To protect local heritage, people must first recognize their own. Cultural mapping is one approach to record and track the tangible and intangible parts of their past that communities consider as invaluable.

According to Ian Cook and Ken Taylor in their 2013 guide, “A Contemporary Guide to Cultural Mapping: An Asean-Australia Perspective,” cultural mapping is a “timely and relevant tool” for “generating knowledge about communities, their histories, heritage beliefs and day-to-day ways of life.”

To help local governments lead in preserving local heritage, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) established the Cultural Mapping Program.

Recently, actor and vlogger Beauty Gonzalez posted on social media photos of a pair of earrings and necklace that she proudly revealed were assembled by a local jeweler from prehistoric graves looted and desecrated by treasure hunters who sold the relics to private collectors instead of informing the government.

Gonzalez unwittingly revived the challenges of preserving and learning from the Filipino people’s cultural treasures, especially when these are out in the open and vulnerable to violations from ignorant vandals who carve their initials on centuries-old structures to well-connected thieves who drive the black-market sale of antiques looted from graves and churches or excavated from diggings on public and private land.

Republic Act (RA) 10066, also known as the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, mandates the NCCA to “establish and maintain” the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property (Precup). The same law identifies the local government units (LGUs) as the lead actors for organizing the community to conduct cultural mapping, create a local cultural inventory, and coordinate with the NCCA for incorporation in the Precup.

Last March 2023, the bicameral conference committee approved a bill that will amend RA 10066 and boost cultural mapping in the nation.

And yet, the law serves only as scaffolding for the communal act of safeguarding heritage and history. Appreciating what the authentic past teaches us about the process of finding ourselves relies heavily on keeping alive the intangible aspects of culture.

As defined by RA 10066, culture is expressed by these intangible forms: “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills.”

More important than the weave is the weaver; more essential than the ancient rice terraces is the farmer. The lives and prospects of Filipinos who practice and keep living culture leave much to be desired.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) notes that “many of the 110 ethno-linguistic indigenous groups in the Philippines experience discrimination, degradation of resource bases, and armed conflict.”

They lived among nature’s bounty until they were dispersed by “development” projects, land-grabbing, and armed conflict. As one of the “the poorest and most disadvantaged sectors of society,” indigenous peoples are challenged by illiteracy, unemployment, underemployment, poor health and nutrition, and human trafficking.

The ancestral lands that are central to the social, cultural, and spiritual lives of the indigenous people are rapidly lost and diminishing through war, modernization, and other encroachments, points out the ILO.

Any plan about “safeguarding heritage for sustainable development” should not cut out the importance of promoting the needs and aspirations of communities whose way of life represents lived cultures.

The loss or desecration of cultural properties — defined by law as our “national cultural treasures, important cultural property, world heritage sites, national historical shrine, national historical monument, and national historical landmark” — is tragic enough.

Our society must uphold the rights and meet the needs and aspirations of the country’s indigenous peoples.