“Wake up, everybody!” the old man said through the door of the agamang. “Time to start your day!” The young men slowly got up from their reed mat beds on the floor.
Today began like any other day for Abayaw. He had vegetables and rice porridge for breakfast with his parents, then he made the jeepney trip to Lagawe city, the capital of Ifugao province, where he attended school. His teacher, Ema, who was Bontoc, one of few who spoke both English and Tagalog, apart from her own native dialect, was much respected not only for her language abilities, but also for her wide range of knowledge, which she imparted skilfully.
But this morning was not like any other. Four men arrived, interrupting the class, asking Ema to come with them. They were from the government, they said, and wanted to have a word with the Kalinga Chief. They asked Ema to accompany them to Kalinga-Apayao to translate. Abayaw and several students followed them to see what it was all about.
They spoke in Tagalog, and were dressed typically like men from Manila: short-sleeved cotton shirt, jeans, an over-sized watch, sneakers, and a pompous swagger. They sported the swagger to say: I’m looking for a fight, so don’t mess around with me.
Pangat Makliing was in the square, smoking native tobacco with the elders of his village. The men from Manila approached the Pangat, the Chief of Kalinga-Apayao, a position earned honourably. They didn’t greet him respectfully, these “Do-this-do-that” men, servitors of a Manila chief, a position earned by other means.
“The government,” one of them announced, “is going to build four massive hydroelectric dams on the Chico River. We have been told to order you and your people to leave the area immediately.”
Abayaw noted that Ema translated what he said with a tone of civility. The Pangat was ignorant of the impertinence. “Please explain what the dams are for,” asked one of the elders.
Mister Do-this-do-that did not know what the dams were for, neither did the other three clowns. But one of them took out a large folded heavy sheet of paper from his hip pocket, brandishing it in a manner so as to mask the empty peanut shell underneath the mop on his head. It was a copy of the draft plan for the Chico River dam project.
The four men did not understand the plan. Abayaw, Ema, and the Chief studied the blueprint. Abayaw noticed that the locations for the dams would submerge entire villages along the banks of the river and bury the sacred Kalinga ancestral burial grounds in river mire. Not only that but more important, the damming of the Chico River would effectively kill all the thousands of small hamlets that lay along it from Kalinga-Apayao to Bontoc. The wrinkles on the Chief’s forehead became taut, his eyes squinted in ire.
“We will not leave!” he said.
“Do you have a title to this land? You do not own it!” one clown exclaimed, in a condescending tone. Ema translated with some decorum, but the Pangat discerned the arrogant inflection. He bristled with controlled anger.
“Our mountains are sacred to us, handed down to our care by our ancestors. We have lived here since the beginning of time. It is part of our being. We belong to this land. You ask me for proof of ownership? The land owns us, we do not own it.”
Abayaw wondered if the clowns understood what the Pangat was saying. He wanted to elaborate, and tell them that the farmer belongs to the land, as the fisherman belongs to the sea. Man is at the mercy of Mother Earth. She allows us to survive, but she has a finite limit of resources. Show respect for Mother Earth, and she will do the same for you. She will be here long after you are dead and gone. You cannot own her. She owns you.
“So! Since you don’t own the land, you must leave immediately!” The four men turned around and swaggered off with their piece of paper. Abayaw and Ema watched them as they left, stunned not only by their stupidity, but also by the enormity of their unreasonable demand.
Ema gathered her students together, motioning them to get into the jeepney and return to class. The Pangat and the elders talked together in anxious and hushed tones. Where could over a hundred thousand people depending on this river go?
School was finished for the day, and Abayaw and Dulmog were in the forest on the outskirts of their Ifugao hamlet. They had been fishing and were now lying on a bed of grass before heading home.
“I’ve been to our Kalinga neighbours today and guess what I heard?”
“What did you hear, Mog?”
“Some people from Manila came to speak to the Pangat about building something on the Chico River.”
“They call it a dam. It’s to harness the power of the river to provide electricity for the city.”
