Indigenous Peoples, Ancestral Lands and Human Rights in the Philippines


On the night of June 7, 1993, two farmers were shot and killed in Upper Bulacao, Barangay Pardo, Cebu City. The gunman, identified by several at the scene, remains at large, as do those with whom he conspired to commit the murders - for few believe he acted alone. This incident, which attracted only brief attention in the Cebu City press, was the latest and dealiest escalation in an acrimonious local and dispute dating from 1988. The dispute concerns a rocky 118-hectare parcel of hillside land on the outskirts of Cebu City, and pits, on the one hand, a group of 349 subsistence farmers long occupying and growing corn on the land against, on the other, Aznar Enterprises, Inc. and the Santa Lucia Realty Development Corporation, who together seek to develop the land into a golf course and upper-class residential area.


Both sides claim to own the land in question. The Aznar-Sta. Lucia group claims that the farmers are only long-time squatters, with no permanent rights to the land, and further points to a resolution of the Cebu City council (for which it had lobbied) declaring the land in question to be residential, not agricultural. The farmers, in contrast, some of show have occupied the land since the late 1930s, claim to have been tenants of Aznar who subsequently qualified to receive land titles under Operation Land Transfer (OLT), a Marcos-era land reform program created by Presidential Decree 27. While the law appears to be on the side of the farmers (the OLT process was in fact already underway in 1991), the relevant government agencies (the Department of Agrarian Reform, DAR, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, DENR) have - apparently under pressure from the business interests involved - not come to their aid.

Indeed, despite the presence of several court injunctions and restraining orders obtained by the farmers with the assistance of a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), and despite the absence of the legally-required permits from DAR and DENR, the Aznar-Sta. Lucia group has gone slowly ahead with its development plans, pressuring those who have received OLT titles to sell out to the group on unfavorable terms, and periodically bulldozing farms at the site. The two June 1993 murders are generally believed to represent an escalation in this pattern of intimidation (FARDEC 1993).

When I visited the site myself in July 1993, Sta. Lucia's bulldozers were continuing their incremental clearing of the disputed area. About a hundred members of a local farmers' association, other residents, and representatives of two local NGOs siding with the farmers in the battle against Aznar watched under the intimidating presence of two AK47-bearing gunmen - in military uniforms, but with name labels removed. With the ultimate outcome still in doubt, it was an emotional scene, which saw considerable anguish or resignation expressed on the one hand, and, on the other, some hopeful talk about yet another and perhaps this-time-successful court suit, now framed against the alleged "developmental aggression" of the would-be land developers. More generally, there was spirited (and, in my observation, quite sophisticated) discussion about the nature of "development" in the Philippines and about what sort of development it was that dispossessed already-poor people who could only flock into the city and become even poorer.

This particular controversy is ordinary enough; local dramas of this sort are played out regularly, throughout the Philippines. Indeed, I have selected it as prologue precisely because of its ordinariness, a term I trust will not be taken as an effort on my part to make light of its considerable human costs. Rather, I believe that the PARDO controversy, as it is called, illustrates in microcosm a number of important themes common to the current situation in the Philipines concerning indigenous peoples and human rights in general: 1 Access to land, and hence to livelihood, is central to all discourse about indigenous peoples and human rights in the Philippines; 2 There is fact exists a variety of legislation, old and new, designed to secure such access for indigenous peoples (e.g., P.D.27; Integrated Social Forestry Program (ISFP); 3 Elites and their political allies regularly find ways to defeat or circumvent the intent of this legislation and to deny to indigenous peoples the land and other rights they in fact have under the law, ways that include legal and extralegal use of the courts and of the military; 4 Numerous local and international NGOs are aligned with indigenous peoples and attempt to provide them with the legal and other kinds of assistance they need to combat such machinations; 5 Surrounding such cases is a considerable amount of discourse (and even outright confusion) about who should benefit from "development" and - although this goes beyond the present case - about who, precisely, "indigenous people" are, and about the relationships between such issues and the environmental movement.


