Power and Patronage in the Philippines: Environmental and cultural survival in Palawan Province


Power and Patronage in the Philippines: Environmental and cultural. survival in Palawan Province

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THAT Organizations concerned with the environment, conservation, and human rights are converging on a common strategy to protect both natural resources and cultural groups in tropical forest ecosystems. The strategy involves obtaining legal rights for ethnic groups to the land and resources on which they have traditionally depended. The idea is that the traditional owners of the land will, as they always have, manage the resources sensibly and sustainably. An important corollary to this tenet is that these groups will begin to develop more productive methods of utilizing the land. Outsiders with designs on indigenous lands argue that indigenous peoples underutilize ("waste") or misuse their natural resources; therefore, they reason, in the interests of national development, the land should be used "properly" by more productive segments of the national population. These rationalizations have been put forth to justify blatant human rights abuses and forest destruction, when large commercial interests and poor settlers alike have invaded tropical forests inhabited by relatively small ethnic groups.

The strategy of land rights is most developed in Latin America, where different Indian groups have been organizing in order to gain legal rights to their ancestral territories since the 1960s (Macdonald 1984; Denslow and Padoch 1988). Africa is far behind Latin America in developing a land-rights strategy; environmental NGOs, with very few exceptions, do not openly challenge government actions in sub-Saharan African countries. Indigenous, tropical forest groups in Africa are completely unprotected against logging, mining, ranching, and outside settlers. The situation in Southeast Asia, the last of the world's three main tropical forest regions, falls somewhere in between Latin America's and Africa's.


Environmental and human rights groups in Southeast Asia have been working with tribals to obtain land tenure or usufruct rights from governments, but with little success. Hill tribes are being evicted from areas that have been declared national parks or reserves in Thailand; the tribals of Sarawak, Malaysia (Penan, Kayan, etc.) have been arrested and harassed in their well-publicized fight to protect their land from loggers and dams; and official government policy manifested in Indonesia's Transmigrasi (transmigration) program makes that country analogous to Africa (although attempts are being made to modify the policy that denies racial and ethnic diversity in theory, to allow Javanese ethnocide and land-grabbing in practice).

The Philippines, perhaps surprisingly in view of its famous human rights record, offers the best possibility for implementing the land rights strategy in Southeast Asia. If successful here, it could act as a catalyst to alter policies throughout the region.

In 1988 the Haribon Foundation, formed in 1972 to save endangered Filipino wildlife, began working to gain land tenure for ethnic groups in Mindanao and Palawan, southern islands of the Philippines archipelago. It hired lawyers and created formal links through an agreement with the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The post-Marcos head of the DENR, Fulgencio Factoran, agreed to cooperate with Haribon in awarding Certificate of Stewardship Contracts (CSCs) to tribal groups. Haribon would assist a group in organizing itself into an association, after which the group would register with the Filipino Securities and Exchange Commission (not to be confused with Wall Street). This association would then be eligible to apply to the DENR for a CSC to manage its land, normally for a (renewable) period of 25 years. No outside interests could receive logging, mining, rattan collecting, or other such concessions, or settle on the land, without the group's permission during the CSC period. Haribon would assist in determining the area of traditional land to be defined and included in the application. It would also formulate and implement sustainable resource management and development projects with the indigenous groups.

The system sounds simple and straightforward. The DENR is considering the first CSC application for the Batak tribe of northern Palawan island. A small Haribon project is also under way with the Batak, and a larger international one is being prepared for the Batak and other tribals of Palawan. Real life is rarely simple, however - especially when land and wealth are involved. The situation on Palawan has become very complicated; some of the highest politicians in the Philippines and the military and powerful commercial interests are involved in an attack on indigenous peoples and Haribon. Haribon's organizational work with tribals on Palawan and its role as whistle-blower on illegal loggers has led to accusations of it being a communist front; 14 Haribon members were arrested and charged with subversion last March 15, after a month of investigation (termed harassment by Haribon).


