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Federalism and the Cordillera autonomy
John Ray M. Libiran

UNITED FRONT -- President Rodrigo Duterte, who had directed Congress to prepare the groundworks for a shift to a federal system of government, pose with Cabinet and Cordillera officials during his recent visit in Baguio. -- Harley Palangchao


Federalism may come in many forms but it has a distinctive feature as a system of government. In federalism, there is a central government and several regional governments.

Digong’s Federalism

Prior to winning the 2016 elections, Davao Mayor Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte went around the Philippines advocating for federalism. Essentially, he is convinced that the centralized government is not working. As mayor of Davao, he laments that the city gets only a measly portion of the money it remits to the national government by way of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) system. From the 60 to 40 ideal sharing of local revenue, he says that the local government is lucky already if it can bring home and use 20 percent for its own. He likewise hit hard on the perceived corruption in the central government, which diminishes the otherwise monetary benefits that could accrue to the local governments.

He describes the current system as one, which is beholden to “Imperial Manila.” He claims that federalism will bridge the gap between the National Capital Region and the rest of the regions, as provinces will get a lion’s share from the income they earn.

At the risk of being too simplistic, his pitch for federalism may be summarized into two major points. First, federalism will earn more money for local governments; second, local governments will be more autonomous and responsive to the needs and concerns of the constituents.

The kind of federal system the Duterte administration wants to adopt remains vague. That there will be a central government is a given, but whether we will have several states, or just autonomous regions, or provinces is still unclear. Former senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel proposes that we divide the country into 11 federal states, four in Luzon, four in Visayas, and three in Mindanao.

Former senator Joey Lina asserts that federalism is not compatible with the current unitary system and so the country must first break into several states, which in turn will form the federation.

Right now, there is no other way to go about federalism except through a charter change.

The quest for Cordillera autonomy

One cannot talk about Cordillera autonomy without going back to the wisdom of Billy Claver. His treatise on regional autonomy centers on two major concepts: Self-determination and ancestral domain.

Like Duterte, Claver believes that the central government causes the delays in the delivery of basic services. He believes that autonomy will enable local governments to generate more revenues and they will be able to actually use the income instead of remitting a larger chunk to the national treasury.

The vision of pushing for autonomy according to Claver can be summed up by the definition proposed by the Cordillera Peoples Alliance of “regional autonomy,” which is: “Unifying all Cordillera areas and ethnic groups into an autonomous region under a regional government with its own legislative assembly, executive branch, and judicial system based on the rights and interests of the Igorot people and their diverse customs and traditions.”

The premise for creating an autonomous region is, of course, the presence of national cultural minorities loosely called “Igorots” before. With the strong push for self-determination, however, even the peoples of Cordillera asserted their affiliation with different ethno-linguistic groups but concede that it may not be accurate for all of them to be collectively called Igorots. In a survey conducted by Professor Steve Rood of the University of the Philippines Baguio in relation to the bid for autonomy, he discovered that not all ethno-linguistic groups in Cordillera associate themselves with being Igorot.

What’s sauce for the goose

is sauce for the gander?

It seems that the goals of federalism are synonymous with the goals of autonomy. Should we prefer one over the other?

Before that, we have to examine the criticisms against each system.

Constitutional Commissioner Christian Monsod says that the 1987 Constitution is actually a “hybrid.” He explains that while the form of government is unitary, it accounts for autonomous regions and empowered local government units. Monsod is confident that everyday concerns, including those that federalism can supposedly address better, can be met sufficiently by the current central government under the current constitution.

Several analysts agree that the current constitution is enough but we have not yet fully implemented its provisions. For example, Atty. Jemy Gatdula says that “if local governments really are eager to make it on their own without imperial Manila breathing down their necks, the same can all be done through congressional legislative action, without amending the constitution or changing our unitary form of government.”

While there are obvious advantages to having a federal form of government, there is no consensus that it is better than a unitary system.

Then again, when the concept of a Cordillera autonomy was hatched, the 1991 Local Government Code was still inexistent and the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) was unheard of. If the Claver formula of self-determination and ancestral domain is followed, it seems that the two legislations would be sufficient to deliver the goals.

