Cordillera Central (Luzon)

Cordillera Central (Luzon)
The Cordillera Administrative Region consists much of the Cordillera Central.
Cordillera Central, unknown location, unknown date.
Pasaleng Bay, Ilocos Norte province, northern terminus of the Gran Cordillera Central mountain range of Luzon, the Philippines, 2009
Patapat Viaduct, Ilocos Norte province, forced over the sea by the northern extremity of the Gran Cordillera Central of Luzon, the Philippines, 2009
Detail of sea erosion under Patapat Viaduct, Ilocos Norte province, forced over the sea by the northern extremity of the Gran Cordillera Central of Luzon, the Philippines, 2009

The Cordillera Central is a massive mountain range situated in the northern central part of the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. Several provinces bound it, namely Benguet, Abra, Kalinga, Apayao, Mountain Province, Ifugao, and Baguio, a chartered city located entirely within Benguet. In the north, it terminates at Pasaleng Bay, Ilocos Norte, where the coastal bridge Patapat Viaduct winds through. It links with the Sierra Madre through the Caraballo mountains in Nueva Vizcaya province. During Spanish times, the whole range was called Nueva Provincia, (New Province).[1]

Its inhabitants are a loosely-connected federation of tribes belonging to the mountains. Most tertiary educated Cordillerans speak English, since it is the usual medium of instruction at the college level in the Philippines. English is also taught in high school, as well as Filipino (Tagalog). Neither of these languages are commonly spoken at home or at work.



The Gran Cordillera is the highest and largest mountain range in the Philippines. It comprises about 1/6 of the whole Luzon island with a total area of 18,300 km². The Philippines, as an archipelago of 7,100 islands, is situated between the South-China Sea to the West and the Pacific Ocean (Philippine Sea) in the East. Its main islands are Luzon (on which the capital Manila is situated), Mindanao and Visayas. Total surface is 301,000 km².



The population of the Cordillera is about 1.1 million, about 2% of the Philippine population.

It is the ancestral domain of the Cordillerans ('people from the mountains'). It is divided into six provinces and seven ethno-linguistic groups: Abra (Tinggian), Apayao (Isneg), Benguet (Kankanaey and Ibaloi), Ifugao (Ifugao), Kalinga (Kalinga, Isneg), Mountain Province (Kankanaey).[2]

An alternative listing for the Northern Philippine tribes is: Apayao/Isnag, Abra/Tinguian, Kalinga, Gaddang, Applai, Mountain Province/Bontoc, Bontok, Bago, I-lagod, Kankana-ey, Kankanai, Balangao, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Ikalahan, Kalanguya, Karao, and Ilongot.

During the American regime, the disparate people of the Cordilleras were not well understood and were all lumped together under the name 'Igorot'. In some circles, especially political ones, this term acquired a pejorative characteristic. In current usage, Northern Cordillerans use it disparagingly, when speaking of people from eastern Mountain Province.

Culture and Language

Each of the seven major ethno-linguistic groups has its own family of languages and cultures. Beside their own tribal cultures, there is a Cordilleran culture which is largely moulded by the geography of the Cordilleras, and their common heritage of resisting the invading imperial powers (Spain, USA, Japan, and Manila), including the continuing adverse encroachments by lowlanders.[2]

Notwithstanding their resistance to invasion from the lowlands, the economic language used throughout the Cordilleras is Ilocano, adopted from the lowlander traders of Ilocos.

Cordillerans are a group of indigenous people, recognised as such by Republic law, with their own sets of customary laws. Customary law takes precedence over Republic law. Tribal criminal law takes precedence over the Criminal Code of the Philippines. Murder and manslaughter, for instance is more usually dealt with under tribal law which might include blood debt, only satisfied by the death of the perpetrator. Tribal land law applies in preference to lowland registration law. Spanish deeds were never issued for the land in the Cordilleras since the Spanish were continuously repelled for the whole of Spanish colonial period.

Cordillerans view land as the source of life, an integral part of their cultural identity, that traces its origins from the land. Land is considered sacred and tribal land can neither be owned nor sold, but it nurtured to produce life for the communal benefit. For Cordillerans, the loss of their land, or their alienation from it, can be equivalent to taking their lives. It is because of this belief that Cordillerans now and in the past have willingly shed blood to defend their domain from colonisers, and have fought for the right to remain on their land.


