces with separate powers and allotment from the national government. However, during the martial law years, the Cordillera was not again part of the priority of the national government since Batas Pambansa Blg. No. 1 that divided the country into 13 regions separated the highland provinces with Abra, Benguet, Mountain Province and Baguio City placed under Region I while Ifugao, Kalinga and Apayao were placed under Region II. The independent struggle of both the armed movement and the various militant organizations clamoring for regional autonomy resulted in the signing of the September 13, 1986 Mount Data peace agreement between former President Aquino and the Cordillera Liberations Army (CPLA) led by former rebel priest Fr. Conrado Balweg. It also resulted in the inclusion of the constitutional provision mandating the establishment of autonomous regions in the Cordillera and Mindanao. Subsequently, it also led to the issuance of Executive Order (EO) No. 220 that brought back the unity of the Cordillera through the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
Much have been positively and negatively said about the renewed pursuit for regional autonomy but the fact remains that it is still not a lost cause for everyone. Autonomy advocates must sustain the recent gains of the clamor for regional autonomy over the past nine years since the Regioonal Development Council (RDC) in the Cordillera embraced autonomy as an overarching agenda. We should not allow the present and future generations to blame us for our negligence in the realization of our constitutional mandate for self-governance.
Surveys show that there is a consistent increase in the number of Cordillerans who are aware of the renewed pursuit for regional autonomy. From a little over 30 percent awareness during the baseline survey in 2007, the awareness level of the people have increased to nearly double to 54 percent in the latest tracking survey. The challenge for autonomy advocates now is how to convert the awareness level of Cordillerans into yes votes for autonomy. It is now a work in progress and hopefully that by next year, advocates will be able to appropriately position themselves into convincing more people to understand the comprehend the importance of autonomy to their lives. Time and again, it has been said that autonomy is the only means that the government can move the people out of the shackles of poverty because of the region being able to control the available resources for priority concerns with lesser restraint from outside forces like the national government.
We commend the autonomy advocates for shifting the information and education campaign to the grassroots level through barangay-based consultations starting next year. La Trinidad, Benguet and Lagawe, Ifugao already led other local governments in the conduct of barangay-based consultations through their own unique and indigenous way which is worth emulating in other areas. Abra also started its grassroots level of consultation by tapping various cooperatives, farmers, women’s, youth and other multi-sectoral associations in order to enlighten them about the misinterpretations on the renewed pursuit for self-governance.
During previous discussions with various sectors regionwide, many sectors no longer want to go back to their mother regions but they are not satisfied with the services of the government to them. The question is they also have reservations on the renewed pursuit for regional autonomy which are simply fears that are created because of the productive thinking of people.
The challenge for everyone is to sustain the momentum of continuously educating our brothers and sisters on the true essence of autonomy and if the Organic Act will be passed into law, another wave of consultations will be done regionwide to inform the people that what the Cordillerans like were already included in the law and it is now high time for them to ratify the approved autonomy law and gear up towards a new region and a new lease of life for
Cordillerans who were deprived of their rights and benefits from the region’s rich resources over the past several decades.