Written by Yi-Yu Lai.
In the late summer of 1986, a small group of Indigenous people from the PCT (The Presbyterian Church of Taiwan) led a delegation through the Philippines’ Cordillera region. As a delegation that attempted to study minority rights, those people not merely approached Negrito, Bontoc, and Ifugao communities to learn local issues, but also visited several grassroots organizations such as the CPA (Cordillera Peoples Alliance). Although it was not the first time the PCT arranged the Philippines’ tour, their visit’s timing was noteworthy. While martial law was still imposed in Taiwan, people in the Philippines just overthrew the Marcos dictatorship through the People Power Revolution at the beginning of that year. Back then, countless Indigenous activists were fighting for better Indigenous rights with the new regime. Since the Philippines’ churches were considered active in the struggles for human rights and very concerned about issues facing minority people, organizers of the visiting group planned to increase awareness of Indigenous church activists and build networks with other related Asian minority peoples. They thus called the group “Searching for the Roots” because it would be a means to help participants feel more related to the people and the issues that they encountered.
Without knowing this past, I learned about such a connection between Taiwan and the Philippines through several CPA activists after conducting my fieldwork in that region. The more I dug from the relevant documents, the more I realized that the visit’s purpose was actually the PCT’s call in the 1980s to the Indigenous people to awaken from their ancestral land issue. During that period, numerous churches in the mountainous areas complained about receiving almost unaffordable bills from the township governments for increasing land rent year by year. According to the Mountain Reserved Land Management Regulations, the churches were regarded as private and foreign ownership on the mountain reserved lands as the government claimed. They were charged rent for the lands that were supposed to be used by Indigenous people. Even though the Regulations prevented Indigenous lands from encroachment, the church people felt upset because lowland churches were considered non-profit organizations and did not need to pay any rent. When most of the church lands in mountainous areas were usually contributed by their local members, they disagreed that they belonged to “foreign organizations” especially because over 70 percent of Indigenous population had been already converted to some forms of Christianity. As a result, they launched a public campaign that urged the government to exempt the rent payment. The Protestants even united with other denominations and established a Mountain Church Land Working Group in April 1982, and initiated a petition campaign with a goal of 20,000 signatures in 1985. The campaign’s purpose was gradually adjusted from requesting rent-free use to asking for land title within the series of mobilizations. This was the first time the Indigenous branch of the PCT had engaged in this type of campaign. Afterwards, their actions were confluent with other simultaneous Indigenous resistances, becoming the basis of the Return our Land Movement in Taiwan.
Before this campaign, land issues were marginal when it comes to minority rights. Especially during the sensitive Martial Law period, most discussions paid attention to individuals’ welfare issues rather than collective rights. To arouse ordinary people to join their petition campaign, one of their methods was to send their petition letters with a poster adopted from materials collected from the Philippines during the visit in 1983. This is because Indigenous people in the Cordillera region had already had experiences successfully mobilizing people against several destructive development projects since the 1970s. For instance, in the poster above, they used the slogan “Land is Life” to emphasize the inseparable relationship between lands and Indigenous people. They also quoted a verse from Naboth’s Vineyard’s story in the Bible, emphasizing that other people should not grasp their ancestors’ inheritance. From this adoption, they intended to expand the discourse from a mere church land issue to a movement for all the Indigenous people in Taiwan. Since those elements were widely used in the Philippine Indigenous activist groups, they believed it might also be useful to apply in the Taiwan situation.
However, the campaign faced difficulties in collecting signatures because they could not effectively mobilize people at the local level. Noticing that Indigenous activists immediately started their negotiation with the new Philippine regime after the Revolution, Indigenous church activists in Taiwan decided to plan another Philippine visit in 1986. They attempted to learn how activists addressed their relationship with people and the government. They also wanted to revisit their own strategies and the obstruct forces by comparing them to the Cordillera experiences on Indigenous land struggles.
Referring to a reflection written by Le-Mun Len (稜了曼) in Taiwan Church News (1986/10/19), she recounted the popularity of the “Land is Life” slogan and the Naboth’s Vineyard story among the Indigenous activists in the Philippines. Although both Taiwan and the Philippine Indigenous people had land issues, she pointed out the differences between them. One obvious difference was the restriction on access to mountainous areas. Taiwan, which was still under martial law at the time, required Indigenous people to apply for permits to enter other mountainous townships. Simultaneously, there was a reserved land system, which merely allowed certain industries to develop on the Indigenous lands. In contrast, the Philippine did not have strict restrictions on the access regardless of the threat from many large-scale development projects by the government and private companies. Due to this dissimilarity, the Philippine situation allowed people to connect more efficiently across regions. Moreover, it helped them collectively fight against the coercive forces from below. The gap of their movement capacities was even widened after the Philippines’ People Power Revolution in early 1986. In the Philippines, the new regime was dedicated to implementing ancestral domains and a referendum on Indigenous autonomy. The activists could leverage the negotiation to push the government to take further action. In light of this trend, the Taiwanese delegation members participating in the visiting group began to have more new imaginations about cultural and collective rights.
This is part one of a two-part article. Part two can be found here.
Yi-Yu Lai is currently a PhD student in Anthropology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, and he has studied the Indigenous resistance in the highland Philippines since 2014. Focusing on the issues of political violence and Indigenous politics, he has participated in countless academic, voluntary, and cultural exchanging projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Philippines relations, which was coordinated with help from Shun-Nan Chiang, a PhD candidate in sociology at UCSC. All articles in the special issue can be found here