On-the-spot Feature Writing (English)
75th National Student Press Convention (NSPC)
Benguet State University, La Trinidad, Benguet
Like water and oil, cultural preservation and economic growth have become two seemingly irreconcilable things. It is as if we either have cultural preservation or have economic growth. Imagine choosing between drinkable water and breathable air. The struggle of choosing between the two is, perhaps, akin to the struggle most Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in Itogon, Benguet experience.
Given different changes and advancements, the IPs are the most affected individuals, for they are the direct receiver of the effects this changes have to give. What are the issues IPs in Itogon are facing? Are they going to submit themselves to these threats in order to ‘adapt to changes?’ Or should they continue fighting for the preservation of their practices and traditions?
One of the prominent issues most IPs in Itogon, Benguet are experiencing is the presence of mining operations in the area, considering the abundance of minerals in the place.
According to Rina Lipongon, open pit mining operations in Itogon started since the 1990s, carried out specifically by Benguet Mining Corporation. She mentioned that mining corporations promised to construct clinics, schools, and roads, and that the operations will cause no harm to the community or to the environment, convincing the natives and community members to allow them to exploit their lands. However, these promises were not granted. As an effect, their lands, principally their ancestral domains, were unjustifiably stolen from them.
“Gusto nilang paalisin ang mga taga-community para i-operate ang small scale mining,” says Rina.
She also added that the operations resulted to environmental hazards such as water pollution caused by the chemicals used during mining operations.
She mentioned that farming, the basic livelihood of the natives and the community members, is also affected, for most of the lands are consumed by the mining operations. Because land ownership is concentrated only to some, specifically foreign and elite landlords, there is an obvious unfair distribution of land, depriving the farmers of the ownership of the lands they themselves till.
A Threat to Cultural Preservation
Apart from the degradation of environmental resources and the loss of livelihood, there is another factor that is very much affected by the existence of these mining operations: culture.
Itogon is known for its richness when it comes to culture. According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Ibaloys, a large ethnic group in Benguet province, has a population of approximately 12, 353 in Itogon alone. This is a manifestation of how prominent natives are in the said area. Their presence is tied to different traditions and practices. Most especially, they have their ancestral domains—the land they themselves own and have been trying to protect.
With the entry of different mining corporations, however, cultural preservation and their ownership to their ancestral domains are affected. Rina mentioned that the entry large mining companies have ultimately brought changes to the community, especially to the natives. Unfortunately, these changes are not helpful.
“Noon, yung mga Ibaloi, walang mga territory. Kung gusto mong magtanim, magtanim ka lang. Ipaalam mo lang sa may-ari. Kung pastureland, dyan ang mga animals. Merong sharing system,” says Rina.
This practice, however, has changed because mining companies have dominated the area. Apart from the diminishing of the sharing system Ibaloys once employed, there other practices that have disappeared since the occupation of the mining corporations to the land—practices and traditions that are vital to the protection of cultural identity.
Cultural Preservation vs. Economic Growth?
It is undeniable that culture itself evolves and these evolutions are significantly influenced by modernization and advancements. These changes have become very significant that they already border to the diminishing of culture. However, they cannot also be deprived of services and improvements just because their cultures should remain “untouched.” The truth is that economic growth and historical preservation are not entirely two irreconcilable concepts. In fact, the friction between economic development and preservation of cultural values can be prevented.
The problem lies on the technology being introduced to Ibalois, principally the mining operations. Do they really contribute to economic growth? Are they really for the people? Who would benefit from the said operations? Who is put into danger?
Despite the claims of the Aquino administration that we are economically growing and developing, it can be made certain that the IPs in Itogon experience no economic growth. As long as there are still significant numbers of farmers and community members who suffer from having an income that is insufficient for them to feed their families, like what Rina said, as long as prices are still rising, there can be no genuine claim that our country is economically developing.
The reason why IPs experience less economic growth, if not none, is that the services presented to them do not serve their interests, as what was said by Rina. It is, ironically, catering the interests of the foreigners who want to exploit their area.
Rina mentioned that most of the mining corporations are owned by foreigners, prominently by the United States, and the resources taken from the mining operations are brought to their respective countries. This can be perceived as another result of the intervention of the imperialist powers and the country’s continuing connivance with the imperialist U.S. The reason why the Aquino administration is still allowing the entry of foreign mining companies is still the ultimate question until now. Are the harms these mining operations have brought not obvious enough?
This means that the sufferings faced by the IPs in Itogon are not the result of economic growth but the result of seemingly endless imperialism. Is there really a need to jeopardize culture to attain economic development?
Economic growth can be experienced by actually looking into what Ibaloys need rather than deploying technologies that only harm the IPs. Instead of focusing on gaining profit and letting foreigners slowly consume Itogon’s own resources, the government could perhaps cater to the woes of the IPs. The problem about farmers being deprived of land ownership, for instance, should be resolved. To preserve culture and, at the same time, to develop economically necessitates the provision of services that caters to the majority of Itogon: the IPs.
To safeguard culture and identity does not mean to absolutely abandon economic development and utilization of available technologies. However, protection of cultural identity without going away from the atmosphere of development can still be attained if we devised ways that are culture sensitive and, at the same time, beneficial to the natives. This way, cultural preservation and economic growth could finally reconcile.