Updated: Oct 17, 2020
The Flight for Indigenous Protection, the Fight for Civil Amelioration
They are the world’s tropical gatekeepers yet forsaken by the land on which they rightfully reap and sow.
To globally preserve the rights of their population and celebrate their milestones in protecting the environment, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly has declared the ninth day of August, through Resolution 49/214 dated December 23, 1994, as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (IPs) in honor of their movement toward cultural and biological diversity. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, on its commemorative address this year, the IPs vastly comprise 22 percent of the global land area with a population between 370 and 550 million and contribute to the development of almost 7,000 languages.
However, the life of IPs lays hanging in poverty and extreme violence, topping it off with the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, making them vulnerable to our state’s negligence. Not only are they disadvantaged medically but also nutritionally due to the loss of their ancestral domains. Posing a massive economic threat—also home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity—these might be gone sooner if left in the hands of capitalism.
With the UN’s call to secure the IPs’ interest in these challenging times, this year’s celebration is themed “COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience,” which focuses on safeguarding their traditional lore and practice, rebalancing our relationship with nature, and reducing future pandemics.
While they are known for their holistic relationship with the natural world, we, on the other hand, must help them flourish the lands their ancestors have tilled before us.
Land of the mourning
The loss of our indigenous communities’ ancestral rights is often traced from the shortage of implementing laws. Resource and Rights Initiative coordinator Andy White says in an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI) that the IPs, local communities, and Afro-descendants “are under siege from all sides” albeit they protect the world’s remaining biodiversity.
Moreover, existing global targets to expand conservation areas up to 30 percent could easily be increased to half of the planetary surface by 2030. Investing in countries and communities ready to elevate their land rights, as White says, can save the planet from ruining itself.
Aside from protecting our biodiversity, securing land rights allows these communities to properly govern their territories and prevent animal-to-human hazards. Conservation expert Anthony Waldron, who initiated a study on zoonotic disease risk, told the RFI that IPs and conservationists managing clearly defined land rights own “large blocks of defined territory…therefore, not being invaded [chaotically].”
The Philippines is already suffering from the militarized COVID-19 response of the national government. The suppressed freedom of the IPs and communities to express dissent against the commercialization of their ancestral domains aggravates their marginalization down the line.
A case in point is the Dumagat-Remontados indigenous community. Although they had successfully appealed for the stoppage of Laiban Dam in 2009, the Duterte administration secured a dubious environmental compliance certificate and a $211-million loan from China Exim Bank.
Adding fuel to the fire is the pushing through of the Kaliwa Dam within the Sierra Madre range, their natural habitat within the Luzon area. The presence of soldiers is heightened; individuals are being harassed and red-tagged as members of the New Peoples’ Army to manipulate resistance from “extractive developments” (i.e. mining, forest exploration) and infrastructure projects in the uplands.
A member of the tribe was even abducted and physically abused while in custody, tells Stop Kaliwa Dam Network area people leader and coordinator Conrado Vargas in an interview with The Diplomat magazine. Displaying excessive autonomy, as he says, is their way to get their territories industrialized.
Based on a report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer dated July 30, the Philippines is in the top rank of deadliest Asian countries for land and environmental defenders, and second overall next to Columbia with 64 cases. Corruption watchdog Global Witness has recorded a 13-point rise in cases from 30 killings two years ago.
Most deaths are mining-related and mostly happened in Negros Island and Mindanao, with 16 cases last year. One of which is Manobo leader Datu Kaylo Bontulan, who passed away during a military airstrike in Kitaotao, Bukidnon, last April, few of those tribal leaders who asserted “…their right to self-determination and their ancestral lands.”
An uprising in indigenous schools is also present driving communities away from their ancestral grounds.
According to Global Witness, half of those documented murders held under the Duterte regime are linked to state forces and paramilitary groups. Over 260 human rights abuses are then documented during the lockdown.
Meanwhile, environmental activists are now finding ways to keep exercising their rights online and offline, in reserved spaces. The Asian Indigenous People Pact (aippnet.org/covid-19-response/), an established response network of 47 indigenous people’s network in 18 countries, helps spread factual COVID-19 data and coordinates relief operations and traditional rituals among their locales.
Three women are at the helm of Haribon Foundation’s Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project funded by the European Commission and in collaboration with BirdLife International, in defense of their ancestral lands from degradation and deforestation.
Bae Elma Bauzon of the patriarchal Manobo tribe helps her community conserve Mount Hilong-Hilong in Northeastern Mindanao. She takes full environmental responsibility sans holding a tribal role.
Former Barangay Indigenous People’s Representative of the Mamanwa-Manobo tribe, Bae Virgilia Juagpao serves as the leader and “the voice” of her Bantay Banwa group on forest governance and protection, and law enforcement.
“Ka Ningning,” as known to her Dumagat tribe in General Nakar, Quezon Province, is the tribal chieftain or Kaksaan in the local dialect. She identifies herself as a forest defender who is willing to sacrifice her life “in the name of service for our environment.”
These people and their stories truly prove with all might their love for their homeland.
The price to pay
Rogelio Bayod of Cor Jesu College Inc. in Digos City, Davao del Sur, mentions in his published position paper on the IP’s future (www.researchgate.net/publication/330712577) their relationship to their ancestral grounds, hence their “divine origin”. People must understand that their ransacked lands are essential to their core.
Their rich natural biodiversity and resources have already been eroded as multi-companies penetrate their territories in favor of national interest. The destruction of their habitat and the perceived environmental apathy are the price to pay beyond national development.
Aside from these destructive practices, the once-marginalized community becomes more marginalized with the loss of their ancestral domains. Mining is central to the loss of their land as cultural identity. Mineral reserves account for 58 billion tons of metallic and non-metallic minerals mostly hidden within the land of indigenous communities. Mass promotion of large-scale mining by the government, through exploiting contracts and permits, further heightens the overall damage.
Additionally, the past and current administration pave the way to dams and other infrastructure projects amid criticisms which, in turn, become an enabling mechanism to continually and fully diminish their lands. Several government policies favor national interest; these indigenous communities are losing their cultural heritage and are becoming more dependent on their environment over the years.
Our forefathers’ ancient soils are now made into commercial stones and pebbles. The government turns a blind eye when we speak of ancestral welfare, leaving us with nothing but hopelessness.
Our indigenous brothers and sisters should rightfully reclaim their homeland and cultural pride. We, in return, must pay homage to and preserve their heritage.
That is their gift to the world.
A Manila-based creative, Cedrix S. Hay is currently on a hiatus. Cedie, as known to his peers, is interested in creative writing and current affairs aside from graphic arts and novels.
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Kasiyanna is an anthology that honors the traditional, rich cultures of indigenous people and sheds light on the collective issues within their communities amidst the pandemic. There might not be a silver lining to the crisis yet, but this issue hopefully allows deeper dialogue and engenders a stronger call to action.
Banner art by Cedrix Hay