Abayaw closed his eyes. He was thinking of other things. He was considering putting up a stall in Lagawe to sell woodcarvings, hand-woven scarves, plants and vegetables. He would ask Nina to mind the store. He was also toying with the idea of clearing an area in the woods of the family property, where adventure-seekers could camp and go exploring the Cordillera Mountains. He would employ members of his hamlet community as guides. He also thought of the family rice terraces. The mud walls that held the shelves of the rice paddies were, at some points, in danger of collapsing. He would have to attend to that fairly soon.
“Yaw? It will take a lot of money to move the river.”
“I’m sure somebody is helping the Manila chief to pay for that,” Abayaw replied. “I read in some newspaper issues that Ema brings to school that Imf and Wub have a lot of money, and they give it out to those who need it.”
“So where’s that money now?” Dulmog asked.
“The chief in Manila is surely keeping it.”
“He must have a very large hipbag.” Dulmog sat up and paused for thought. “But, if Imf and Wub have money to pass around, surely they must be smart enough to know how to distribute it. Their paying for the construction of the Chico River dams will wipe out our neighbours, the Kalingas and the Bontocs. Killing people for certain means does not justify the way.”
“Mog, if you only knew what Imf and Wub were up to.”
Abayaw turned on his stomach to face his friend. “I don’t think you’ll understand this, Mog, but Imf imposes free-market economic policies like privatising state-owned industries, lowering trade barriers, eliminating subsidies, devaluating the country’s currency, and raising interest rates in order, according to Imf, to stimulate the business climate. But that only means raising the cost of living and killing small businesses. That wipes out the struggling poor. Imf even imposes cuts in health, education, and welfare spending. They may appear charitable, giving money here and there, but scratch at the surface and you will find underneath Imf’s bonnet, a wolf that helps other wolves continue to live well. Imf serves only a small number of people–those who are far from needing assistance.
“But there is a way that we must consider in order to prevent this capitalist revolution from happening. The government should set certain economic policies, putting up barriers to free trade. This way, domestic industries are safeguarded and the Filipino citizen can have a share of the national income. When we shall have the wherewithal to participate in the globalisation of the market, then we will. But until that time, our people must come first.”
“I may be ignorant, but I am not a fool,” Dulmog said. “I may not know a lot of things, Yaw, and there is still a lot more I need to learn. But there is one thing for sure. I am not interested in the ways of the cormorants.”
“But Mog, do not remain ignorant. You must be aware of their methods in order to better defend yourself.”
Dark clouds slowly covered the sun. They both instinctively got up and gathered their catch of fish. “Do you have news from Nina?” Dulmog asked Abayaw, as they made their way back to their hamlet.
“Manila is several mountains and so many valleys away, Mog. I’m sure it will take time for her to find Berto and then return here.”
“I hope she’s all right.”
The following months, Abayaw noticed strangers and trucks, loaded with heavy equipment, heading for Kalinga. Chief Makliing repeatedly pleaded with the government men not to do this to his community. From village to village, and hamlet to hamlet, the Pangat told them to stay and protect their heritage. They did not leave.
Instead, in the cover of darkness, the Kalingan women spontaneously made for those areas where the construction materials were placed. They took off a screw here and removed a bolt there. Then they went home to sleep.
Work on the dams could not begin when it was discovered that the equipment had been sabotaged. The construction engineers informed the government clowns, whose chief decided to send in the military.
Ema was in and out of her classroom most of the time, translating for both parties the wishes of the other. It was during one of these exchanges that she overheard that soldiers were sent for from Manila.
The Kalingan women rallied together. Along the main path where the military would have to pass, they formed a column, a human barricade, to stop them. The Kalingan men, armed only with long knives and spears, stood behind the women–and behind their hand-carved wooden shields.
“If you see those natives,” shouted a government clown, “shoot them on sight!”
Marching up the path and rounding the curve, they came face to face with one another. The soldiers dropped themselves on the ground, in position to shoot. It was a very tense moment as both adversaries eyed each other. The Kalingan men made ready their spears and shields.
“What are you waiting for?” the government clown screamed.
“I cannot give the order to shoot,” the military commander said.
In front of them, the defiant Kalingan women stood their ground. With not a quiver in their voice, they sang a song of peace in their dialect. They were dressed in their native costume, long hand-woven skirts around their waists, and nothing else. They wore their beautiful bare breasts like plates of armour against the soldiers’ bullets.
