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Indigenous Filipino tribes struggle to save their land

Tribal leader Juanito Lumawig pointing to Mangyan ancestral land on a map.
Tribal leader Juanito Lumawig pointing to Mangyan ancestral land on a map.
Plan helps the Mangyan to survey and create 3-D maps of their ancestual land.
Plan helps the Mangyan to survey and create 3-D maps of their ancestual land.
August 9, 2011

In the dense forests of Occidental Mindoro, where the Mangyan people are scattered in small remote settlements, tribal leaders are debating their future.

“We are petrified that big mining companies will take over our ancestral land. If the government gives them license to operate, our land and heritage will be lost forever,” says Juanito Lumawig. The 62-year-old leader of all seven tribes of Mangyan is a worried man. For him, it is a battle for survival for his people, who for centuries have inhabited the highlands of this Philippine island.

Over 40,000 hectares of land, including vast swathes of forest, is claimed by the Mangyan people as their ancestral domain. The land is believed to be rich in gold, natural gas and minerals worth many millions of dollars. The stakes are high and the odds are stacked against the Mangyan. Their group numbers less than 25,000. Not only are the Mangyan physically isolated from the rest of the Filipino population, they are also among the poorest and most marginalized.

A Mangyan family earns on average just $0.34 a day. Nine out of ten Mangyan have poor access to safe drinking water and the majority are illiterate. Traditionally nomadic forest gatherers, the tribes often struggle to feed themselves, particularly during the rainy season which lasts four months. It is such a routine part of their life that they call it the “hungry period”. The consequences are that 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and infant mortality rates are so high that a child is considered fortunate to reach the age of 10.

Nowhere to go

Generations of isolation, discrimination and encroachment of their land by others have left the Mangyan distrustful of the outside world. “First the lowlanders invaded our land and forced us to move to the highlands and now we might be driven out again. Only this time we have nowhere to go,” says Yagay Sebastian, the leader of Buhid, one of the seven Mangyan tribes.

According to the government regulations, all indigenous peoples must prove their ownership of the land they claim, through title deeds and legally valid documentation. A difficult task, given that the majority of the Mangyan are illiterate with limited contact with the outside world. Also, most have no birth registration or identity documents, rendering them even more vulnerable.

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act was passed by the Philippines government to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral land along with their rights to self-governance, empowerment, social justice and human rights. However, nearly 15 years after the law was enacted, very little has changed for the Mangyans. “They remain among the poorest of the poor, still at the fringes of national priorities,” says Diana San Jose, an anthropologist who is supporting Mangyan tribes to compile evidence for their legal claim. In the absence of a legal title, it will be a struggle for Mangyan tribes to challenge commercial use of their land.

Although the law claims to protect the tribal communities, overlapping jurisdictions of local and national government have created loopholes. Ask Ed Gadiano, mayor of Sablayan – the largest municipality by area in the whole of the Philippines. “Four years ago Sablayan declared a moratorium on large scale mining for 25 years. Despite this, the national government granted an exploration permit to a mining company on 9700 hectares of land,” he says.

Mapping the land

Already battling with severe poverty and exclusion, the Mangyans find themselves in an overwhelming tangle of bureaucracy. Most cannot comprehend that the land they have tilled and worshipped for centuries now requires a proof of ownership. They are relying on support from local and international organizations like Plan to save the environment that they have strong spiritual and cultural connections with.

“Some Mangyan tribes have already been awarded title of their ancestral land. We are assisting those who are still in the process,” says Naty Silorio, a senior Plan official overseeing the organization’s development projects with the Mangyan. Plan has worked with communities here since 2005.

“We are working with the local government to enable the community to secure their rights and preserve their culture,” says Silorio. With support from the European Union, Plan is assisting the Mangyan to survey their land, create 3D maps and document their oral history which is full of references to geographical landmarks.

Securing their title is just the beginning for the Mangyan as they head for even more testing times. Lumawig laments, “Our people have been offered bribes and some have ended up signing consent forms allowing commercial use of our land. We feel helpless and totally powerless.” Frustration is growing among the Mangyan but, just like the forests they inhabit, their dissent is remarkably peaceful. “Non-violence is part of our beliefs. Our ancestors told us that God created the forests for the Mangyan. I am sure they will protect us,” says Lumawig.

Learn more about Plan's work in the Philippines.

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