Palawan is the largest province in the Philippines. A 1978 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report called it "a unique ecological unit in the world, and the only one presently intact in the Philippines." Although the Department of Tourism still bills it as "The Last Frontier," the ADB might have to reassess its earlier statement. A Philippine-German Forest Resources Inventory Project report stated that in 1968 some 92 percent of Palawan was covered by forest. By 1985, the year of the report, this had been reduced to 47 percent, or 696,000 hectares. At that time about 8 percent of arable land was permanently occupied by farmers growing irrigated rice, cashews, and bananas as main crops. About 23 percent, some 265,000 hectares, was occupied by 85,000 kaingineros. people who practice slash-and-burn (kaingin) cultivation. They live mainly in hilly areas and grow dry rice, maize, and cassava.

Most of Palawan is mountainous, and the permanent settlement is on a narrow coastal plain. The province's population is approximately 450,000, with immigrants from Luzon, Mindanao, and other islands making up the majority. The indigenous peoples of the main island consist of various Pala-wan tribe groups in the southern half, the Tagbanwa in the north, and a small (c. 400) Batak group in the northeast. These people traditionally depend on hunting-and-gathering for subsistence, but dry rice is becoming more important for cultural reasons. Rice is perceived as being more modern and acceptable than wild yams to the surrounding, dominant peoples of mainstream Filipino society. The indigenous tribes are in an explicitly inferior position to the coastal and urban immigrants; like similar peoples in other parts of the world, they are struggling for survival against economic and cultural exploitation. They are becoming kaingineros themselves as they try and adapt to what they perceive as a more modern world - although honey, rattan, and almaciga resin are important trade items. (Almaciga resin, also known as Manila copal, comes from the Aghatis philippinensis tree, which is endangered by logging.) Palawan foragers are worse off nutritionally today than in the past due to deforestation and low productivity cultivation (Novellino 1991).

According to a Hunting Technical Services report, deforestation has risen from 6,000 hectares lost a year in the early 1970s to 19,000 hectares a year in 1988. At that rate, the Palawan forest would be completely razed in 35 years. Not only does the deforestation threaten the future of the indigenous populations, but soil erosion and the resultant silt runoff in the 191 streams and rivers that flow into the surrounding sea is killing the coral reefs and lowering fish yields. The majority of Philippine fish come from waters around Palawan, and the reefs are a major tourist attraction and natural wonder.

To take pressure off the forest by intensifying agriculture in the flat coastal strip and lowland hill slopes, the ADB and the European Community launched the Palawan Integrated Area Development Project in 1981. In spite of the expenditure of close to $10 million, very little has resulted from this project. A reduction in logging and steps in agricultural reform have been roadblocked, environmentalists say, by local politicians and timber interests. A Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan (House Bill No. 10945), which came out of the Hunting Technical Services work, languishes in the national congress.


Three men are behind the rape of Palawan, according to press reports (Clad and Vitug 1988; Lopez 1991) and Haribon-Palawan members. The first in Ramon Mitra, Jr., speaker of the House of Representatives, Corazon Aquino's confidant, and declared aspirant for the Philippine presidency in 1992. Mitra represents a Palawan constituency in the House and has publicly "branded the Haribon Foundation as communists responsible for the presence of insurgents in Palawan. He said they should leave Palawan" (Labog 1991). Mitra is a friend of Jose "Pepito" Alvarez, a principal shareholder in Pagdanan Timber Products and Nationwide Princesa Timber, the province's two largest timber companies, which hold concessions in northern Palawan covering 168,000 hectares. Alvarez has been accused of "gross overcuts" and of "a constantly expanding concession" - meaning that the companies commonly cut outside their Timber License Agreement boundaries (Clad 1988). It is said that he can do this because of his close ties with Mitra. The third member of the Palawan Philippines National Police (PNP). He is supported by Brigadier General Braulio Balbas, Western Command chief of the military. It was the PNP that arrested the Haribon members for subversion, coincidentally after Haribon members reported finding illegal timber in the vicinity of the 7th Marine Battalion.

