Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to some estimates, there are close to 100 indigenous peoples, exclusive of the Muslim groups, though the exact size of the indigenous population remains unclear: while the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples estimates that there are approximately 11.3 million indigenous peoples in the Philippines, for example – a figure amounting to around 11- 12 per cent of the population – some civil society estimates suggest they may comprise between 10 and 20 per cent of the population.
There is a great variety of social organization and cultural expression among these communities. Some specialize in wood-carving, basket-making and weaving. Others are known for their embroidery, appliqué and bead-making. They range from the Bontoc and Ifugaos, who built the renowned rice terraces in the mountainous interior of Luzon, to indigenous peoples practising shifting cultivation or hunter-gathering.
A significant number of indigenous peoples in central Luzon are Protestant Christians, having been converted by American missionaries in the early twentieth century and educated in missionary schools. For others there is a considerable difference in terms of integration with lowland Christian Filipinos. Some have intermarried. Others have remained isolated. There is little general agreement on the names and numbers of these indigenous communities.
While some of these indigenous peoples emerged from early waves of Malay or Proto-Malay migrants, about 27 of them, such as Aeta and Ati, are Negritos that were already long-established in the Philippines: they are thought to be the descendants of the earliest settlers to the archipelago, who may have migrated there through land bridges from the Asian mainland some 30,000 years ago.
A common geographical distinction is often made between Igorot (Tagalog for ‘mountaineer’) on Luzon, and Lumad (‘indigenous’) for those in Mindanao, with others in Luzon and the Visayas using their collective name, such as the Manobo, Mangyan, etc. Ten upland tribal groups on Luzon have been identified: Ifugao, Bontoc, Kankanay, Ibaloi, Kalinga, Tinguian, Isneg, Gaddang, Ilongot and Negrito. Ifugaos of Ifugao province, Bontocs of Mountain and Kaling-Apayao provinces and Kankanay and Ibaloi of Benguet province were all wet-rice farmers who have for centuries worked their elaborate rice terraces. Groups such as the Ibaloi were the most influenced by Spanish and American colonialism and lowland Filipino culture because of the extensive gold mines in Benguet, the proximity of the city of Baguio, good roads and schools, and a consumer industry in search of folk art. Other mountain peoples of Luzon include Kalinga of Kalinga-Apayao province and Tinguian of Abra province, who employ both wet-rice and dry-rice growing techniques. Isneg of northern Kalinga-Apayao, Gaddang of the border between Kalinga-Apayao and Isabela provinces, and Ilongot of Nueva Vizcaya province all practise shifting cultivation. Although Negritos formerly dominated the highlands, by the early 1980s they were reduced to small groups living in widely scattered locations, primarily along the eastern ranges.
The other concentration of indigenous communities is in central and southern Philippines. The Lumad tribal groupings of Mindanao include Ata, Bagobo, Guiangga, Mamanwa, Magguangan, Mandaya, Banwa-on, Bukidnon, Dulangan, Kalagan, Kulaman, Manobo, Subanon, Tagabili, Takakaolo, Talandig, and Tiruray or Teduray. The Lumad groups of Mindanao have faced, and continue to face, long-term displacement and legalized land dispossession, which is also a threat to other indigenous communities in the Philippines. The southern Philippine island peoples of Mindanao are resource-rich and were formerly under-populated compared to the northern island peoples of Luzon. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, there was a steady migration of Christian lowland Filipinos into areas previously occupied and dominated by Lumad and Moros. These migrations were initially encouraged by the American authorities, when the Philippines was under their rule, and were given further impetus by central government authorities after independence by the development of plantation agriculture, logging concessions and hydro-electric and geothermal energy schemes. Lumad are now outnumbered in their ancestral lands.
The Spanish crown, by virtue of colonization, claimed rights over the islands and the authority to dispose of the land. Later, the US authorities institutionalized their legal powers to dispose of all land and voided all the previous land grants by Moro or Lumad chiefs, as well as others throughout the Philippines, that had been made without government consent. Only individuals or corporations could register private claims to land ownership. This left no room for the concept of ancestral or communal land, which the indigenous Lumad had held to be sacred and not subject to individual title or ownership.
Through the efforts of the Lumad of Mindanao, and their supporters among the lowland Christian Filipino community, two important provisions were written into the 1987 Constitution. Article XII (5) obliges the state to ‘protect the rights of indigenous cultural communities to their ancestral lands to ensure their economic, social and cultural wellbeing’, while Article XIV (17) commits the state to ‘recognize, respect and protect the rights of indigenous cultural communities to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions and institutions’.
