Domoguen: Understanding and sustaining the IP Forest

I CANNOT deny the relevance of indigenous knowledge and the old folks’ best customary laws and practices being critical to the sustainability and conservation of the natural resources of the region now.

Several studies and documentation of indigenous knowledge and practices were done by the academic and development institutions on the subject. Their conclusions are in agreement with what the old have known about diversity in nature supporting sustainability and quality of survival. It takes an understanding of indigenous knowledge passed on from one generation to the next, to simply brand it superstitious, pagan, and then discard these in exchange for the so-called “new life” and its rituals. If you have lived two decades on earth, you may know that rituals do not go away, they simply change.

We should be grateful in the Cordillera. Several IP practices and customary laws survived long enough to demonstrate their importance to the sustainability of life in our highlands. Between the rice terraces maintained by communities following the old ways and those modernized, we should be able to discern what to keep and pursue and thus ensure our mountains will long endure as good habitats for our children and a diversity of life that is the foundation of a healthy and quality existence.

But the question now is will these practices long endure without the old folks who do not simply utter and flip knowledge like these are cheap coins on the air. Without them as practitioners who live with knowledge and practices passed on to them from generation to generation, will the ways, rituals and practices that integrate the importance of every life form with the soil and humanity’s existence hold?

Engineer Andrew Magwilang, Community Development Officer (CDO) of the National Commission of Indigenous People’s (NCIP) assigned in Mountain Province understood what I meant – about the rituals observed in a person’s “cycle of life” as practiced in the village, following the old ways. It was an enlightening talk we had, however, brief before the start of the CHARM2 Scale-Up Project Orientation at the People’s Center in Bontoc, Mountain Province.

A knowledge and understanding of the “cycle of life” in a village situates all other knowledge and documentation done on IKSPs, documentary laws and practices in the village.

According to Engineer Magwilang, it is so because the old ways are rather integrated, not viewed in chopped up limbs, like the trees that grow in their lonesome in the mountain landscapes of the modern forest that we see in our mountains these days. The rituals of life from birth to death, from the construction of a house, irrigation canals, rice paddies, harvests, drinking – all the rituals are kind of connected, integrated, practiced, lived out. The beating of gongs, the chants, and dances, these are part of rituals and are understood in the context of the “IPs Cycle of Life.” Modern folks do not know that. What they know and see in a dance or the sounds of gongs and flute, indigenous instruments, are focused to how it is perceived in the passing moment. They may document what they see as they pass by, but that is all there is to it, no depth, he said.

Engineer Magwilang has basis for his observation. He himself has documented the native “cycle of life” including their rituals in his village on his own initiative, long before the NCIP thought about documenting the “cycle of life” of indigenous peoples in the Cordillera.

What made Engineer Magwilang do what he did? It is the realization that when the old folks are gone, nobody might be able to practice their rituals and practices anymore. He did not wish that all about his being an IP would be totally lost.

A second point is that he has been articulating about the importance of IKSPs and customary laws in conserving the indigenous people’s (IP) forest. In this light, more Cordillera communities would be encouraged to pursue and support the region’s role as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon, he suggested.

By IP forest, we mean the old giant cloud forest that has covered our mountains green throughout the centuries. In the early years of the tribes in the Cordillera, it was covered with thick clouds most times of the day. Those were the years when the ancestral domain boasted of a rich biodiversity inside their homeland; a place where people and numerous species of fauna and flora co-exists – humankind with animal and plant kinds – species and sub-species of birds, fishes, mollusks, algae, trees, grasses, brown deer, wild pigs, fowls and reptiles naturally occurring or had naturally established their populations and colonies in the mountainscapes and valley floors of this rugged mineral rich region.

The Igorot tribes lived in their domains, managed and protected the land and its environment as their forefathers have done through their own indigenous ways of governance. They believed that the land is the foundation and source of all necessary ingredients for living. As such, they are responsible for protecting, preserving and developing the resources of the domain through their own community-based resource conservation and management system (IKSP).

Generally, the IKSPs and customary laws on natural resources seeks to conserve natural resources, provide protection against water and air pollution, prohibit the entrance of intruders who destroy the environment and maintain the ecological balance of the tribal communities.

IKSPs and customary laws being conserved and practiced also offers a way to conserve the rice terraces that anchors highland tourism and allied livelihood industries, even agriculture and inland fisheries downstream.

The key to the updating, monitoring and enforcement of IKSPs and customary laws in our time is an indigenous governance system, run and managed by a council of elders, characterized by collective decision-making, leadership and solidarity.

In Mountain Province, including the Maeng tribes of Abra, the implementation of tribal governance practices has been so rigid and intensive in holding all members fully committed in the enforcement of customary laws. Outsiders who destroy natural resources are meted punishments and driven away from the territory by tribe members. Up to the 1970’s, a number of the tribes readily fought for their territory, even with government troopers, mining and logging companies whenever necessary in defense of the integrity of their lands.

That was in the past.

Today, there is much discussion and documentation done about IKSPs and customary laws especially during these times of climate change. The successes of these practices are of course, reckoned in the past.

Integrated into the ecological consciousness of the community, IKSPs and customary laws on natural resources as practiced were as essential and relevant to the native’s daily food. Their effectiveness in conserving natural resources and protecting water and air from pollution and the plunder of natural fauna and flora in the Cordillera tribal domains and forests while the tribal elders held the reins of local governance offer a ray of hope for a country that has no land use plan, and losing much of its forest to housing, industrial and commercial uses.

Today can these old IKSPs and customary laws, while being recognized as best practices, be effectively up scaled in the regalian and modern social dynamics, governance systems and ways of the current population of the Cordillera, largely in the hands of local government units (LGUs), religious institutions, groups and associations with their causes and concerns, competing for members and followers in the villages, barangays, and townships of the region?

The follow-up question is, are there people among the current generations of the tribes who are knowledgeable of their IKSPs and customary laws and capable of mainstreaming these in the current local governance and educational systems? Until then, we continue to learn and pay lip service to the IKSPs and customary laws of our ancestors or simply allow these to become myths in our modern consciousness. Still on the subject, are there really bright ideas out there?

Maybe we should ask Engineer Magwilang once more, why he documented the IP cycle of life in his village. He welcomes modernity’s best ideas, practices and rituals but he did not also wish that his being an IP in this part of the globe would be totally lost but improved instead by current stakeholders.


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