According to press reports and Haribon, illegal timber cutting and smuggling to Sabah in Malaysia is common. The logs are cut into 10-foot-long "flitches" and sold for 17 Malaysian ringgits (R.2.75 = US $1) per kilogram in Sabath (Mayuga 1991). Illegal logs and flitches in the possession of the military or police have been reported twice by Haribon-Palawan, once in 1989 and once in 1991. Two weeks after the second report the PNP took Haribon members in for questioning; a month later they were charged with subversion after their homes were searched. Pistols and communist documents were reportedly found in one home, but Haribon claims they were planted.

After Oscar Lapida of Haribon found 500 flitches of kamagong, an ebony called "black gold," last January, members of the Pala-wan tribe admitted to cutting the trees down for 50 pesos (US $1.50) each. After Lapida reported the flitches to the military, 400 of them subsequently disappeared. The military later raided Pala-wan villages, hung some men by their thumbs, and confiscated their hunting and agricultural implements. After repeated military harassment some Pala-wan threatened to commit suicide if it continued (Labog 1991). According to one Haribon-Palawan board member who witnessed and photographed illegal logs being escorted by the military (and who is one of those charged with subversion), Mitra "is involved in everything here."

This is an all-too-common world scenario. A politician with ambitions needs financial support. The support comes from wealthy and influential people who need political backing for their commercial activities. The forces of order, the military and police, support those in power, who are also those who can help enrich them. Resources are needed to operate the system, and the tropical forest provides them. It is a system that is fueling deforestation around the world, but will only stop when there is no more forest or when governments develop the will to stop it. Once, when questioned about receiving financial support from Alvarez and about his rides in Alvarez's helicopter, Mitra asked, "Is it wrong to be the friend of a rich man?" (Clad and Vitug 1988). In this case, yes.


Joselito Alisuag, director of Haribon-Palawan, has been instrumental in mobilizing the activism of the organization's 300 members. He is a lawyer and, aside from working with indigenous groups and helping plan the Palawan-Batak Integrated Rural Development (P-BIRD) project, he has filed countercharges against the military in the Haribon subversion case. He was out of the country when I was in Palawan last March and April, but Haribon members said he was coming back later on in April to attend an expected court hearing. Alisuag was ordered arrested on March 21 while he was out of the country; it is not known whether he will be able to pursue the counter-charge.

P-BIRD started in January 1990, first working with the Batak community of Sitio Calabayog in the mountains of northeastern Palawan. The objectives of the project are in the first instance to organize the community into an association that can register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, survey and define Batak traditional land, and apply for a CSC to the DENR. This has been achieved; a decision is expected this summer. Haribon has also placed a health officer, a community organizer, and an agricultural advisor in Sitio Calabayog to improve living standards and continue organizational activities.

Survey and organizational work has also started with the Pala-wan to the south, which led to the previously mentioned controversy with the authorities. The CSC is requesting 5,000 hectares of the Batak, which will impinge on Alvarez's timber concessions and an almaciga concession belonging to the sister of an important Palawan politician (not Mitra); but so far there has been no direct interference by the authorities. The DENR and the provincial government have been supporting project activities. Haribon is fortunate in having a former board member of Haribon International (Manila), Delfin Ganapin, working as an undersecretary in the DENR. Ganapin was also a consultant for Hunting Technical Services and a main drafter of the Palawan Strategic Environmental Plan.