However, the state also continued to maintain rights to land, and national development policies continued to be shaped by powerful economic interests and political forces. Lumad continued to seek the return of lands taken from them through harassment and illegal manipulation and seek the revocation of all plantation permits and logging concessions. They sought self-government within their ancestral lands with their customary laws, and the preservation of their indigenous cultures. In all these matters, Lumad faced an up-hill battle.
Greater democracy after the end of the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos led to a number of favourable changes. In the same year, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (1997) was adopted, with a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) established under this legislation. The former recognized indigenous peoples’ native title to land and their (limited) rights of self-determination and free exercise of culture. It also offered an option of applying for a ‘Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title’.
However, these positive steps in relation to indigenous peoples’ rights have not proved as effective in their activities as might have been hoped. This was partly due to legal challenges as to the constitutionality of both, which was not resolved favourably by the Supreme Court of the Philippines until 2002. In addition, the full recognition and implementation of the rights of indigenous peoples that are contained in the 1997 Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act still faced many hurdles: there have been criticisms that the 2004 removal of the NCIP from the President’s Office to the Department of Agriculture, for example, weakened its position and influence, while the disbandment of Task Force 63 (a body and mechanism which promotes inter-agency cooperation on indigenous peoples’ issues) indicated the low priority that state authorities were actually giving to the rights of indigenous peoples.
Following recommendations by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples that the NCIP call for a ‘National Consultative Assembly’ (with the objective of including indigenous peoples and organizations in the planning and implementation of the Commission’s activities), the NCIP convened a National Forum in November 2006. This led to the establishment of the Indigenous Peoples’ Consultative Body (IPCB), operating at a national, regional and provincial level. The composition of IPCB is tripartite, including representatives of NCIP, indigenous peoples’ organizations and NGOs. Despite criticism concerning their membership, the establishment of these bodies was seen as a positive development towards enhanced participation by indigenous peoples in the making and implementation of NCIP policies.
While indigenous peoples have in theory a right to mother tongue education under the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, this right is still unimplemented. An Institute for Indigenous Peoples’ Education set up a handful of ‘pilot schools’ to respond in a more receptive way to the culture and traditions of indigenous peoples, but teaching in indigenous languages is not part of the official state curriculum. Privately established indigenous schools, which occasionally teach in local community languages, continue to meet obstacles from Department of Education authorities in the registration process and in recent years have been attacked by armed groups, many of whom are suspected to be linked with security forces, due to suspicions that the schools are promoting support for the communist insurgency.
Although most indigenous communities live in isolated rural areas, a growing number are migrating to cities in search of better livelihoods and social services. Many are driven from their traditional lands by militarization, tribal conflicts and the expansion of large-scale development projects, which frequently bring little or no benefits to local communities, particularly women: many indigenous women, unable to secure employment with the mining companies and leave to find work in urban areas, suffering extreme poverty in cities like the northern city of Baguio or the capital city, Manila. They often face poverty and exclusion as a result of their limited formal education and the fact that their skills may not be suited to an urban context. In Baguio – where indigenous people make up over 60 per cent of the population – it is estimated that some 65 per cent of indigenous migrants suffer from extreme poverty. Many of them are migrant women working as vendors in the city streets, where they are regularly pestered by police as part of the government’s anti-peddling drive.
The long running conflict between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA) in the mountains of Mindanao – lasting some 50 years and with a total death toll of more than 40,000 lives since it began – has had particularly devastating impacts on the Lumad people, a cluster of 18 indigenous communities in Mindanao. Many Lumad civilians have been caught in the conflict, subjected to militarization within their communities or targeted with extrajudicial killings and torture. Thousands have been displaced while fleeing violence by security forces. According to a joint stakeholders’ report to the UN Universal Periodic Review on the Philippines in September 2016 submitted by KATRIBU National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, 102 extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples were committed by the previous Aquino administration. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took power, these murders – despite making calls for an end to the killings of Lumad – have continued, with military, vigilantes and private security forces suspected of carrying out the attacks. Many of the victims have been notable opponents of mining, oil palm plantations, corruption and government abuses.
A peace roadmap that was approved in 2016 included plans for negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). After over 40 rounds of talks under five different Philippine governments, the two parties met again in August 2016 in Oslo, Norway, for the first formal peace talks in five years. The NDFP is an umbrella group of communist organizations, representing the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the NPA, in the negotiations. The 2016 formal talks in Oslo included a timeline for negotiations, initiating a ceasefire, negotiating immunity for NDFP members, and an amnesty for detained political prisoners, the latter of which brought negotiations to a standstill with the previous government. The two parties agreed to an open-ended ceasefire, which managed to maintain a fragile peace throughout the year, despite not yet being able to agree to the terms of an official bilateral ceasefire agreement. The negotations subsequently collaped, with Duterte claiming in July 2017 that he planned to resume fighting against the NPA due to their failure to respect the terms of the ceasefire. While he offered to resume talks in early 2018, uncertainty has persisted. There have, however, been localized peace talks leading to some 8,000 people surrendering by the end of 2018.
