In a patch of old-growth forest in a mostly denuded area in Bislig, Surigao del Sur, the local Manobo community once rescued an endangered Philippine Eagle in 2007 and named it after their leader Datu Tinuy-an.
The rare species, whose numbers have dwindled along with the loss of the country’s forests that are their natural habitats, was turned over to local authorities and eventually, to the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao City.
Instead of expressing appreciation to the indigenous Manobo, however, government officials took charge of the forest that the Manobo had been guarding against loggers and declared it a wildlife reserve. The remaining forest grove, which the Manobo consider their sacred grounds, was opened up to students and researchers that, in the community’s view, desecrated the place.
“People conveniently forgot na tribo ang nakahanap [nu’ng agila], at tribo ang nagbantay ng huling bahagi ng gubat na napaghanapan no’n," recalled Dave De Vera, executive director of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID).
The group is a member of the alliance called Campaign for Land Use Policy Now (CLUP Now), which made a presentation before members of the media in early April to illustrate the various facets of land use. Held in Leyte, the event was sponsored by the German development agency GIZ, which is supporting local efforts to harmonize land use policies.
Citing the case of the Manobos as an example, De Vera said government policies on the use of Philippine forests continue to sideline indigenous communities, whose spiritual and livelihood practices could well be the last strategy for protecting Philippine forests.
He said the government did not consult the Manobo community, who had applied for a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) for their land under the Indigenous People’s Rights (IPRA) Act of 1997. Many support groups consider the procedure a “formality," arguing that indigenous groups have lived in the same territory for a long time, according to De Vera.
The role of indigenous peoples in forest conservation is one of the highlights in the United Nations declaration of 2011 as the International Year of Forests (IYF), with the theme “Forests for People."
On Wednesday, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is formally launching the IYF in the Philippines, with Presidential Proclamation No. 125 declaring 2011 as the National Year of Forests.
Conservation practices of communities
The Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme for South and Southeast Asia (NTFP-EP), which also promotes indigenous peoples’ rights, emphasizes the value of empowering local communities.
"We noticed that many of the conservation efforts failed because the local community is not involved," NTFP-EP founder Jenne de Beer told GMA News Online.
For 10 years now, the group has been assisting indigenous communities in getting a bigger market for non-wood products like rattan, bamboo, wild fruits and honey without destroying their environment. “The purpose is to combine forest conservation with improving the livelihood of indigenous people," De Beer said.
“Usually in the past, you had that connotation that when [they say] ‘forest preservation,’ it’s off limits to people. It’s quite a Western type of concept," said Vince Docta, NTFP- EP’s resource mobilization officer.
Contrary to such views, local NGOs believe that indigenous people who dwell in the forests will take charge of managing their home. “The context in Asia, from time immemorial, it’s always [that] people have been living inside forests," Docta explained.
According to PAFID’s De Vera, indigenous concepts have helped protect the forests, giving as an example the balete tree. “Tinitirhan ng mga kaluluwa ‘yan. Dahil matamis ang bunga niyan na seasonal, dinadapuan ng mga ibon ‘yan. Posibleng gustong manghuli ng ibon nu’ng tribo at iha-hunting niya, so hindi niya puputulin ‘yung kahoy," he said.
“We are recognizing the fact that we have to involve them in forest management and conservation," NTFP-EP coordinator Olive Melendres added.
Basic definitions could pose a problem, too, said De Vera. He cited the Forest Reform Code of the Philippines, which defines a forest on the basis of its elevation. "Sinabi [ng batas], all 18-percent slopes and above eh forest na, kahit bato ‘yan, kahit buhangin ‘yan," he said. “That is very, very erroneous."
In its Commentary on Forest Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization also observed: “It is difficult to obtain accurate land use data as all areas 18 degrees of slope are classified as forest regardless of whether any tree cover is present."
The intentions of different forest users pose another problem.
“Sa isang commercial forester, ang value ng forest, ang tingin niya diyan board feet – magkano ba ang presyo niyan per board feet?" said De Vera. “Sa industrial planter, ang depinisyon niya diyan, produkto.
“Yung tribo, iba rin ang tingin niya sa gubat," he said. “Puwedeng ang tingin niya sa gubat eh neighborhood niya. Puwedeng ang tingin niya sa gubat eh ritual area niya. Puwedeng ang tingin niya sa gubat eh grocery niya, dahil doon siya kukuha ng mga produkto niya. Puwedeng ang tingin niya sa gubat eh tirahan ng mga kaluluwa."
Indigenous forest management
The latest inventory in 2003 by the DENR’s Forest Management Bureau (FMB) shows that the Philippines has a remaining forest cover of about seven million hectares, or less than one fourth of the country's land area.
The government has given indigenous communities the right to make use of the country's remaining forest land through their CADTs, according to FMB supervising forest management specialist Cosme Bal.
In an interview with GMA News Online, Bal maintained that the government gives importance to forest communities and yields to indigenous rights in planning the use of land resources.
One example is a recently-approved model project in Tadian, Mountain Province that integrates indigenous forest management systems into government policies. The DENR signed a memorandum of agreement with the provincial government, the municipal government, and the National Council on Indigenous Peoples that recognizes the indigenous batangan system of sustainable forest management.
Nilda Patiga, FMB senior forest management specialist, said that while the batangansystem is applicable only to the indigenous people of Tadian, other local governments and indigenous communities can replicate the model. She said her office has received similar applications.
Land use act
Government policies overlapping with the IPRA law, however, threaten the indigenous people’s claim over ancestral domains, according to an audio-visual presentation of CLUP Now. Among these are the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Act of 1988, the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act and the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, and the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.
To address this problem, the group is pushing for the passage of the proposed Zoning and Land Use Policy Act (LUPA) pending at the House of Representatives, which allows indigenous communities to play a more substantive role in planning the use of ancestral domains.
Filed by Akbayan party-list Representatives Kaka Bag-ao and Walden Bello, LUPA mandates the integration of indigenous people’s policies, as contained in their Ancestral Domain Management Plan and Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan, into the land use plans of local government units.
Similar bills have been filed in the Senate and lower house. In his State of the Nation Address last year, President Benigno Aquino III has certified the proposed land use legislation as urgent.
In a 2010 report, the government-initiated Philippine Development Forum (PDF) Working Group on Sustainable Rural Development acknowledged that a number of laws has been passed to address land use issues.
“These policies, however, are sectoral and fragmented in approach and do not address priorities for land use that cut across sectors and put premium on long-term sustainability, local productive capacity, and overall social equity," the PDF report said.
At the Leyte forum, former DENR Undersecretary Elmer Mercado said, “’Pag gumawa ka ng land use plan, hindi dapat nababago."
Emphasizing the link of the national land use act to sustainable development, Mercado explained, “What we’re doing with the land use act act will decide today what will happen in the next 25 or 30 years."