“Retreat! Retreat!” the commander ordered. The government clown was fuming in the dust. “Are you cowards?” he ranted.
“No, we aren’t,” the commander replied wisely. “We are reasonable men. In them we see our mother, sister, daughter, protecting what is rightly theirs. Besides, their spears are no match to our bullets. It will be slaughter.” They turned around and left peacefully.
“I will see to it that you are relieved from your post!” the government clown bawled.
The women were clever. In spite of the presence of guards posted around the construction sites, they went away with not only nuts and bolts, but with other accessories and equipment parts. They brought them to the City Hall in Baguio and pleaded with the government officials there to put a stop to the construction of the dams.
Days and weeks went by, then one late evening, when everybody was supposed to be asleep, a young man was running through the bushes and trees, and down towards his hamlet. His body was covered with small and large gashes from the twigs and branches he ran through. His quick gasps of breath were the only sound around him. That, and the furious pounding of his heart. He crashed in through the agamang doorway and landed with a loud thud on the floor.
The noise startled Abayaw and he woke up to find his friend panting beside him.
Dulmog’s hair appeared to have turned white and his face was ashen. He looked as if he had aged a hundred years.
“Mog! What happened to you? Did her father…”
“Stop joking, Yaw! I’ve just come from Kalinga…”
“What’s all the commotion?” someone asked in the dark.
They both quietly tiptoed out of the agamang, climbing down the steps. “You won’t believe what I’ve just witnessed this evening, Yaw! Give me time to catch my breath and I’ll tell you all about it.”
They headed for the adjacent woods, where Dulmog cupped his hand through a small waterfall by the hillside to drink some water. He splashed some on his face and the colour returned to his cheeks. He slowly lowered himself to the ground and leaned his back on a tree. Abayaw sat down beside him and waited for him to begin.
“Remember those people from Manila who wanted to move the Chico River? I heard they came again today, asking Ema where the Pangat was living. They said they wanted to give him something.
“Tonight, while I was playing the nose flute in the ears of… oh, I forgot her name! Anyway, I was in the woods with her when I saw that man from Manila accompanied by several men dressed in green uniform. They headed for the Pangat’s hut. They knocked and when they heard someone approach the door to open it, there was a loud and continuous ra-ta-tat as they fired through the closed wooden entryway. Then they quickly ran off and disappeared into the woods.”
“That was either a machine gun or a rifle,” Abayaw said.
“The noise woke everybody, including the father of… so she ran back. I decided to stay in case she would return afterwards. Torches were lit as they went out to see what happened. I went down and followed the Kalingas going to the Pangat’s hut. They opened the door that was riddled with holes and there was Pangat Makliing, lying in a pool of blood on the floor, his wife and young children weeping beside him. He was dead.
“We followed the elders to Bontoc where they summoned Ema. She related what had transpired that day. She was blamed for the Pangat’s death by pinpointing his residence to the enemy. Since the Kalingas and the Bontocs are united together in a peace pact, the Bontoc elders arrived at a decision in order to keep this agreement intact. Both the Kalinga and Bontoc elders then declared that anyone talking to an outsider would share the same fate as Ema.
“Ema tried hard to defend herself, but it was no use. The mombaki was sent for to perform the ceremony. He could not remember all the words of the poem for that particular ritual since it is almost never chanted now. The judgment and sentence were swift. You see, Yaw,” Dulmog’s voice had become hoarse, “they beheaded Ema….”
Abayaw and Dulmog sat in silence for a long time, until dawn came to rouse them from their numbed state. Then they slowly stood up and made their way back for their hamlet.
It was raining the following day. A slow, incessant, and monotonous drizzle that blanketed the mountains and the natives that dwelled in its bowels. The huts and the banana trees cast soft shadows on the muddy terrain. The young palay stalks bowed their heads in silent mourning, with tears of rain streaming down from their cheeks. The people, as morose as the weather, waited patiently for the dark clouds to pass.
The Cordilleras stood proudly and majestically over these mountain dwellers under her nurture and protection. She had stood guard for centuries and centuries, over passing generations. In return, they tended to her needs, planting rice in the hems and folds of her magnificent skirt, keeping her beauty forever.