Revitalizing Indigenous Social Systems

by Noel Villalba
Documentation for Action Groups in Asia (DAGA)


A Social System in the Service of Indigenous People

Let me begin by telling a story. This story is about the Cordillera peoples of the Philippines - the Igorots. I myself am not indigenous to the Cordilleras, but I grew up there and spent my childhood and my primary and secondary schooling there. After college, I went back to the Cordilleras to be a part of the movement against the Chico River hydroelectric dam project in the late 1970s. The government abandoned the project in the early 1980s because of the Igorots’ fierce resistance.

The Kalingas and Bontocs of the Chico Valley in the Cordilleras were fiercely independent. When the Spanish colonialists came in the 16th century, they defended their mountainous territory and refused to be converted to Christianity and to become subjects of the king of Spain.

When the Americans came at the beginning of this century, the Igorots fought again. Unable to conquer them by means of modern weaponry, the Americans resorted to education and religion to conquer the indigenous people of the Cordilleras. In this respect, the Americans were more successful than the Spanish.

Unlike lowland Filipinos, however, the educated and Christianized Igorots of the Cordilleras retained much of their identity. This sense of identity was nurtured by a strong sense of history, by respect for the ways of the village, by the use of language, by the observance of cultural traditions - feasts, dances, songs -and by a sense of belonging to the mountain region.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were once again strong negative feelings in the region generated by the government’s neglect of the area and from social discrimination practiced by lowland Filipinos in general. This sense of identity served them well when they fought against the Chico dams in the 1970s.

The Cordillera peoples used traditional customs and methods as well as modern methods to resist recolonization. One such traditional institution is the bodong system, or peace pact system. This was a system in which one respected person in one village made a pact with another respected person in another village to observe a list of agreements on behalf of the village as a whole. These agreements could include the recognition of boundaries, protection of the right to travel in each other’s territories, the right to marry, the right to use common lands and waters, common defense, etc. For example, the peace pact holder of village "A" was responsible for protecting the rights of the people in village "B" when the latter were in the territory of village "A" and vice versa. The bodong was renewed periodically by common feasts.

In the Chico Valley, the bodong was used to define the common alliance of about 16 villages opposed to the building of four hydroelectric dams. I submit that in this instance the indigenous people’s defense of their ancestral lands was immeasurably served by the healthy and functioning bodong system as well as other social systems. Without this system, it would have Ben Cabrera/Cordillera Women’s Education and Resource Center been inconceivable for the people in 16 villages to come together in a common alliance. Without that alliance, it is probable that these villages would be under water today.

What Do We Revitalize?

When we talk of social systems, we may mean many things: we may mean a worldview, or the method by which people understand the world and its movement; we may mean a system of production or economic system; we may mean a system of social order or political system; we may mean an education system, or the system by which the people in community are able to acquire and pass on knowledge; we may mean cultural systems; we may mean jurisprudence, language, religion, etc.

These are all systems of society, or "social systems," and I would dare to say that all of these systems are integrated and support one another. If we demand, for example, our rights to our ancestral lands, we do so in order to preserve not only our economic system, which is based on agriculture, but our political and cultural systems as well because the latter proceed from and are dependent on the former.

Moreover, we must have a critical view of our own traditions. The world changes. This is an absolute rule. To keep old traditions, regardless of the general march of world civilization, is the best way to make our cultures extinct.

I would further argue that our primary concern should be the preservation or revitalization of indigenous economic systems, for what use is there in preserving, for example, our harvest rituals when we no longer have harvests or when we no longer have farmlands? What use is wearing a bright costume when we no longer wear it during our dances, which we used to do with a lot of pride? What use is dancing when it gives no satisfaction to us because we dance now mostly for tourists? What use is there in speaking our language today when it no longer symbolizes but a period in ancient history? What use is there in reciting our traditional laws when they no longer have jurisdiction in our lives?

Indeed, to protect the rights of indigenous people, we need to revitalize all of these integrated social systems, especially our economic systems. Indigenous social systems cannot be maintained artificially or in isolation from each other. They are not frozen artifacts. They are a vibrant and dynamic reality which must respond to new challenges, or they become extinct and worthless.

How Do We Revitalize?

It may be that we cannot revitalize indigenous social systems if our economic system is unsustainable.

In the Cordilleras, life was very difficult. Although rice fields were still remarkably fertile (after perhaps several hundred years of continual use) without the use of chemical fertilizers, the ecological limits had been reached about 20 years ago. New rice fields could only be started at the risk of ecological imbalances. And the people knew it.

This unsustainable agriculture resulted in a massive, seasonal migration of youth, a reflection of the dysfunction in the economic system. This has had repercussions on cultural and political authority systems as well as on value systems, on language, on religion, etc. Many young Igorots no longer aspire to be farmers. Many no longer believe in the Igorot mythologies. Many no longer see themselves as living in the villages. A great many of them now live in the cities working as industrial workers or as professionals. As members of the urban population, they are, of course, now indistinguishable froni the rest of lowland Filipinos. They are disappearing through cultural assimilation.

