By Vernie Yocogan-Diano
Maria Galong, Leticia Bulaat, Endena Cogasi and Petra “Tannaw” Macliing: four women who are exceptional leaders and keepers of culture of the Cordillera. They are among the respected women who became community leaders despite the male-dominated culture of the Cordillera.
The four women were recognized in October 2012 as among the 100 women honored on the occasion of the 100 years of the International Women’s Day by the Asia Rural Women Coalition. The international award was given to a woman who displayed creativity in rural life, courage, empowerment, resistance in the face of crisis and disasters, and who have tirelessly worked to improve the quality of life in the rural communities. The four women were also named IP (Indigenous People) Women of the Year by the Baguio Midland Courier, a community newspaper.
Endena and Petra have died a few years ago but they are still remembered for their deeds. Maria and Leticia are mothers and grandmothers who continue to champion the defense of indigenous land and way of life.
Little is known about these four indigenous women outside of the Cordillera so it is important to know who they are and what they stood for. Putting their achievements in words may inspire girls, younger women and others to develop leadership qualities and advocate for indigenous people’s rights.
Alapo (grandmother) Endena hailed from far-flung Sabiyan, Agawa of Besao, Mountain Province.
She raised a family on her own and lived a simple life.
She became an invincible icon of the Cordillera region.
In the early 1990s, human rights conflicts erupted in her community and province with the positioning of the 702nd Brigade which had the infamous Jovito Palparan as one of the commanding officers. Endena emerged to become one of the leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance. She advocated for peace and courageously defended the human rights of indigenous peoples despite the harassments and threats she received from the military.
I recalled Endena saying: “The soldiers call me Gabriela. One time I was called to their camp for interrogation. I told the soldiers who accompanied me to put down their guns because I am only an old woman they should never regard as a threat.”
She refused to be cowed into silence by military harassment. She joined delegations for dialogues with the military. Her fiery message in a civilian-military peace dialogue in Mountain Province in 1991 was noticed by the late Senator Jovito Salonga who heard her speak in that event. She inspired a number of Cordillera women, young and old, to follow in her footsteps. On December 2010, Endena Cogasi was one of the awardees of the Gawad Tanggol Karapatan (Awards for the Cordillera Human Rights Defenders) during the observance of the International Human Rights Day. She died on March 8, 2016.
“Our lives may be simple and if we defend our community from greed and exploitation, we will always have a place to come home to and to trace our roots,” said Petra Macliing, fondly called Mother Petra.
Mother Petra’s courage is well remembered in the Cordillera.
In the early 1970s in her own Mainit village in Bontoc, she led a group of women chase away prospectors of a mining company. She warned them never to return again or their balls will be crushed.
She joined the struggle to stop the construction of the Chico River Dam and the operation of Cellophil Resource Corporation, a paper pulp corporation. The Chico River Dam project of then President Marcos threatened to flood communities of indigenous peoples. The nearly decade-long joint resistance of the Bontoks and Kalingas with broad solidarity from other Igorots and advocates from the national and international communities successfully shelved the project following the murder of Kalinga pangat (chieftain) Macliing Dulag on April 24, 1984.
Mother Petra was part of the founding assemblies of several organizations in the Cordillera –Kalinga-Bontoc Peace Pact Holders Association, Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Innabuyog, elders’ organization and the Montanosa Women’s Federation. The latter eventually became Binnadang, an organization of women in Mountain Province.
Mother Petra confronted top officials of the military and police in the course of advocating for human rights and peace. She was present in almost all celebrations of Cordillera Day, an annual solidarity event of the Cordillera every April 24th. In 2009, she received the laureate prize for rural women given by the Women’s World Summit Foundation.
Mother Petra is known for her resistance against mining operations. She was recalled saying: “The gold will all be gone once it is exploited by big mining companies. Our children, great grandchildren and generations to come will blame us for irresponsibility and neglect. However, they will be very proud if we, their predecessors, stood our ground. This is the legacy we should leave behind.” Mother Petra died on May 2018 at the age of 89.
“Although we have no money, we have food, good and simple ones on our tables,” said Leticia Bulaat.
Leticia or Letty became an activist when she was 18 years old.
Born to a family of farmers, she realized that one can live without money as long as there is land to cultivate for food.
This is the reason for her resistance against the Chico dam project that threatened her community in the 1970s.
Baket (elder woman) Letty, along with other women in her Dupag community and nearby villages, stood against the construction of the dam. They used their bodies to block the road to prevent trucks from reaching the construction. They also disrobed in front of the male workers to demonstrate their ultimate rage.
Baket Letty always shone with pride whenever she retold the story of how they were able to halt the construction of the huge dam project funded by the World Bank. Today, she remains vigilant and intensely immersed in the campaign for the IPs’ right to land and resources, and for self-determination.
Maria hails from Karikitan, Conner in the province of Apayao.
She was born on March 26, 1953.
She is known for her commitment to defend women from being harassed.
“I invite you to be active in progressive women’s organizations. Our mission is to defend our ancestral land, our rights and resources. Let us defend our natural resources for future generations! Until such social inequities cease to exist, we should not give up, “ said Maria Galong.
After attending the leadership training of the Cordillera Women’s Education and Resource Center (CWERC) in the late 1980s, she never turned her back on leading her community and assuming many roles in women and farmers’ organizations. She co- founded the Save the Apayao People’s Organization (SAPO), a local group that resists large mining projects.
She is comfortable being a mother, farmer and activist. Her friends jokingly said, “Maria should have been rich by now if not for her commitment to serve in people’s organizations.” But Maria would always dismiss them with a laugh saying, “My wealth comes from the value of serving the poor.” Indeed, Maria is woman with the warmth of fire in her heart.
In recalling these women heroes, women activists in the Cordillera may be inspired to sustain their advocacy for indigenous people’s rights. Under the administration of President Duterte, five women human rights defenders were slapped with fabricated cases, alleging that they have armed themselves to fight the government.
One of them is Rachel Mariano who languished in jail for a year. Her case was dismissed on September 4, 2019 but she continues to join four other women in their trial on a separate trumped-up case of multiple frustrated murder and murder.
Just recently, on October 25, 2020, Betty Belen, a community leader in Uma, Kalinga and known to have openly opposed the Chevron geothermal project, was arrested and jailed. A team of police and military served the warrant of arrest at 4 a.m. and declared they found firearms and explosives. Betty denied keeping guns and bullets.
Fear is felt but as the four leaders have taught us, Cordillera women must rise above their fears. As the Duterte government intends to tear down an existing monument that honors martyrdom and courage, our memories of Maria Galong, Leticia Bulaat, Endena Cogasi and Petra “Tannaw” Macliing live in our hearts. WWW
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vernie Yocogan-Diano is a Kankanaey-Bontok human rights defender. She volunteers in indigenous women’s organizations in the Philippines, providing writing and training services. She spent more than two decades with indigenous women organizations in the Cordillera and with human rights defenders in the Philippines. She serves as trainer-facilitator to the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) on feminist participatory action research.