The Women of Western Uma: Reflections on a Journey through Militarised Zones and Indigenous Resistance in the Philippines. 

Published: Gal-dem Magazine, Issue 02: Home, London 2017.

The jeep is late leaving Tabuk, Kalinga's provincial capital. I'm headed to Ag-agama in Western Uma, a small mountainous village occupied by the 50th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. Crammed next to cargo and farming supplies, seasoned passengers push past inside the vehicle. One woman breastfeeds her child while eating a green mango and children happily sit and play on strangers’ laps. They converse in the mountain dialect of Uma and I'm unable to understand a word of it. Only their body language gives off signs of a familial camaraderie.

Ag-agama was named after the small crabs which people used to find in abundance in the nearby rivers. Nestled amongst giant waterfalls and terraced rice fields, the traditional, rural farming community is heavily reliant on cash crops and rice harvests that occur twice a year. Like many indigenous tribes, their livelihoods are crucially supported by the control of their land and access to natural resources from the surrounding forests and mountains. It is no coincidence that the occupation of communities by the military has occurred alongside the influx of mining and development projects in the region.

In 2012 female elders from the communities of Western Uma staged a road blockade against the US based energy giant Chevron. The corporation was conducting further research into the application of a geothermal plant in the nearby mountains, but the project was met with fierce resistance. Pleas from the community for Chevron to remove their equipment and cease testing in the area had been largely ignored during the years of negotiations. Stories of the blockade recounted women at the forefront of the action. A log had been used to create a barricade, while men supported from on top a hill. Witnesses tell of a loud “roar” of female voices as children stood next mothers and grandmothers – angrily demanding for the Chevron engineers and local politicians to leave. The successful blockade was the first of many attempts to defend their families’ ancestral lands from environmental destruction. Negotiations and protests against the project are still on going. Chevron and the national government clearly wish to move forward, yet Ag-agama remains staunch in its opposition. 

Inside the jeep, I am introduced to Betty and her grandson. Alma my contact, describes her as a formidable force in the negotiations between the community and the army. She has been leading the resistance against the military encampment in Ag-agama since it began in October 2015.

Betty lives with her family outside the village. Her small wooden house sits hidden in the forest on the opposite mountain. Surrounded by cacao trees and mangoes, she has a clear view of the village from her front door. The community are unsure of what to make of her – she's seen as a troublemaker, and many are afraid of the consequences of her campaigning. Others admire her strength and tenacity in organising with local women's groups like Innabuyog, an organisation set up to build on the political power of local indigenous women. The feudal-patriarchal culture that exists among the tribes in Kalinga is a continued challenge for the indigenous women of Western Uma. It is imperative for Betty that the women of the community are involved in the decision-making process and are recognised as significant contributors to community development.

She admits that she has felt the implications of her actions, and she tells me of feeling more and more unsafe in her home. Soldiers roam nearby in full battle gear in the early hours of the morning, and as a widowed grandmother, with a young grandson, the ancestral land she grew up on no longer protects her. Villagers tell of soldiers pointing their guns at school children and women who have experienced cat calling, groping and sexual advances. While the Cordillera mountain range remains the site of an on-going civil war between The New People's Army (NPA), an armed communist rebel faction and the Philippine government, indigenous communities find themselves violently caught between the warring groups.

In recent years, so-called ‘peace and development’ teams were deployed into rural areas to maintain a ceasefire as part of a counter-insurgency plan patterned on post 9/11 CIA tactics. Tied up in a dirty scheme to displace and co-opt indigenous land, the fear mongering and actions of the current occupation, clearly negates any ceasefire or ‘peace and development’ held in the area. To make matters more complex, the army created a civilian unit named CAFGU, recruiting members from different tribes to serve in Ag-agama. Tribal laws and a peace pact, known as ‘Bodong’, prevents tribe members from harming a member of another tribe. If a conflict arises between the CAFGU and a tribal member, and a person is harmed or killed, tribal war will ensue.  

Claustrophobia begins to set in when it becomes apparent that the jeep needs to stop every time it is flagged down or pieces of cargo fall from the roof. I hug my knees tightly against my body as a futile attempt at creating more breathing space. Eventually, I climb to the roof and sit amongst the larger cargo and dry goods tied down with rope. Chickens in woven baskets hang expertly from the roof and the steady climb into the mountains brings fresher air and rockier roads.  