Many categorizations of indigenous peoples in the Philippines are possible, but for purposes here a fairly conventional one employed by the Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos (ECTF) will serve. ECTF estimates that there are approximately 6.5 million indigenous peoples, composing about 10 percent of the total Philippine population and belonging to over 40 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, which can be grouped in the following fashion: (1) the Lumad of Mindanao, various non-Muslim tribal peoples found in virtually every province of Mindanao, numbering around 2.1 million people and including such groups as the T'Boli, the Manobo, the Mandaya, the Subanun, the Tiruray, the Bagobo, and the B'laan; (2) the Peoples of the Cordillera, indigenous inhabitants of the five provinces of the Cordillera mountain range of Northern Luzon, numbering around 1 million people and including such groups as the Ifugao, Bontoc, Kalinga, Isneg, Ibaloy, Tinngguian, and Kankaney; and (3) various other, widely scattered tribal peoples of the hinterlands of Central and Southern Luzon, some islands in the Visayas, Mindoro, and Palawan, and including the various "Negrito" groups (Dumagat, Agta, Batak, etc.), the various Mangyan groups, the Tagbanua, and the Pala'wan. In some parts of the country, intermarriage between Tribal Filipinos and lowland Filipinos and, as suggested above, the length of residence of at least some "lowland" Filipinos in hinterland areas are factors confounding efforts to specify unambiguously who is and who is not an "indigenous Filipino."


The problems surrounding indigenous peoples and access to land in the Philippines ultimately derive from the following historical circumstance; since the early Spanish colonial period, all forest lands have legally belonged to the state, and most indigenous peoples have long inhabited the forest. For control over this land, indigenous people have long faced a sort of "double battle," both with the state itself, from which they must attempt to wrest some sort of security of tenure or access, and with often-migrant and usually better-off and more politically-influential lowland Filipinos, who have also over the years attempted to secure titles or other kinds of access to public lands, often displacing indigenous peoples in the process.

As indigenous peoples have retreated in the face of incremental land alienation of the latter sort, they have increasingly occupied the uplands, where the great majority of Tribal Filipinos live today. Present government policy is that all land over 18 degrees slope and with or without trees is "public forest land," not alienable and disposable, and hence falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Management Bureau (FMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The traditional role of this agency was long to preserve the forest for timber production and hence to protect it from human occupancy and use; indeed, until now, the up to 18 million residents, indigenous or otherwise, that currently inhabit the uplands are still often referred to us "squatters."

But during the 1970s, with assistance from universities and other private and government agencies, the Forest Management Bureau (then known as the Bureau of Forest Development), initiated a number of programs designed to settle upland occupants on their current landholdings while simultaneously enlisting their cooperation in adopting agroforestry and other soil and water conservation measures. Since 1972, these various programs have been reorganized into an Integrated Social Forestry Program (ISFP) administered by the DENR. The ISFP is still evolving, but the underlying philosophy remains that supportive rather than punitive efforts to deal with forest residents will lead to less environmentally damaging farming systems.

Presently, indigenous peoples hoping to secure ancestral lands face a sometimes confusing range of policies and instruments growing out of social forestry policies. Under the ISFP itself there are two principal tenurial choices: the individual Certificate of Stewardship Contract (CFC) and the Communal Forest Stewardship Agreement (CFSA), each entailing a 25-year renewable lease right to occupy and use a designated parcel of forest land, in return for a commitment to environmentally-sound management. The CFSA arrangement was primarily intended for indigenous peoples, and, since about 1980s, when, in a now well-known case, the Ikalahan of northern Luzon succeeded in securing the first such CFSA in the Philippines, about fifty such communal leases have been granted nationwide.

More recent are two DENR administrative orders authorizing, in 1991, Certificates of Ancestral Land Claims (CALC) and, in 1993, Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC). By July 1993 about 20-25 CALCs had been awarded nationwide, primarily in Mindoro, Palawan, and the Cordillera. Also by 1993, several shortcomings with the CALC program had surfaced: it lacked needed management support services, failed to address the presence of previously-awarded non-timber forest products (NTFP) concessions over which CALC holders had no authority, and indigenous peoples had come increasingly to feel that the emphasis on land alone was too limiting. The new CADC program was designed to address these issues; "domain," for example, is explicitly a larger notion than "land", and there are provisions that existing NTFP concessions will not be renewed as they expire, but will instead be turned over to the CADC holders.

From the standpoint of indigenous peoples, however, all of these various programs are inadequate, halfway measures that fail to offer ownership, and hence true control, over ancestral domains. Still pending in the Philippine Congress is a bill that would redeem such a pledge, in fact made under the 1987 Philippine Constitution. The "Ancestral Domains Bill," as it is generally called, would provide the equivalent of the (most indigenous peoples today reside on public land that is not "alienable and disposable") and is much lobbied for by indigenous peoples and their NGO allies.