The Cordillera Autonomous Region is one of the country's richest regions in terms of natural resources. It is a major resource base of the Philippines. It contains 11% of the total area is agricultural rice fields, orchards, pig farms and pasture lands. 60% of the country’s temperate vegetables are produced in the area. It is the country's premier mining district. there are eight big mining companies operating which are mostly foreign controlled. Some 80% of the total Philippine gold production comes from the Cordillera.

Another important aspect with respect to potential resources is that the Cordillera is home to the headwaters of the major rivers in Northern Luzon. If these rivers were to be damned it could provide at least five million kilowatts of the total electrical needs (some 56%) of the entire country, but would displace entire populations, drowning their houses and rice terraces, covering existing roads, and ending complete cultures.

Chico River at Bontoc, capital of Mountain Province, the Philippines


The mountains support a number of different types of habitat. Elevations above 1000m are covered in Luzon tropical pine forests of Benguet pine (Pinus insularis) except in the north of the range where the high slopes consist of Luzon montane rain forests.

Two major problems threaten the environment of the Cordillera: dam projects flood river valleys and remove habitat and also cause people to flee their houses and seek refuge in other areas; mining project destroy forest areas and also don't create wealth and resources for the upkeep of the tribal lands.


The Philippines, named after King Philip II of Spain in 1618, was already of interest to Spain before the Spaniards even reached the land. In 1565, reports of huge gold mines in the Cordillera reached the Viceroy of Mexico, which led to the first official Spanish expedition to the Cordillera in 1576. King Philip III, waging the Thirty Year War which needed funding, sent orders for large expeditions to the Philippines.

Djum-ag fumarole field # 2 of Binubulauan volcano in Kalinga province, Philippines, 2008
Batong Buhay jeepney, Pasil River valley, near start of its once a day five hour journey to Tabuk, capital of Kalinga province, Philippines, 2008
Sleeping Beauty mountain viewed from Poblacion Tinglayan, in the Chico River valley, Kalinga Province, Philippines, 2008

In 1620, Captain Garcia de Aldana Cabrera offered the resisting Igorot tribal leaders clemency if they were willing to accept Catholic religion, obey the Spanish government and pay a fifth of all their mined gold to the Spanish King. They refused and the Spanish conquerors built forts and organized military troops to start the exploitation of the gold mines.

During the years that followed, the Spanish managed to trade gold despite setbacks from the Igorots, who because of their resistance remained relatively independent from Spanish rule. The price that the Igorots had to pay for this independence was that they became different from their colonised brothers. The Philippines staged Asia’s first nationalistic revolution in 1896, and declared its independence on June 12, 1898.

The newly founded country was soon taken over by the United States of America. The US was the first foreign nation to fully invade the highlands of the Gran Cordillera to push the mining operations in the territory.

Actually, the United States of America was ceded The Philippines at the Treaty of Paris (1898), which officially ended the hostilities of the Spanish-American War. Immediately after this war, the Philippine-American War pitted the gallant Philippine peoples against yet another foreign occupier, and actual hostilities did not end until 1913. The result of these conflicts led to the USA declaring The Philippines a protectorate, which is a reserved status for something less than full statehood, yet more than just an ally. The USA established strategic military bases in The Philippines, with the consent of the established government in Manila. During World War II, the Japanese temporarily overtook the American presence, causing Philippine people to fight alongside by joint the US and Philippine Commonwealth Military in order to extricate the Japanese by 1945.

On September 27, 1927, the Benquet Consolidated Mining Company discovered one of the richest veins of gold ever, at a time when the USA was entering the Great Depression. This was the start of a real gold rush into Cordillera region: in 1929, there were 94 mining companies, by 1933 there were 17,812.

This extreme growth had tremendous results for the landscape; it changed the original one way Mountain Trail into a busy highway despite the road slides and cuts that occur up to this day. Again, similar to the fight against the Spanish, the indigenous inhabitants protested against the destruction of their land and the neglecting of their rights. Mining operations continued to grow and by 1939 the Philippines ranked among the world’s leading gold producers, and second to the state of California among US producers.

From 1936 to 1946 the Philippines was granted domestic self administration under the Commonwealth of the Philippines as a transitional period to complete independence. From 1941 to 1945 the country fell under Japanese rule, and was liberated by military forces of the United States of America, and dare inside by the combined forces of the Allied Philippine Commonwealth military forces and local Igorot and Cordilleran guerrilla forces in Northern Luzon. The USA subsequently recognized Philippine independence on July 4, 1946.