Which one is best for the Cordilleras?

The basic rationale for autonomy according to Claver is to empower the regional local government down to the barangay level through the election of a legislative body; delineation and definition of the scope of autonomous powers to pre-empt possible conflicts with national law or policies of the central government;” and, to ensure capacity of the local government to generate revenue or use revenue remitted to the central government.

On the other hand, President Duterte’s formula is all about allowing the local government unit to use its own funds rather than remitting it to the central government and cutting the bureaucracy to prevent corruption and make the local government more responsive.

So, which formula then is best suited for the Cordillera?

In 2008, Pimentel proposed the creation of 11 autonomous regions to comprise the federal states of the Philippines.

In the proposal, docketed as Joint Resolution No. 10, among others, there will be a “Northern Luzon” state whose capital will be located in Tuguegarao City. The resolution was backed by a concurrent House resolution introduced by Rep. Monico Puentevella where the proposed states were identified, the “Northern Luzon State” was to be composed of Regions 1, 2, and the Cordillera Administrative Region. This will surely not sit well for the proponents of a Cordillera autonomous region as it will further marginalize the indigenous peoples and would operate against the objective of uniting the various groups inhabiting the mountain range.

A federal form of government might be palatable for pioneers like Claver and Chico Dam opposition leader Macli-ing Dulag of Kalinga, if the Cordillera will be treated and established as an autonomous region and recognized as a region with a distinct culture. Otherwise, federalism might just inflame the already growing marginalization of the indigenous peoples of the region.

Former priest-turned rebel leader Conrado Balweg’s condition in the 1986 peace pact between his Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA) and the newly installed Aquino government was for the Cordillera to be created as an autonomous region. Balweg’s assertion was simple, it echoes the sentiments of Dulag and the countless tribal leaders: “This land is ours.”

The call for autonomy is thus rooted on self-determination and ancestral land and the ability to use the vast Cordillera resources for the benefit of its people.

True autonomy, acceptable to the fathers of the concept, is one where Cordillera is recognized as different from the rest of the country: A Cordillera with several but united groups of ethno-linguistic affiliations, a Cordillera autonomous region utilizing its rich resources for and largely for the Cordillera people.

Third time is a charm

Cordillerans overwhelmingly rejected the two organic acts for Cordillera autonomy in separate plebiscites in 1990 and 1998. Does this mean that the people of the Cordillera do not like autonomy?

Like charter change, political bickering, distrust, and speculation have shrouded the issue of autonomy. A lot of those who voted “no” to autonomy probably did so out of fear of the unknown. Quite simply, there is not enough information about what autonomy is, its advantages, and disadvantages. Human experience would dictate that it is easier and safer to embrace status quo than to allow change when knowledge of the outcome is meager.

The Cordillera Regional Development Council has acknowledged the need to step up the campaign for Cordillera autonomy, especially in the grassroots level.

In the 2012 and 2013 Pulse Survey, more than 53 percent of the respondents were still not aware of the renewed campaign to attain autonomy for the Cordillera. The lack of awareness for autonomy further increased in 2013 at 58.9 percent.

The survey also show that 40 and 49 percent of respondents in 2012 and 2013, respectively, do not know how to respond to the question of whether or not the region is ready to assume an autonomous government.

So, three’s a charm? With the way things are going, unless a massive information campaign is launched with competent speakers who are able to articulate and sell the idea, the third time may result in a strikeout.

An honest to goodness study must be made. More consultations should be held, with the participation of more people in the know.

There is wisdom in the creation of a Regional Consultative Commission as prescribed by the constitution; it has to be properly organized.

The third organic act must be different from the previous ones, which were rejected. It must reflect the ideas that buttress the need for Cordillera autonomy. It cannot be a copy-paste proposal. The powers and functions of the regional government must be clearly spelled out to achieve the objectives sought. The drafting of the organic act cannot be rushed.

If we do these, only then will can we confidently say that we tried to avail of the constitutional opportunity, and the people have spoken.

(The writer is a private law practitioner and teaches at the College of Law of the University of the Cordilleras.)
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