A Choice for Indigenous Communities in the Philippines

Human Rights Dialogue 2.11 (Spring 2004): Environmental Rights

In the 1990s, the Philippine legislature passed two groundbreaking laws recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples and ensuring their participation in protected area management and decision-making: the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992 and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997. The earlier law, NIPAS, institutionalized the participation of indigenous and local communities in the land management process by providing for the establishment of Protected Area Management Boards composed of government officers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local community representatives. IPRA allowed for the granting of collective and individual rights to land to indigenous peoples through certificates of ancestral domain and land titles.

The rights provided for by these two laws give indigenous people a choice of approaches for regaining some control over their lands: a participatory approach through NIPAS or a rights-based approach through IPRA. The story of the Calamian Tagbanwa of Coron Island, who chose to follow the IPRA course, demonstrates that the rights-based approach can provide more protection than participating in a process over which indigenous peoples often have little control.

The Calamian Tagbanwa inhabit the beautiful limestone Coron Island, one of the Calamianes Islands of North Palawan, which is surrounded by water once rich in marine resources, the main source of their livelihood. In the 1980s, declining fisheries in the adjoining Visayas islands and southern Luzon coasts triggered the movement of fishers westward into Calamianes waters, which resulted in over-fishing, illegal fishing, and an increased human population.

By the mid-1980s, the waters surrounding the island were being degraded at an alarming rate by dynamite, cyanide, and other illegal and destructive fishing methods. The situation was so serious that the Tagbanwa began facing food shortages. In response to this ecological assault, the Tagbanwa in 1985 organized the Tagbanwa Foundation of Coron Island, which applied to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for a Community Forest Stewardship Agreement. The Stewardship Agreement they were seeking would provide a 25-year legal tenure to the Tagbanwa people and allow them to mange their natural resources through a community forest management plan

Meanwhile, in an effort to cope with the sudden population growth, the deficit-ridden municipal government of Coron attempted to increase revenues through taxes on the trade of natural resources. It strictly regulated indigenous lands and local resources traditionally traded by the indigenous communities (such as swiftlet nests, an expensive Chinese delicacy, also used as medicine, and an important cash-earner for the Tagbanwa) and declared them properties of the municipal government. At the same time, the Philippine national government was promoting tourism to ease a foreign currency crisis that had broken out in the aftermath of the fall of the military dictatorship in 1987. With the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), in 1990 the government completed a study that identified the development of tourism infrastructure in North Palawan—specifically the Calamianes Islands—a priority. The release of the study led to an influx of local traders and real estate speculators who lobbied municipal executives to declare several Calamian Islands government assets and offer them for public bidding.

That same year, in 1990, the Tagbanwa Foundation was awarded the Stewardship Agreement they sought, covering the whole of Coron Island and a small neighbouring Island, Delian. Yet the Tagbanwa Foundation was not satisfied with only a 25-year lease It went on to use a new law—known as Administrative Order Number 2 of 1993—to pursue a land and domain claim to the island and surrounding waters. This administrative order, which was the precursor to the 1997 IPRA law, cleared the way for the Tagbanwa to gain control over both land and marine resources through a rights-based approach to community resource management.

With the help of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID) a national NGO, the Tagbanwa obtained a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) in 1998—the first such certificate in the country that included both land and marine waters. When IPRA became law, with PAFID’s assistance the Tagbanwa continued the process of regaining their rights over the island by requesting a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, as provided for in the law. The Foundation maintained that the Tagbanwa community had inherited the islands and the waters from its ancestors (mepet). Supported by detailed maps of their territories and an Ancestral Domain Sustainable Management Plan, the Foundation based its claim of ownership over the islands and waters on the Tagbanwa’s continuous possession, use, and occupation of the territory since the earliest written records and memory. In 2001, the Tagbanwa successfully obtained the domain title certificate, making the Tagbanwa people “a living example of how IPRA can be used successfully by indigenous peoples” (Tagbanwa Foundation’s chairman, Rodolfo Aguilar).

The Tagbanwa had secured their land rights not a moment too soon. Three years prior, in 1998, Coron Island had been named one of eight sites in the Philippines to be incorporated into the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS)—in keeping with the long-held goal of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to gazette the whole of Coron Island as a protected area. This decision was made without the consultation with the local community and without seeking prior consent. What the Tagbanwa got were promises of majority participation in the protected area’s management board.

The Tagbanwa had resisted. They had been aware of the track record of the NIPAS Act, which had not always improved the participation of indigenous communities in protected areas management. In some cases the protected management boards had failed to produce documents in local languages or provide the basic resources to hold meetings. They also had known of problems concerning control of the management boards: the chairperson is a government officer, and because individuals tend to shy away from being vocal in the presence of government officials, full participation is often forestalled. Furthermore, most indigenous communities are not recognized as legal local government units, a fact that denies them representation on the management board in the first place.

Now, having gained a title of ancestral domain over the island, the Tagbanwa want to maintain their rights to land and decision-making over resources that will affect the future of the island rather than accept an uncertain participatory approach through the management board.

The experience of the Tagbanwa of Coron Island demonstrates that in the current legislative and political context of the Philippines, when an indigenous community is determined to protect its natural resources and rights, when a legal framework supports their rights, and when needed assistance is available from NGOs, effective action can be taken to obtain recognition of existing rights and protect local ecosystems. Following the example of the Tagbanwa, other indigenous communities within the Philippines are now looking at titles of ancestral domain over land and water as a tool to secure their permanent rights to land and marine resources.

Read More: Environment, Environment/Sustainable Development, Asia, Southeast Asia, The Philippines

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