The independent republic’s policy shifted towards the integration of the ‘cultural minorities’ into mainstream culture. In 1966 the Philippine Congress passed the ‘Separation Bill’, dividing the old Mountain Province into four new ones: Benguet, Mountain Province (Bontoc), Ifugao and Kalinga-Apayao. The political elite hoped that the creation of several provinces would, by increasing the region’s representation, increase development spending in the area.

Under the Marcos’ administration, politicization of the Cordillera took a new turn. National government development projects in the area were against the interests of the indigenous peoples, and were strongly resisted by them. Particularly important were the Chico River Dam project and the Cellophil project. The first threatened to inundate traditional villages, the second gave outsiders control over vast forest lands. Resistance resulted in increased regional consciousness rather than local ethnic consciousness.

Episcopal Church of the Philippines cathedral in Bulanao, Tabuk, capital of Kalinga province, Philippines, 2008

This period is known for its arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture. With the killing of Benigno Aquino in 1983, the human rights situation further deteriorated.

In 1986, because of financial fraud, Marcos had to step back from office and was succeeded by Corazon Aquino. Under her leadership the human rights situation started to improve; political prisoners were released, repressive laws were repealed and all relevant UN Conventions were ratified.

However, the Aquino administration failed to tackle substantial issues such as land reform and the restructuring of the economy. After the collapse of the negotiations between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF), Aquino declared the “Total War Policy”, aimed at recovering New People’s Army (NPA) controlled areas and to destroy the NPA’s organizational and infrastructure base. The NPA had moved into the Cordillera to assist in the resistance against the projects.

Current events

Kalinga student in traditional garb with hand-crafted weapon first produced in Kalinga during World War 2

In September 2000, the municipal council of Itogon, Benguet withdrew its endorsement of the San Roque Dam project. The project had met a lot of resistance, because of the reported failure of its proponents to update its Environmental Certificate of Compliance (ECC) and to submit a watershed management plan required for a project of that magnitude. The San Roque Dam was to become one of the biggest dams in the world and would threaten the living environment of the Igorot.

The CPA, in co-operation with other organizations, had highly resisted this project and thus booked a little victory. However, in May 2001, president Arroyo declared that the San Roque Dam project would continue anyway because it had already started and therefore was difficult to stop. At the same time she promised to not sacrifice the environment, to resettle the people who will lose their houses, to compensate other people, and to initiate no other large scale irrigation projects in the future. Time will prove whether she will keep that promise.

In December 2000, the Supreme Court of the Philippines dismissed a petition that questioned the constitutional legality of the IPRA. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act came into existence in 1997 and gave the peoples of the Cordillera decisive influence over the establishment of foreign mining companies. In this act, ownership over the lands was regarded as communal, rather than individual and thus coincided more with the view on ownership of the Igorot. The IPRA was totally different in tone than the 1995 Mining Code.

Without consulting the Cordillera people, this code gave companies the freedom to devastate tribal lands, allowed 100% foreign ownership, and gave companies the right to displace and resettle people within their concessionary areas. Some influential people filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against the IPRA, because it contradicted with the Mining Code and would therefore be unlawful. The fact that the Supreme Court had to dismiss the petition, because the vote had been 7-7, could be understood as another victory of the CPA.

In February 2001, president Arroyo spoke with officials from the Cordillera Administrative Region, and promised to start rebuilding the infrastructure and offered the Cordillera people financial assistance for development projects. Some people were surprised when they found out that Arroyo spoke fluently Ilocano (the common language of the Igorot).

Typical sleeping arrangements, Tabuk, Kalinga province, Philippines, 2008

The Cordillera Peoples' Alliance

The Cordillera peoples are a founding Member of UNPO, represented through the Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (CPA), which is a federation of organizations of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Founded in 1984 by seven Igorot peoples’ organizations, it grew to over sixty members in its first year. Today the CPA has more than 120 member organizations. The areas on which it is active vary from land issues to political items. Its major aim is to unite the Igorot people to fight a common cause. The CPA is committed to advance the collective interests and welfare of the indigenous people of the mountain provinces.




Coordinates: 17°20′N 120°57′E / 17.333°N 120.95°E / 17.333; 120.95

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