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January 12, 2012


JUST before October 2011 ended, another indigenous people’s (IP) festival was organized in Cabanatuan City by the Alalay sa Kaunlaran Inc. (ASKI)—a nongovernment organization in microfinance and community development—in partnership with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and its Legal Development For The Arts, Heritage And Indigenous Cultural Rights (LAHI) project.

The event had the theme “Katutubong Yaman, Karugtong ng Kalikasan.” And it gathered ASKI’s partners cum clients composed of Ibalois, Ifugaos, Igorots, and Kankana-eys whose ascendants had migrated to Aurora Province many years ago mainly because of economic reasons.

A fun thing happened just before the formal program started. While soprano Mary Jeane Egloso, a fifth-year voice major at the University of the Philippines School of Music, was warming up for her kundimans, the audience so got into it that LAHI project director and lawyer Voltaire Veneracion did not have difficulty convincing people to go up the stage and sing.

This impromptu activity proved educating, for it clearly showed a generational divide—the elderly sang traditional songs, while the younger ones belted out either Filipino or American love songs. All singers nonetheless, regardless of age, were accorded respect. This respect did not prevent the audience, though, from reacting and laughing at one Igorot apo’s naughty song.

ASKI Foundation Director Lyn Dela Cruz presented an inspiring story of a place called Palale, one of the barangays served by ASKI. From her narrative, it was shown that the relative inaccessibility of an area should not deter developmental work, such as the introduction of potable water. One thing that ASKI has learned, dela Cruz says, is that a genuine and committed relationship with the IPs does not contemplate endings and good-byes.

Thus, unlike other NGO projects which sever ties when the time to cut comes, ASKI’s exit phase for its IP-related projects, added dela Cruz, will only open to new levels of relationship.
It was also inevitable that the audience would not only share their experiences but consult on legal issues given the presence of LAHI lawyers. After all, this is the role of LAHI: provide legal advice to, and represent if necessary, IPs on issues affecting them, most especially on their arts and culture, and traditional knowledge.

And one significant problem emerged—the IPs’ rights to their ancestral land. There was, for instance, a question if a community could still do something about the alleged confiscation of their lands by the National Irrigation Authority more than 30 years ago during martial law, and at gunpoint by the military to wrest their consent. Their experience of being dispossessed in order for the government to build a dam is not really an isolated case.

Who among the older generation will forget the cold-blooded murder of Macliing Dulag for opposing the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam project that would have inundated so many ancestral lands?

What proved more complex though are issues that pit IPs against IPs, like a contract of sale by one group of IPs with the Igorots, but which contract is supposedly now being dishonored because the land involved has been declared as part of the seller-IPs’ ancestral domain. One crucial legal issue that arises is: which law should prevail—civil law on contracts and obligations, which governs private relations and transactions, or the special law on indigenous people’s rights (commonly referred to as IPRA) that governs ancestral domains? What is disconcerting is the reported allegation by some members of civil society that certain groups are intentionally sowing conflicts among IPs in Aurora to facilitate the implementation of government projects that could affect ancestral lands.

And what was LAHI’s advice? Settle the problem by negotiation, either privately, or under the auspices of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), which has proper jurisdiction over such matters.

Luckily, the day did not end on a depressing note as some participants articulated their desire for the perpetuation of their culture, a sentiment shared by the others. Besides documenting their practices and traditions on their own using modern technology like video cameras, one of the ways proposed to do this is for the establishment of a school of living traditions in their area with the support of the NCCA. Many agreed with the idea. And with that, the day’s program was closed, and everyone stood up to join a cherished Filipino tradition—picture-taking.

The views and opinion expressed in this article solely belong to the author, a lawyer of the LAHI program of NCCA & ASKI Foundation.

The article was originally published in The Manila Times.