Benguet moving to greater heights

Benguet is one of the six provinces that comprise the 29-year old Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). It has existed as an independent province or local government unit over the past 116 years old. As a province not colonised by the Spaniards, its rich indigenous culture and traditions have remained intact. Originally peopled by the Ivadoys, Kankanaeys and Kalanguyas inhabiting different parts of the province, it has now become a melting pot with the influx of other indigenous peoples from the other Cordillera provinces and lowlanders. The presence of vast mineral and hydropower resources exploited by corporations and the urbanisation of Baguio brought about in-migration.

Benguet hosted the largest copper mine in the country under Benguet Corporation, Inc., during its glory days. The country’s oldest mining company was founded in 1903, making it the oldest mining company in the country. It has considerably downsized its operations due to depleted ore bodies which has made underground mining unprofitable, but it then shifted to open-pit mining for a while. The corporation operates its Acupan Contract Mining in partnership with organised groups of small-scale miners that are extracting the remaining ore deposit in the area. Benguet also hosted the largest gold producer in the Far East, the Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) during the glory days of its operation. Now, Benguet continues to host the largest gold and copper producer in the country today, the Philex Mining Corporation which for six decades served as a major economic driver for the host and neighbouring communities.

Vegetable farming is a primary source of livelihood in the thirteen towns of the province, the source of at least 80 percent of the country’s demand for highland vegetables. Despite the limited plantation areas, Benguet supplies quality vegetable produce shipped regularly to the Metro Manila and lowland markets. About 250,000 households rely on vegetable farming as their major source of income. Some are employed in the mining companies,  in the government or private sector provincewide and elsewhere, or have gone abroad as overseas contract workers. Small-scale mining remains a traditional livelihood. Aside from vegetables, the province produces quality strawberries and cutflowers. These gardens are frequented by thousands of visitors year-round.

The province also hosted the once-biggest hydropower dam in the Far East, the Ambuklao Dam in the 1950s. A few years later, Binga dam supplemented the hydropower coming from Benguet which served the Luzon island electrification needs. Benguet was a main source of electricity to power the early industrialization of Luzon, the main site for industries after World War II.

Infrastructure development has become evident in the different provinces over the past several years with the attendant quality implementation remaining an issue. The need for farm-to-market roads to serve the vegetable-producing areas has provided the opportunity for some politicians and contractors to line their pockets.

Benguet produced top caliber local leaders of which the region can be proud of. Familiar to many Cordillerans would be the name Dangwa which became synonymous with the loaf-shaped buses that plied the early roads of the region during the post-World War II period. The late Bado Dangwa who served as governor and representative of the then undivided Mountain Province owned these ubiquitous red-yellow-grey buses that bore his name.

The past should serve as an inspiration and to draw lessons from. In terms of development, the province has contributed much to national development but the costs have been borne by the people of the province: the displaced peoples from dams, the long-term impacts of mining and chemical-based vegetable farming, unsustainable tourism, among others.  Not only has the physical environment been impacted, relations amongst peoples have also changed, including culture and values.

The current batch of local officials must be grounded in this context and realities. The people have learned from these and thus are asserting their right to give their free and prior informed consent to any development coming into their communities. Leaders, both the traditional and politicians, must promote participation, unity, teamwork, and solidarity.

The present administration is just a few months in power and the local officials are adjusting to their roles. We believe the people are eagerly awaiting how the present batch of local officials will handle the long-festering issues and emerging problems during their term of office. We will watch how our leaders will react to situational problems that put their leadership abilities to test.

In a recent study on the best places to live in the country evaluated based on life expectancy, the income needed to survive, the present living condition, and the availability of basic services, Benguet emerged at the top of the list besting other similarly situated and more developed provinces in the country.

We are proud of what Benguet was able to achieve during the years and where it is now positioned now in terms of development and its identity in the national and international scenes. We are optimistic that the present and future leaders will help elevate the status of the province to greater heights.