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December 08, 2003


The exponential intensity of information exchanges of various kinds throughout the entire length of the Philippine archipelago has posited a problem in the theoretical areas of anthropology—What constitutes ethnicity? It used to be that ethnic identity is defined by self-ascription and, more tenuously, ascription by others. This approach was appropriate when the territorial integrity of ethnic groups has been maintained and when there were relatively fewer cultural intrusions into the relatively closed structure of ethnic groups. Recent times saw organization and structural changes in Philippine societies that indicated a gradual gravitation toward cultural convergence.

The institutions that contributed to this convergence are many: the political system that radiates from the national, provincial, municipal and the barangay that through the years have supplanted the indigenous systems of leadership; the economic system that introduced a market system that included the international market as catchment area; the educational system that leveled the modes of values and education throughout all the sectors of Philippine society; the religious systems of Christianity and Islam that subordinated and debilitated indigenous belief systems; the emergence of a powerful multi-media system that invaded all forms of communication and information systems; and a gradually developing transportation system that is bringing remote areas closer to central places of dispersion.

No ethnic group can withstand such onslaught on its fragile culture. The impact on the ethnic communities is such that what is emerging now is an “urban-peasant continuum” network in every central place, with the major fulcrum in the government centers of Manila and other urban focal points. In the lower end of the continuum are remnants of indigenous communities that are relatively out of administrative reach of government and its services.

The effects of the changes are readily apparent in the forms of material culture that are now widespread in the country, especially those distributed through the market system. The most obvious is the way people dress, and the mode of thinking that to wear ethnic dress is to put on a “costume.” It is no longer possible to distinguish ethnicity by way of dress because this, too, has evolved. Even more definitive is that people used to live in types of architecture that are distinct to their culture. Not so anymore, now that ethnic architecture has been relegated to a few dilapidated specimens in out-of-the-way places and the emerging pattern is that of the Mediterranean house-types congesting residential areas. Philippine diets have also become catholic. Even more overpowering is the convergence taking place through the use of English as a medium of instruction and the evolution of a national language.

The past years have shown a propensity to assert ethnic recognition and self-rule, even a perceived tenuous dichotomy based on religion and the contingent, associated cultural practices. In the south, the Davaweños emerged from the Mandaya as an outcome of religious differences; the Chabacano from the Subanon due to Spanish influences; the Kolibugan differentiated themselves from the Subanon due to Islamic and ethnic culture convergence. In the north, there is some legislated identification of a cultural divergent subgroup, the Aplai of the KanaKanai area; the strengthening claim to ethnicity by the Bago group; the consensual acceptance of a single ethnic name of Kalanguya by the Kalanguya (rarely mentioned as Mongello) and Ikalahan groups, and all this is complicated by the presence of other sub-groupings in Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya of the Keley-i, Yattuka, and Dikkalay. There were additions, too, to the ethnic roster in the south like the Tasaday, I’wak and Tau Batu, as specific groupings ethnographically described.

These widespread socio-cultural alterations underline the need for the redefinition of what comprises ethnicity itself since classic anthropological parameters no longer work. Among others, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, posited this 1982 definition: “Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than the institutions of the country of which they now form a part, under a state structure that incorporates mainly the national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population that are predominant.”

However vague the above definition may be, the final criterion is that ethnicity boils down to self-ascription since nothing else works, not aspects of culture, not dress, not behavior, not even language. In fact, even this has become problematic since there are those who cannot even make a categorical statement as to what ethnic group they belong or what core area they came from. Take the children of Manila who can claim no ethnicity, except a national one, even if this is a political identity. Yet, it is the tenacity of identity that keeps the indigenous peoples proclaiming the persistence of their culture no matter how progressively altered.

Ethnic concern is worldwide. Last August 9, as part of the efforts to use legislation to empower indigenous peoples, a technical working group of the United National Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) was convened by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to forge a statement to rationalize development assistance to these groups. This event marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples when a global forum was created to address indigenous issues. The United Nations Economic and Social Council planned that this Permanent Forum will be in place by the year 2002. This Permanent Forum is one of the fundamental goals of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly for 1995-2004. The draft UNDP program for capacity-building for Philippine indigenous peoples includes: policy-planning implementation and advocacy; sustainable management of ancestral domains; and cultural preservation.

