By MARK AMBAY III
MANILA — On October 13, 3,000 indigenous and Moro peoples converged in the Philippine capital of Manila to demand recognition of their right to self-determination.
The protest, dubbed Lakbayan (Journey) of National Minorities for Self Determination and Just Peace or simply Lakbayan, kicked off at the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on October 8. The protesters have been on the road since then, making stop overs in different regions of the country to gather support.
This is not the first time that indigenous peoples have journeyed to the capital to demand their rights, yet this is the first Lakbayan that indigenous peoples and Moros have banded together as national minorities in demanding the recognition of their right to self-determination.
This is also not the first time that indigenous peoples in the Philippines are calling for the scrapping of laws that they see as unjust.
About 15 million indigenous peoples divided into more than 100 groups call the Philippines home. In 1997, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) was passed by the Philippine legislature purportedly to help ensure the self-determination of indigenous peoples. It was initially hailed as an enlightened law.
“The first impression you get about IPRA is that it looks good on paper,” said Piya Malayao, secretary general of Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous groups in the Philippines. She is a Kankanaey from the Cordilleras in northern Philippines.
The Philippines was one of the first countries that already had a law guaranteeing indigenous peoples’ rights prior to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of 2007. As such, IPRA was a groundbreaking law because it would have served as a template for laws on indigenous rights that other governments could follow.
The government said “IPRA guarantees the rights of the Lumad, that this will help us develop,” recalled Dulphing Bayang Ogan. He is a B’laan and secretary general of Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad sa Mindanao (Strength of the Lumad Peoples in Mindanao). Lumad is a collective term for 18 indigenous peoples groups living in Mindanao and make up roughly 60 percent of the indigenous population in the Philippines.
Through the years, however, initial positive impressions became disillusionment.
Helping the powerful
The IPRA allowed for the creation of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the government agency responsible for implementing the provisions of the IPRA. Since its inception, however, the NCIP, “rather than stand for the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples, has acted more for the benefit of the government and big businesses,” Malayao said.
Though tasked to ensure that ancestral land titles are awarded to indigenous groups who have been living on ancestral lands since time immemorial, actual events have proven that the NCIP has acted more in cahoots with large companies in securing ancestral land titles for commercial use. This includes the halfhearted implementation or even the subversion of the process for acquiring FPIC, non-recognition of legitimate indigenous representatives and negotiating with fake indigenous leaders (or tribal “dealers, as they are known locally). There is blatant disrespect for indigenous laws and customs to accommodate big business interests, among others.
“There are times when the NCIP became the de facto negotiator for big businesses to enter our lands, sometimes even resorting to bribery and deception,” Malayao said.
One of the supposed positive provisions of the IPRA is the need for the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples through widespread consultations before big businesses and other projects are allowed to operate within ancestral territories. Yet even this has seen its own set of problems in actual implementation.
Ogan said there are documented cases in the Philippines where companies, especially foreign ones, disregarded the need to obtain the FPIC of indigenous communities or bastardized the process in order to get the consent of indigenous communities.
One such case that of the Norwegian company Intex Resources. In 1997, a permit was issued to the company to explore possible mineral deposits in the town of Sablayan in Mindoro island. Mindoro is the seventh largest island located in central Philippines and is home to the Mangyan, a collective term for eight Indigenous Peoples tribes living on the island. The permit was issued on the basis of a supposed FPIC granted by indigenous organizations which, it turned out, was founded by a company employee and was funded by the company.
One problem with the FPIC is that there is no provision regarding cancellations of the FPIC if a project is proven to be detrimental to the interests of the indigenous communities concerned. The FPIC can also only be given once, at the start of the project. If ever a company decides to expand its project to cover lands not previously covered by the FPIC, it is no longer required to seek consent from indigenous communities.
Even the Philippine government has seemingly done away with the need for an FPIC when doing business in ancestral lands. In 2012, former president Benigno Aquino III issued Executive Order 79 (EO 79). EO 79 gave the executive branch the power the approve mining applications even without the benefit of consultations with concerned indigenous communities or even local government units. It can even override decisions of local government units and indigenous communities opposing the entry of companies into their territories.
Business over rights
Before IPRA came into being, another law has severely affected the lives of indigenous peoples in the country.
The Philippines is richly endowed in natural resources, with recent estimates showing the country’s untapped mineral reserves valued at over USD 1 trillion. In order to exploit these resources, the government passed the Mining Act of 1995 in order to encourage large-scale foreign investment in the Philippine mining industry. Provisions of the law include 100 percent foreign ownership of up to 81,000 hectares of land for 50 years. The law is also silent on issues regarding indigenous peoples and ancestral lands.
A fact-finding mission report by the Irish Center for Human Rights along with other organizations, noted how the operations of large-scale mining companies in the country have destroyed forests and watersheds within ancestral lands that affected both indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike. Human rights violations are rife in areas where large scale mining companies are operating. Intense militarization was also noted in indigenous communities that registered strong opposition against the mining operations.
However, it seems this resistance to mining operations by indigenous communities fell on deaf ears. Former President Benigno Aquino III even made attracting large scale foreign investment in the mining industry a national priority.
“The Philippine Mining Act is a heaven-sent law for companies in the extractive industry,” noted Beverly Longid, the global coordinator of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL). She is also a Kankanaey from the Cordilleras.
As of March last year, 246 mining applications covering 619,000 hectares of ancestral lands have been approved by the government, according to a joint report submitted by Katribu and Kalumaran to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Thousands of indigenous peoples have been displaced due to large-scale mining activities. Several hundred more applications are pending with the Philippine government’s Mining and Geosciences Bureau (MGB).
“Because of this law, large companies are free to exploit some of the largest mineral reserves in the world, to the detriment of indigenous peoples living in their ancestral lands,” added Longid.
Indigenous peoples rights activists who joined the Lakbayan believe that IPRA and the Mining Act will not solve the problems of indigenous peoples in the country.
In fact, the current secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recommended the cancellation of permits of 20 large-scale mining companies for violating the rights of indigenous communities as well as environmental and health standards, violations that were made possible through the enactment of IPRA and the Mining Act.
When asked whether they ever felt the supposed benefits promised by IPRA and the Mining Act, Malayao answered “we would not be making this Lakbayan if we felt those supposed benefits.” “The paper they were written on is worth more (than those laws),” she added.
It remains to be seen whether the present President Rodrigo Duterte, who has spoken against the killings of indigenous rights activists, will listen to the demands being pushed by the protesters. In the meantime, indigenous rights activists continue the struggle to have these laws repealed.
Mark Ambay III is a researcher for the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL). He is also associated with KATRIBU National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines and the Assert Socio-Economic Initiatives Network in the Philippines (Ascent Philippines). Follow him on Twitter @markambay.