When village farming is no longer viable, then even the authority systems - the respect for the ways of the village, the respect for the wisdom of elders, for example - are no longer observed by many youth. This ultimately brings into question the survival, even of indigenous farming communities, beyond this generation. We must, therefore, revitalize social systems in an integrated way.

Some Guideposts for Action

As the world economy further globalizes through the operations of transnational corporations (TNCs), multilateral development banks (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund [IMF], Asian Development Bank [ADB]) and the opening of markets, indigenous people are called upon to struggle on many fronts.

First, on the political level, many indigenous peoples and communities cannot preserve themselves simply because their rights are not recognized. They are not considered indigenous people. They are not seen as a distinct people or as having the right to be a distinct people. In many instances, the political struggle is paramount and all encompassing. Intrinsic to this struggle is the right to self-determination, to be a distinct people, to be a nation, to be ruled democratically by a Government chosen by the people themselves.

The political space is of paramount importance because without control of it how can indigenous people protect themselves from a multitude of homogenizing forces?

Second, on the economic level. indigenous people can no longer survive on the margins of the global economy. Most indigenous peoples’ economies are subsistence economies, not so much because indigenous peoples do not know how to raise production, but because of the ecological constraints which they understand and respect. In contrast, many entrepreneurs can - and often do - boast that they can make the areas of indigenous peoples more productive by utilizing massive amounts of capital and technology, by using chemicals, by aggressive development schemes, by mining and logging.

Indigenous people can only accept these development schemes at the cost of their livelihoods and at the cost of the environment. They must, therefore, struggle to keep ancestral lands under their control as well as participate in a broader struggle for a new,just, equitable and sustainable global economy.

Third, on the cultural level, I think that the greatest spiritual resource of the world today, and by that I mean the human value that understands and gives respect to the balance and harmony of Nature and humanity, are to be found among indigenous people. It is well-known today that capitalist values, like profit making and the exploitation of natural and human resources, are bringing into question the ability of the planet to survive within the next 100 years because either the ecosystem collapses, and there are indications that this is already happening, or the social contradictions - the gap between North and South - will erupt into a massive conflict.

It is absolutely impossible for the North as well as for people who benefit from capitalism to see the need to distribute social wealth and to reduce consumption, which is the only way to arrest the planet’s march to destruction.

About 10 years ago, I visited East Germany. Talking to East German workers, I was surprised to discover their deep feelings of discontent. The workers had everything for which Third World peoples could aspire: work, an apartment, a car, food, free education and medical care, solidarity with the oppressed of the world.

I asked, How can you be discontented? He switched on his TV set and turned the channel to a show from West Germany. The program was not interesting, but the advertisements displayed all of the variety of goods that capitalism (and the exploitation of Third World labor) can produce. The East German worker wanted those products too.

I said that to get those things you will have to be like West Germany - exploiting cheap Asian labor, poisoning farmlands with chemical pesticides, etc. "Do you want to be the enemy of the Third World?" I asked.

What that experience told me is that there can be a cultural vacuum even in so-called socialist states and that the dysfunctional cultural system can eventually destroy the whole State.

In regard to sustainable cultures, it is the indigenous people who understand that Nature cannot be exploited indefinitely. This is a great asset for the building of sustainable economies. Along with the other oppressed and deprived sectors of the world, indigenous people can be an authentic voice for a new, just and integral and sustainable community.

Alliance Building for a Sustainable Democracy

Because of the efforts of TNCs and multilateral power centers, all local issues have now been elevated to the global level. The need for all people who struggle is to now build alliances.

For example, with the end of the Uruguay Round of talks of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), theoretically a new era of open markets has emerged. What a farmer produces in a remote area in Korea is now determined, not by the farmer, but by the market. If the United States has excess grain, it will now find its way to the Korean market, or else Korean cars will not have a place in American showrooms.

When the World Bank decided to support the building of the Bakun Dam in Sarawak, the people of the Narmada Valley in India became the natural allies of the Dayaks in Malaysia. The world only has a few enemies, but they are big and powerful.

It is essential that the millions upon millions of people around the world now come together to struggle in unity against the few enemies. We can win if we each break away from our own isolation and if struggling peoples become a powerful stream. If we struggle in isolation, the concentrated forces of the enemy will overwhelm us. If we struggle together, the forces of the enemy will have to disperse, and it will be easier to defeat them piece by piece. If we are not allied with each other, it will be impossible to win, or it will be impossible to sustain a victory. Democracy for isolated indigenous peoples can only be sustained in a new broad and democratic community of nations.

(The following article was presented at the National ConsuItation of Indigenous People in Nepal, March 1994, Kathmandu, Nepal.)