The proposal for a much larger project called the Ethno-Environmental Pilot Project (EEPP), the brain-child of Dario Novellino, an Italian anthropologist who has been working with Palawan island indigenous people for several years, is nearing completion. It is supported by ATLANTIDE, an environmental NGO started up by Novellino, Friends of the Earth-Italy, the Catholic Church organization Tribal Filipino Apostolate (TFA), and NATRIPAL (in English, the Federation of the Tribes of Palawan). Haribon also nominally supports the EEPP; but the Haribon-Palawan staff and Novellino view the project in different terms, and this has led to some friction. It is important to evaluate the design of projects of this sort, as their success or failure at this juncture could have serious implications for future government policy on support for activities involving indigenous people and forest management.

The EEPP is an extremely ambitious project and involves the establishment of a complex bureaucratic organization. Novellino is slated to take up the post of general director of the Coordination and Evaluation Board - effectively, director of the project. Joselito Alisuag is pegged as executive director, though a job description in the project document makes it clear that his position is below Novellino's. There is also an advisory Executive Committee, to be headed by Fr. Armando Limsa, also the head of the TFA and a Palawan. A Tribal Assembly, made up of representatives of the various indigenous communities, will comment on proposals submitted to them by the Coordination and Evaluation Board.

A number of technical proposals aim to improve swidden agricultural methods, an educational component, and a health component. Most of the activities seem to be well thought out (except for the introduction of coffee and cacao cash crops) and would probably lead to an improvement in Batak/Pala-wan living standards. The main problem is the patronizing way the project conceives of the indigenous role. Tribals propose nothing; they only comment on proposals submitted to them. In the flowchart accompanying the document the beneficiaries - i.e., tribals - are at the bottom. This is a classic top-down approach; indigenous people are passive recipients of assistance and are expected to carry out actions that they have not decided upon themselves nor in most cases have even requested. Previous experience strongly suggests that this kind of project will not work (Stiles 1987).

Two quotes from the proposal encapsulate this approach and reflect the thinking of the proposer. The community organizer is to "identify the key persons in the community who think that the project is worth pursuing and are willing to collaborate actively and may eventually help to convince the most reluctant individuals." Project staff in general are "to deal patiently [with] any negative attitude possibly shown by the beneficiaries, such as distaste for hard work or demanding behavior" (Novellino 1991). In other words, tribals are to be coerced into participating in project activities, ostensibly for their own good. Fr. Limsa, head of the TFA, told me that the Batak would like to return to hunting-and-gathering; but that this was not a viable option and therefore they must gently be shown the right path. What constitutes the "right path" is an extremely complex question. As Latin America has shown, indigenous people must be fully participating actors in order to find it.

Events in Palawan will have repercussions on the future of land and cultural rights actions in the Philippines and Southeast Asia in general. One can only hope that Haribon and the indigenous communities manage to emerge in sound condition from the political and social mine field they are crossing.


Clad, J.

1988 The Timber Tycoon and His Influential Friends. Far Eastern Economic Review. 24 November. pp. 48-49.

Clad, J. and D. Vitug

1988 The Politics of Plunder. Far Eastern Economic Review. 24 November. pp. 48-50.

Denslow, J.S. and C. Padoch, eds.

1988 People of the Tropical Rain Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ireland, E.

1991 Neither Warriors nor Victims, the Wauja Peacefully Organize to Defend Their Land. Cultural Survival Quarterly 15(1):54-60.

Labog, J.

1991 Palawan Tribesmen Threaten Suicide. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 8 March.

Lopez, B.

1991 `War' Between Haribon and the Military. Philippine Daily Inquirer. 15 March.

Macdonald, T., ed.

1984 Native Peoples and Economic Development, Six Case Studies from Latin America. Cultural Survival Occasional Paper No. 16. Cambridge MA: Cultural Survival.

Mayuga, S.

1991 Palawan Tribe Threatened with Extinction, Says Survey. The Manila Chronicle, 20 March.

Novellino, D.

1991 Toward a Better Understanding of Batak and Pala-wan Tribes Subsistence Activity and Survival, Palawan, Philippines. Unpublished ms.

Stiles, D.

1987 Classical versus Grassroots Development. Cultural Survival Quarterly 11(1):3-7.

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