Meanwhile, and quite apart from its philosophical acceptability to indigenous peoples, the recent CADC program poses some significant difficulties of its own. A CADC application requires a detailed management plan, which in turn requires an interested Indigenous Cultural Community (ICC) to obtain appropriate technical assistance; and it requires as supporting evidence of a claim such items as established tree crops and burial sites - evidence that not all ICCs otherwise entitled to such claims may be able to provide.

Further, there remains disagreement among government officials and NGO personnel about whether a CADC is in fact a tenurial instrument or is simply "recognition of a right." Finally, as of July 1993, no CADCs had actually yet been awarded. Nonetheless, until the Ancestral Domains Bill passes Congress, the principal NGOs involved in the ancestral domains movement - including the Legal Rights and Natural Resource Center (LRC), PANLIPI (an organization of law years that provides legal assistance to ICCs), and the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID) - believe that seeking a CADC is the best currently available option for indigenous peoples attempting to secure their ancestral to mains.

Not surprisingly, however, given their own differing circumstances, the people of indigenous communities differ in their willingness to accept one or another concept of stewardship rather than outright ownership (i.e., full titling). Garrity et al observe that the ICCs that to date have been able to maintain secure control of their land, such as some Cordilleran peoples, fear that acceptance of any sort of stewardship agreement will mean that they must forfeit their claim to ownership, while those ICCs that have been under strong encroachment pressure from lowland settlers or agribusiness operations, or that have even been displaced from their lands, are more likely to regard stewardship or lease agreements as the best practical means to maintain some territorial integrity.

The current emphasis on ancestral domains rather than ancestral lands reminds us that more is at stake than simply the need of indigenous people to make a current agricultural living. The notion of "domain" is meant to embrace those additional ancestral lands not currently occupied or farmed, but which represent a reserve for the future and over which there is in fact an ancestral claim. Also, collection and sale of such forest products as rattan and manila copal (almaciga) are vital subsistence activities for many indigenous peoples, and there is considerable feeling today that any land tenure arrangements are incomplete until full rights to exploit these resources - traditionally in the hands of outside capitalists - are consigned over to ICCs as well. This movement has gained momentum as such international environmentalist NGOs as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have embraced and promoted the notion that indigenous peoples are the best conservers of forest biodiversity.

At another level, the emphasis on ancestral domains reflects recognition of and concern about the effects of armed conflict in the Philippines on indigenous peoples, who have suffered disproportionately as the result of violent confrontations between government forces and members of the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). A recent wire service report is illustrative of this problem.

Reuters, Iligan, Sept 17-More thanh 3000 tribesmen fled on Friday after air-force planes bombed a heavily forested area in the south suspected of being a communist rebel meeting place, officials said. There were no immediate reports of casualties following the attack in the town of Kiktaotao in Bukidnon province about 890 m (55 miles) south of Manila. Army officials said they received reports that communist rebel leaders would hold a meeting in the area. Relief officials rushed supplies of food, milk and clothes for the fleeing tribesmen. Local government officials condemned the military for allegedly bombing the wrong area.

Such problems have received particular attention from the Episcopal Commission on Tribal Filipinos (ECTF), which has made the peace process a principal concern in its own work on behalf of indigenous peoples. The ECTF estimates that in 1991, for example, 70 percent of those displaced by armed aggression in Mindanao, and 50 percent of those so displaced in Luzon, were indigenous peoples. Among the most severely affected regions were the Marag Valley and the Zibundungan Valley in Cagayan, the Andap Valley in Surigao del Sur, and the Subanun homeland in Zamboanga del Norte and Zamboanga del Sur (ECTF 1993). The ECTF argues, at least implicitly, that freedom from armed conflict and displacement is also an important human right of indigenous peoples, and they believe and assurances of such freedom must be built into any satisfactory recognition of ancestral domains. Similar calls to stop militarization and to expose military abuses, are still heard regularly from various Cordilleran peoples groups.