Alongside the communist rebellion, an Islamist insurgency has also contributed to widespread insecurity in Mindanao: while agreement was reached in 2018 with the largest group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to hold a plebiscite in January 2019 on the creation of a larger autonomous Muslim region known as Bangsamoro, a large number of ISIS-affiliated extremist groups continue to operate outside the framework of any peace agreement.
Lumad communities have often been caught in the crossfire of the protracted civil conflict in the southern Philippines, and regularly accused of harbouring communist sympathies. Alternative education has become the target of particular scrutiny and distrust, with the military accusing indigenous schools of promoting communist propaganda. State officials have drawn outrage for recommending the introduction of new schools run by the military. The Save Our Schools Network has accused the army and pro-government militias of staging premeditated attacks on alternative education institutes in order to marginalize indigenous land and cultural rights: local estimates suggest that there were 95 attacks on Lumad schools in the southern Philippines between September 2014 and 2015, an average of eight cases per month.
One of the most notorious incidents took place in September 2015, when a troop of armed men stormed an alternative Lumad school in the southern Philippines. Teachers and students were dragged from their dormitories and rounded up, together with hundreds of other civilians, in the small village of Diatagon in Lianga, Surigao del Sur. Two indigenous leaders – known for their work protecting the community’s ancestral lands against encroachments from mining companies – were hauled in front of the crowd and executed at point-blank range. One of the victims in particular, Dionel Campos, was the chairperson for Mapasu, an indigenous organisation striving for ancestral land rights. The head of the alternative school, Emerito Samarca, was later found in one of his classrooms, with his throat cut and two gunshot wounds in his abdomen. Samarca, who was slain at Lianga, was also a vocal campaigner against large-scale development projects that fuel violence and displacement in the southern Philippines. The government denied any involvement in Samarca’s murder, claiming the attackers merely dressed up in army fatigues that matched the insignia of the nearest battalion. Approximately 3,000 Lumad indigenous people were forced to flee in the wake of this incident, resulting in an extended period of displacement.
This treatment, driven by the belief that Lumads are supporting the NPA insurgency, has resulted in indiscriminate killings and widespread displacement of indigenous communities. There has been limited change since Duterte took power: in 2017, for instance, he accused indigenous schools of supporting the rebellion and threatened to bomb them. This situation creates further barriers for Lumads, who have some of the lowest educational levels in the Philippines, in accessing schooling. Part of the problem is the entrenched discrimination towards indigenous youths within the centrally managed school system, which often treats them as outsiders and second-class citizens. The time and cost of travelling long distances to reach public schools also place insurmountable burdens on many Lumad families. Indigenous activists in the southern Philippines insist that the right to a free and culturally tailored education is fundamental to defending indigenous heritage and rights, which are often intimately tied to the protection of ancestral lands and resources. The government’s failure to investigate crimes against Lumad schools has left the communities more vulnerable to further attacks and encroachments.
Land rights remain an ongoing issue for indigenous communities, many of whom still lack official recognition of their ancestral land. Under the 1997 Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, 221 ‘Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title’ (CADT’s) had been issued by March 2018, covering over 5.4 million hectares. While this may sound impressive, the process has involved the land rights of indigenous communities totalling only 1.2 million people. Besides this, the process to obtain a title remains difficult and lengthy: in 2012, an additional procedure was added in the attempt to address jurisdictional issues between agencies, but it has slowed the process even further. After the titles are issued, they must be registered with the Land Registration Authority, to make the titles more robust against land incursion. Less than 50 of the 182 CADT’s issued by September 2016 had been registered.
Even land recognized as indigenous under these certificates can still be lost to development projects, since mining and other projects can be pursued if a certificate of ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ (FPIC) is obtained from affected indigenous communities. A number of indigenous peoples have repeatedly reported that they have been deceived, threatened and even seen some of their people assassinated, in order for companies to receive these FPICs. Many claim that a string of murders of indigenous leaders have been linked mainly to their defence of their ancestral lands. Development projects being undertaken, such as mining, the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway and various eco-tourism projects have caused the indigenous Aetas to leave the area around Mount Pinatubo. Indigenous land also continues to be redistributed directly to non-indigenous settlers by the Department of Agrarian Reform, thorough the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.