To the Marcos dictatorship, the indigenous communities of the Cordillera mountain range in the north of Luzon could easily be dealt with as it proceeded with its plan to build a huge dam on the Chico River.
But the Kalinga and Bontok peoples knew that the project would flood their ricefields and their homes, communal forests and sacred burial grounds. It would destroy their lives by changing their environment forever.
Macliing Dulag was a respected elder of the Butbut tribe in the tiny mountain village of Bugnay in the 1960s. He was a pangat, one of those listened to by the community because of their wisdom and courage. He was also the elected barrio captain of Bugnay, serving out three terms since 1966.
Ordinarily, he tended his ricefields and worked as a laborer on road maintenance projects (earning P405 a month).
In 1974, the regime tried to implement a 1,000-megawatt hydroelectric power project, to be funded by the World Bank, along the Chico River. The plan called for the construction of four dams that would have put many villages under water, covering an area of around 1,400 square kilometers of rice terraces (payew), orchards, and graveyards. As many as 100,000 people living along the river, including Macliing's Bugnay village, would have lost their homes.
Macliing became a strong and articulate figure in this struggle which pitted small nearly powerless communities in the Cordilleras against the full powers of the martial law regime. Kalinga and Bontok leaders were offered bribes, harassed by soldiers and government mercenaries, even imprisoned. But the anti-dam leaders, including Macliing, stayed firm in their opposition to the project. They argued that development should not be achieved at such extreme sacrifice.
"If you destroy life in your search for what you say is the good life, we question it,” Macliing said. ”Those who need electric lights are not thinking of us who are bound to be destroyed. Should the need for electric power be a reason for our death?"
Macliing expressed the people’s reverence for the land, affirming their right to stay: “Such arrogance to say that you own the land, when you are owned by it! How can you own that which outlives you? Only the people own the land because only the people live forever. To claim a place is the birthright of everyone. Even the lowly animals have their own place…how much more when we talk of human beings?"
Resistance to the dam project unified the Cordillera region. Macliing and other Cordillera leaders initiated a series of tribal pacts (bodong or vochong), which helped cement this unity and create a very broad alliance of the communities and their supporters. They recognized the leader of the Butbut as their spokesperson, for although Macliing had had no formal education, he always found the right words for what they needed to say.
Macliing was murdered by government soldiers on April 24, 1980. They surrounded his house one night and sprayed it with bullets. His assassination merely solidified opposition to the dam and won it sympathizers from all over the country and even abroad. Even the World Bank, which would have funded the dam construction, withdrew from the project, finally forcing the martial law government to cancel its plans.
Four of Macliing's killers were charged and in 1983 tried before a military tribunal. An army lieutenant and a sergeant were subsequently found guilty of murder and frustrated murder. The lieutenant was later reinstated in the army, rose to become a major, and then himself was killed in 2000 by the New People’s Army.