Meanwhile, and until ancestral domains are genuinely secured against economic and military threats from outsiders, such problems will persist. In a sort of Cordilleran echo of the "Visayan Vignette" with which this article began, here is how Victoria Corpuz, of the Cordillera Women's Education and Resource Center and the Cordillera Peoples' Alliance (CPA), recently responded to a question about the main concerns of the peoples of the Cordillera today:

Our main concerns are still basically the same.... Our region has always been considered a resource base area by the government.... The biggest and oldest mining company in the Philippines, the Benguet Corporation... suddenly decided that it... will convert its operations into open-pit mining. This is devastating the whole area. Mountains are being bulldozed. So now the people in those villages that are affected are opposing the whole projec...setting up barricades to stop the operations of the open-pit mines. There is a stalemate now...(but) I think they are really bent on pushing through with their plans....(A) more complicated problem affecting the whole region is the militarization...coming along with the minning and logging operations. Right now the area is targeted as one of the areas for comprehensive counterinsurgency operations.


Whereas the issue of ancestral lands concerns all ICCs in the country, the issue of autonomy - that other area of Tribal Filipino concern expressly addressed in the 1987 Constitution - has so far concerned only the largest and most populous of these communities (Claver 1992:10). And yet the two issues are closely related; NGOs like the LRC and the Cordillera Resource Center (CRC), for example, seek not only full recognition of ancestral land boundaries but also of customary land management practices and the indigenous political forms within which they are embedded.

The Constitution adopted in 1987 provided for politically autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera, then two regions perceived as having requested such autonomy, Muslim Mindanao by virtue of the Tripoli Agreement, and the Cordillera by virtue of the CPA's lobbying effort (Rood 1991:519). In each case the rationale for autonomy was the alleged sharing of "common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structure, and other relevant characteristics" (Rood 1991:519). In the case of the Cordillera, the Philippine Congress passed an "Organic Act" which was put to a referendum in the region in January 1990. The referendum was defeated in four of the five relevant provinces and Baguio City, and only passed in Ifugao.

This is not the place the review the historical, political, or cultural context of this Act, or the reasons for its defeat. Two observations, however, are appropriate here. First, the degree to which an emerging Cordilleran ethnic identity is a viable basis for any sort of regional "autonomy" remains problematic (Rood 1991:541-2). Second and more important, the Organic Act itself was, in the views of many indigenous advocates of Cordilleran autonomy, seriously deficient, so much so that some of those who earlier called for an autonomous region ultimately voted "no" in the referendum (Rood 1991:542). Hence, despite subsequent government claims to the contrary, the result-of the referendum was a repudiation of the government's concept of autonomy - seen as not being "genuine" - rather than the concept of autonomy itself (Claver 1992:4;ECTF 1993:6). The future of the entire movement presently remains unclear.

The reaction of the Mindanao Lumad to the Philippine National Oil Company's (PNOC) proposed construction of the Mount Apo Geothermal Plant illustrates how religious issues may help galvanize Tribal Filipino opposition to outside oppression. A dormant volcano with an area of 73,000 hectares, Mount Apo is the ancestral domain of 460,000 Lumads, including Bagobos, Ubos, Aetas, K'lagan, and Kaulos. For the Lumads, Mount Apo is "Apo Sandawa," or "Lord Standing and Watching Over Mindanao" (ECTF 1993:4), which has provided Lumads with their livelihood since the beginning of time. A number of sites on the slopes of the mountain posses religious significance for various Lumad groups. PNOC first conducted exploratory drilling in Mount Apo in 1987. The project was shelved in 1990, following a critical reassessment by DENR, but it was resurrected again in 1992 in the midst of a national power crisis, with the explicit support of Philippine President Fidel Ramos. A now familiar pattern of militarization has ensued, as PNOC lobbied for the assignment of five battalions of soldiers to secure the job site and is alleged to be behind the formation of a paramilitary group, "Mindanao Defenders," composed of Lumad members (ECTF 1993:4-5).


It should be clear from these observations that the restoration of a more democratic political system in the Philippines has not in itself significantly improved the human rights circumstances of indigenous Filipinos. Such improvement as has occurred instead reflects the organizational efforts and plain hard work of indigenous Filipinos and those who work on their behalf. On the other hand, the Philippine case is made unique both by the presence of good laws already on the books that in fact empower people (including indigenous people), and by the level of sophistication in government and public discussion about the significance of ancestraldomain rights of development and environmental issues. If there is good news as about the Philipplines, it is that the current political climate does appear more receptive to, or at least more tolerant of, those seeking to act on these relatively congenial circumstances to improve the human rights conditions of indigenous Filipinos.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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