The Igorot Brand of Leadership and Good Governance

Long before the introduction of democratic principles by foreign invaders, the Igorots of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines have already been espousing consultative and participatory governance which are considered essential features of democracy. Though the different tribes have leaders of their own, it has been a common practice to consult the “umili” or the people of the tribe before deciding on important matters that affect the community. For hundreds of years, this practice has greatly contributed to the solid foundation on which modern leadership in the region is anchored upon and throughout the history of the Igorots, there was never a tribal leader who was widely reviled for his dictatorial rule and authoritarian approach to governance. 
The Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact in 2013 recognized Cordilleran governance as one hinged on the following principles: 1) Sovereignty and self-rule, 2) collective identity, collective rights and collective leadership, 3) self-determination, 4) harmony and interaction with nature, 5) international solidarity among indigenous peoples and linkage with wider social and political movements, 6) sustainability, 7) spirituality, and 8) dignity. 

In an essay presented at the 12th DLSU Arts Congress, De La Salle University in Manila on February of 2019, the Cordillera was described as a ‘territory-based community’. “The terrestrial village (ili) pertains to the wider territory and is composed of smaller group of households called ator (wards) each with an ato/dap-ay (structure/building where the council of elders meet) and an olog (a dormitory for ladies) in the case of some villages. Issues within a specific ward are settled by the amam-a (elders) of the same ward meeting together. Issues concerning the entire village necessitate representatives from each ato meeting as a single body. This higher council is known as the intugtukan. The appointment of elders/leaders follow a character-based system; and while wealth or combat prowess (in past times) count as advantages, the community primarily puts a premium on individuals embodying traits deemed desirable by the community. Elders need not be of advanced age and are not exclusively males. Since character is the basis of leadership or eldership, a vote is not always necessary – and a better description would be that elders arise from the people”, the paper further explained.

For those who do not have a clear grasp of the Cordilleran culture, it would be extremely difficult to understand how Igorot communities respond to certain situations. As an indigenous society, the Cordillera is heavily tied to its traditions, beliefs, clannish mindset, and love of land. Good governance hence, is dependent on how a leader integrates these attributes to public policy considerations. One has to have an in-depth discernment of its unique history and long cherished customs in order to efficiently lead its people. In opposing the Chico Dam Project during the Marcos years, tribal leaders have this to say of Jose Diokno’s offer to build up a case in court against the project: 

“If we accept, it will be as if we ever doubted that we belong to the land; or that we question our ancient law … if we accept, it will be recognizing what we have always mistrusted and resisted. If we accept, we will then be honor bound to abide by the decisions of that tribunal. Long experience has shown us that the outsider’s law is not able to understand us, our customs and our ways. Always, it makes just what is unjust, right what is not right “. 

Clearly, the Igorots’ love for their sense of freedom, land, and culture takes precedence over anything.

The passage of time did little to change this specially in the Provinces where the said “Grassroots Governance“ and “Council Democracy” are still strictly adhered to. Cordillerans continue to frown upon authoritarian rule. It is important that their voices are heard before their leaders even consider implementing measures that affect their way of life. Evidently, the pandemic projected a clear picture of how Cordillerans react to sudden policy changes without prior consultation. Even with the implementation of infrastructure projects and social programs, the community almost always airs their opposition with the same protestation– lack of consultation. A true Igorot leader seldom makes this mistake and if he does, he would surely know what to do to win the hearts of his people back. Even if the system is not as pristine as before with the entrance of mainstream traditional politics and its adverse offshoots such as dynasty, corruption, and power tripping; the foundations are still there surfacing from time to time when summoned by circumstances.


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