LA TRINIDAD, BENGUET–  The Provincial Planning and Development Office of Benguet began a series of autonomy information dissemination fora on September 3 and 4 as part of their annual Barangay Development Congress. Benguet’s own Peter Cosalan and Joel Cervantes discussed the region’s continued pursuit of regional autonomy among barangay officials from the municipalities of Atok, Bakun, Kabayan, Bokod, and Tublay.

The advocates recalled the province’s history of developmental aggression with the establishment of the Ambuklao and Binga Dams in Benguet during the 1950s where communities were displaced without proper compensation. Knowing what happened to these communities stirred resistance against similar projects like the CelloPhil logging project in Abra and the four proposed dams along the Chico River in Mountain Province and Kalinga in the 1970s and 80s. These projects sought to exploit the Cordillera’s natural resources without securing the affected communities’ consent or providing proper compensation. The people at that time recognized the unique situation of the mountainous provinces and the common struggle of its peoples and a call for an autonomous Cordillera region resulted.

Cosalan clarified that the pursuit for an autonomous region was not a movement against development but a way to ensure Cordillerans will be included in national development. Cervantes shared that the current pursuit for regional autonomy aims to correct past injustices such as these. He added that Benguet, in particular, saw much of their mining sites exploited without the province seeing much of the profit. Cervantes added that drafters of the third attempt at a Cordillera Organic Law clamored for safeguards against these. One example is the ability of the Regional Government and its subordinate LGUs to require companies to pay their taxes to their respective LGUs where they operate regardless of their registered headquarters.

Barangay officials expressed their willingness to further spread awareness of the continued pursuit for Cordillera autonomy. “Maybe we could have speakers on autonomy in time for our barangay assemblies in October”, one participant said. Others expressed eagerness to learn more about the proposed draft Cordillera Organic Law which is yet to be filed in the 18th Congress.

A mock plebiscite on Cordillera Autonomy was conducted with 61% of the participants voting in favor of Cordillera autonomy while 8% were against. The officials stated their desire for more information on the current autonomy pursuit with 31% remaining undecided on autonomy for the Cordillera.

This is the first leg of the Benguet Barangay Development Congress. The Benguet Provincial Planning and Development Office and NEDA-CAR have scheduled more information dissemination fora for the rest of the Benguet barangays during the month of September.