There are a number of estimates about the indigenous populations of the country with regard to size and number of groups. None supports another. An attempt in 1994 gives a total of some 80 groups with nine out of this number as questionable since these could either be subsumed under a larger group for reasons of ethnographic legitimacy, or whether or not the groups still exist. The number is thereabouts and perhaps cannot be precisely determined. A conservative estimate of subgroups under these major ones is a listed 250 subgroupings down to a third level—a number that can rise even to more than 500 if further studies are conducted as warranted by ethno-linguistic studies. Then, the mainstream groups comprise 87.42 percent of the total population, while the indigenous groups form 12.56 percent (Muslim, 6.05 percent; other indigenous, 6.51 percent). This problem cannot be resolved because individual societies fluctuate all the time—some groups merge, some fission off, others emerge, while still others simply fade away.

Whether from the perspective of non-dominant peoples or from a “peasant-urban continuum,” the fact remains that there is an increasing poverty, a narrowing of livelihood opportunities, and a dwindling of natural and cultural resources among the indigenous peoples. Concerns over this have resulted in the enactment of Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous Peoples Right Act (IPRA) in 1997, but which now lies dormant since its constitutionality has been questioned before the Supreme Court. Still it is acknowledged that legislation is needed as a tool to fulfill the constitutional mandate for the promotion of indigenous peoples’ right and development within the framework of national unity. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) that implements RA 8371 could not perform its task of alleviating the plight of the indigenous communities since much of its funds has been frozen since 1998 because of the ongoing NCIP reorganization. There are only barely enough funds to cover the salaries of its officials and employees, according to one of its commissioners.

A grave cause for alarm is the blatant disparity in the quality of life between the Moro-dominated provinces in Mindanao and the non-Moro areas. The difference is getting wider, according to a study funded by the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP). The provinces of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and parts of Central Mindanao and Western Mindanao posted “the highest poverty rates (57.3 percent), the lowest literacy rates (61.2 percent) and are way behind in human development indicators.” These areas continue to lag behind the rest of the country even while Southern and Northern Mindanao indicated substantial improvements in their quality of life and economy.

The PBSP study suggests that perceived government neglect, poverty, and lack of public and private investments might have driven the people in these areas to criminality and rebellion. Even in thrusts toward self-determination, the fighting usually ends with negotiated de facto autonomy within the state. Accommodation seems to be the key, for in a country with diverse ethnicity, the best protection against separatism is to see to it that the rights and culture of the minorities are protected.

In the cultural area, government action is largely being carried out under the umbrella of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts which coordinates work with affiliated cultural agencies and concerned private cultural workers. The areas covered are: culture and development, which includes Schools for Living Tradition, preservation of traditional arts and rituals, among others; culture and education; program for artistic excellence; promotion of culture and the arts; conservation of cultural property; cultural agency cooperation; and culture and diplomacy. The range of coverage includes all ethnic entities, even those in the mainstream.

In spite of all these programs in cultural heritage preservation, there is grave concern on the effects of globalization. There is great danger of cultural disruption. When cultures collide, there is an axiom even in nature—the lesser-developed system will not be able to sustain a direct confrontation with a more developed one, and the former will certainly collapse. The colonial period in Philippine history evinces this. The mere introduction of Christianity and Islam has wrought havoc on indigenous cultures and continues to do so. The market system with its international catchment areas has changed domestic economy and its accompanying social order and structure. The replacement of the indigenous forms of leadership by a national civil political system has redefined alliances and relationships even in small communities. With the altered cultures went the social values, especially those that are attendant to cultural heritage.

Globalization will result in an exponential increase in the contact with other forms of cultural influence that will certainly affect local cultures, unless controls to soften impact are set in place. Most certainly, however, the trend inevitably will be toward convergence with all the foreign influences no matter what is done to prevent this. Urgent programs for protection, conservation and documentation must be put in place to save whatever there is still that can be acted upon.

The altered state of culture of the traditional societies posits polarities in approach to protection and preservation which may be contrary but not necessarily contradictory. Foremost is the problem of tradition that is the basis for ethnic definition and the establishment of identity. The other is the developmental aspect of culture since it does not only continually change because of internal causes but also due to external factors as well. Even the Constitution mandates the development of culture. When the tradition is preserved, culture change is inhibited. When cultural development is attended to, tradition cannot endure. What is evident in the recent years is a movement toward convergence of both aspects. Both are being addressed at present. There is a certainty, however, that what will be looked back at in the few years to come will only be memories of the perspicuity of culture or how these are perceived to be. Eventually there will be homogeneity of culture throughout the country, and only ethnic identities will remain.