Looking down on the Chico River, I recall a story told to me at the start of my journey in Kalinga. Initiated by then-President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970's and funded by The World Bank, the Chico River was the site of a major indigenous resistance against the build of what would have been Asia's biggest dam. The bloody conflict was a profound win against the Marcos regime's proposal. The dam would have flooded villages and destroyed the livelihoods of many indigenous communities. At the height of the resistance, in 1977, a group of women intent on barricading a road from soldiers and government personnel, were confronted by a Major from the army. Angered by their actions, he tried to attack the group, but as a defence the elder women took their clothes off and exposed their breasts. Using their collective naked bodies, the elders prevented the attack and simultaneously shamed the men for their systemic use of violence against the environment and generations of women. 

I meet a passenger with a puppy – he tells me his name is Duterte (like the President). 

The journey is slow and uncomfortable. Sitting on top, I hug my backpack tightly and strap my camera to my forearm, avoiding low hanging tree branches. Undeveloped road passages are deftly navigated to avoid the places where landslides have ripped off parts of the mountain. Passengers soon begin to disembark and the slow process of detaching their goods and reassembling the rooftop begins. 

It is now obvious how remote these villages are. In my naivety at having grown up in a city near Manila – a place where congested traffic and sub-divisions are connected through a tangled mess of electric cables, I am surprised to learn one of the facilitators comes from a tribe where it is a similar 5 hour jeep ride on top off a 6 hour hike through the mountains. She provides a disclaimer for anyone not used to trekking in the mountains, telling me the hike would probably take me a full day.

At least here, there is a road. The jeep arrives twice a day, bringing ordered supplies and postage.

Friends and relatives have been waiting eagerly for their loved ones to arrive and I stick out like a sore thumb. Men on the side of the road wearing the distinct green of the Philippine Army Reserve, stare at me from below. They ask: “Who's the foreigner? Where are you from?” A passenger next to me translates “They ask if you are a foreigner?” “No, I'm a Filipina” I reply foolishly in English. Curious, they walk around the jeep and spot Alma and I am naturally tagged as a member of an NGO. 

Climbing into the mountains, a waterfall which feeds the rice paddy fields and powers the community-owned micro hydro rages with the sound of white water. Flowing rapidly through hand built aqueducts and into the village, it sustainably powers enough electricity for the whole community.  

Along the way, Alma shouts “Good afternoon!” to the children playing in the stream across from us and the men who stare in disbelief. She quietly confirms “Army”. We reach the top of the stone steps where the elementary school lies and I'm exhausted. I'm an over-packer, I confess to Alma, and we stop to rest at a small pavilion by the village square. “Not far to go” she says. A man appears before us, the same one we passed below. He tries to make small talk. We ignore him and simply carry on to our host house. They wear plain clothes but it's obvious who they are. 

The community have no knowledge of the exact number of troops stationed in Ag-agama or in the nearby mountains. The constant change and shift of soldiers mean there is a lack of identity and personal culpability, leaving the community vulnerable to accusations and possible killings. There are rumours and threats of being put on the government's “blacklist” – a supposed list that allows for the army to detain, imprison and even kill those who are on it. Having occupied the one and only community hall in the village, they have strategically prevented people from organising publicly and openly. Instead they are forced to meet privately in each others homes – once again fuelling the military rumour mill of links to the NPA. 

This is a community that is struggling to retain its unity. The occupation has led to the collective tension and distress at being moments away from descending into tribal dysfunction and war. It is a community made up of farmers, unused to armed resistance, and who have lived in the mountains of Western Uma in relative peace. I came to Ag-agama, ready to listen to the stories of a hidden place, in which resistance is found coursing through the bodies of those perpetually silenced. I arrived on top of a jeep, one more passenger in a daily routine. I walked the narrow stone steps next to budding rice fields, planting alongside the songs of elder women. I sat by open fires inside wooden homes and I drank countless cups of local coffee. I encountered unspeakable generosity from the mothers, grandmothers and daughters relentlessly fighting for the self-determination and survival of their people. 

Yet, the men who occupied were never too far away. 

“It gives a deep sense of injustice when we who have lived a life in harmony with nature, regard land as our life, avoided the monopolization of the good and promoted a culture of sharing and reciprocity are now made to bear the burden of economic crisis and injustice brought about by the unparalleled greed of the world’s economic powers who want to monopolize the world’s wealth and resources.” 

Chaneg, Indigenous Women and Self-Determined Development, October 2012

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