Statement on Indigenous Peoples Rights in the Philippines

Today, the 9th of August is not only the International Day of the World Indigenous Peoples but also the National Indigenous Peoples Day in the Philippines. The Philippines has an estimated number of over 10 million Indigenous People mainly concentrating in Mindanao and Northern Luzon with a few groups in the Visayas. By that they make up about 10 % of the entire population and can be divided in over 40 different ethno-linguistic groups. This makes the Philippines the country with the highest percentage of Indigenous People in Asia.

Due to colonial history and nation building processes Indigenous Groups have been deprived and discriminated in various ways during the history of the nation. Harassment from national and international companies, private investors and landlords as well as from the government to make profit of their inhabited lands and associated evictions, little access to education and infrastructure and a lack of governmental attention and caretaking are causing serious poverty and marginalization of these groups. This social position puts Indigenous People increasingly at risk to become target to human rights violations especially the groups living in Mindanao since the implementation of the martial law lasts for over a year now. The militarization of their living spaces causes grave mobility limitations through curfews and military actions; increases poverty through food blockades, evictions and destruction of farmland; threatens the individuals safety through bombing of schools and civil housings, sows fear imprisonment and weakens the bonding of communities through recruitment of people for paramilitary groups.

This happens despite the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) that was finally enacted by the Philippine government in 1997. The act aims to ‚recognize, protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Cultural Communities/Indigenous People‘ as the first law in Asia to do so.  The most central aspects are: Indigenous People’s rights to ancestral domains, right to self-governance and empowerment, social justice, human rights and cultural integrity as well as the creation of a National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP). At the time IPRA was considered progressive and exemplary but over time it is now perceived as flawed as the implementation of the law doesn’t seem to be one of the governments greatest concerns. Furthermore the IPRA was challenged in court in 2000 which granted the state the prior rights over natural resources while the Indigenous People only got stewardship rights over their lands and resources. In addition new laws where implemented that would challenge IPRA such as the mining act of 1995 or the revised forestry code of 1991. Indigenous People would continuously be threatened by evictions and displacement when their lands would become of interest for energy and development projects such as mining, dam building, large scale agri-business and eco-tourism.

To illustrate these policies we would like to display the case of one of our Partners, the Subanen Tribe, an Indigenous Peoples group situated in the surroundings of Zamboanga Peninsula. The Subanen were put in charge of their territory shortly after the implementation of the IPRA. But even after they acquired the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title mining companies started mining projects on their ancestral domain without their permission which violates their entitlement to self-governance and tenure. In addition, the conflict is intensified by the involvement of local state actors who have partly proven themselves as counterparts by issuing licenses to mining companies without the consent of the Indigenous People. Thus, the tribe’s fight for the protection of ancestral domain is in equal measure a competition with economic interests of mining companies and government units.

Resistance against these injustices is met by oppressing Human Rights Activist and indigenous leaders through trumped-up charges and threats to their life like it happened to our Partner “Bobby”, the tribal chief of the Subanen Tribe. Being also the Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative (IPMR) to the Pagadian City Council, Bobby became a symbolic figure of the Indigenous People’s fight for ancestral domain and priority rights regarding natural resources. By filing a complaint against a mining company as well as against the former Governor of Zamboanga for illegal issuance of licenses, he successfully put an end to the illegal mining on the ancestral territory of his tribe. Thus he also became a target for harassments such as being ousted from the City Council in Pagadian shortly after the verdict for vague reasons which made him lose his constitutional right to political participation as an IP. Furthermore he also faced threats to his life through an ambush attack and several arson attempts on his residence while struggling with false accusations for “Attempted Murder“ and trumped-up charges for “Illegal carrying of firearms” and “Illegal Possession of explosives”. Both trials were supposed to take place in his home town. However, due to above mentioned threats to his life as well as doubts about the impartiality of the Court regarding the influence of local politicians he was unable to attend the hearings. A motion filed by Bobby’s legal assistance to transfer the venue of the trial to Manila was denied. The dysfunctional Philippine justice system is often being used to cause long and expensive trials for victims of trumped- up charges, while impunity protects perpetrators of extrajudicial killings. Trumped-up charges, harassments and threats are common methods to silence and intimidate human rights defenders and activists. Under Marcos, this practice has been a country-wide phenomenon to silence political critics and many NGOs such as IPON observe a rise in its use within the past two years. It does not only restrain the accused from their human rights work but causes major restrictions in personal life and safety as well.

Amidst the legal battles Bobby has to face, he continued his aid in other Subanen territories to develop their ancestral domain by facilitating the submission of all documents to the NCIP regarding their Exercise of Priority Rights (EPR) over the resources inside their respective ancestral domains as embodied in the IPRA. For eight long years, the Subanen Tribe within Zamboanga Peninsula waited for the validation and acknowledgment of their EPR Declarations but it seems that the NCIP, the agency mandated to promote and protect the interests and the rights of the IPs, is oblivious of the plight of the Subanen Tribe. This is a clear example of government’s failure to address poverty in the IP communities. The Subanen Tribe is an example of a tribe that wanted to further develop their communities but was restrained by the government who did not act upon their requests promptly.

Despite these precarious circumstances Indigenous People continue to fight for their rights and stand strong for their communities. Like Bobby who despite the charges and threats that drove him away from home and into hiding keeps on supporting his tribe and advises other people and groups facing the same struggles. It can thus be said that the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines are not mere victims of violent politics but stand out as strong fighters for justice and freedom throughout their history who won’t let themselves be silenced and oppressed without resisting. It is hence our mission to support and assist these people in their priceless efforts and make sure that their human rights are protected and respected. We therefore aim to spread this statement to raise awareness to the situation of Indigenous People in the Philippines and the violations of their human rights and call out to those in power to put an end to the politics causing them.


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