Tell it to SunStar: Let us dance with the indigenous peoples

The Lord calls us to listen to our indigenous brothers and sisters, who are also members of the family of God, and to respond to their aspirations as members of our society. Twenty-six years have passed since the promulgation of the 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), yet we still find millions of indigenous peoples (IPs) or their community leaders begging the Government for the full implementation of the IPRA.

The 15 million hectares of ancestral domains of IPs, as estimated by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), are mostly forests and fewer agricultural lands. The forest is part of their spiritual life, their source of food, medicines and other important ecological services for their survival. They have an IP culture that supports the simplicity of life, a low carbon footprint, and sustainable living. Such a culture is beneficial for our society, and we should dance with them and allow ourselves to be taught by their IP wisdom.

As of 2019, there were 245 Certificate of Ancestral Domain Titles (CADTs) approved by NCIP, covering a total area of 5,735,893 hectares. The Government’s accomplishment through the work of NCIP, after 26 years, is not even half of what had been envisioned in terms of issued CADTs.

However, the dark clouds of a looming legislative typhoon are on the horizon. In December 2023, we heard of elected legislators who introduced House Bill 9608. According to the explanatory note of HB 9608, “The bill seeks to rationalize the ancestral lands administration and adjudication process, amending for the purpose Republic Act (RA) 8371, otherwise known as ‘The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997.’” In response to this legislative proposal, we listened to lawyers who care for the rights of IPs.

During the colloquium on IP Rights and HB 9608, lawyers from various organizations or institutions were invited to share their written stance. The following were invited: Legal Assistance Center for Indigenous Filipinos (PANLIPI), Legal Rights and Natural Resource Center (LRC), and Philippine Misereor Partners Inc. (PMPI). The colloquium was attended by leaders of Indigenous Communities and other individual and organizational partners of the Episcopal Commission on Indigenous Peoples (ECIP) of the CBCP. Based on the presentations, HB 9608 appears to attempt to further weaken the NCIP and water down the full implementation of IPRA.

A greater threat to the common good of IPs is the push for Charter Change (“Cha-cha”) or amending the basic law of the Philippines, the Constitution, specifically the economic provision. It will open up untitled ancestral domains of IPs to monocropping plantations and other kinds of development aggressions.

In the past, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had been issuing logging permits, mining permits, and other permits within their legal competence to businesses within the ancestral domains of IPs that negatively impacted the sustainability of their lives and the succeeding generations. The IPs are always vulnerable to development aggressions because they do not have CADT for their protection.

If the government cannot even give what is due to the historically poorest and powerless sector in our society, how can Filipino voters be assured that economic progress is the primary motive for changing the Constitution and that preventing fraudulent claims is the purpose of changing the IPRA?

We affirm that CADT with its accompanying process of Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) to any proposed development project within ancestral domains is the corrective measure to historical socio-economic and political injustice.

To ensure the sustainable life of indigenous people who are gentle and living simple and eco-friendly lifestyles, and to guarantee the sustainability of ecological services that we all enjoy, the IPs are to be protected by having their ancestral domains covered by CADT.

What is good for IPs? IPRA and NCIP are good for IPs because they gave birth to 245 CADTs. More support and respect for the independence of NCIP is needed to grant more CADTs to the remaining vulnerable ancestral domains. The Constitution is good for IPs because it does not contradict IP Rights. The preamble of the 1987 Philippine Constitution affirms what the IPs aspire for: “We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society, and establish a government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace, do ordain and promulgate this constitution.”

Let us also heed the social teachings of our Catholic Church on the common good: “Underlying the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development” (Laudato Si’, no. 157). Let us not forget the integral development of people, especially our left-out indigenous brothers and sisters who were victims of historical injustices. It is always the right time to work together and support IP communities to have their CADT and journey with them in their long-time aspiration for self-determination.

Let us journey together and dance with the IP communities—not the “cha-cha” or any strange music—but with the serene and comforting sounds of gongs, echoing in the mountains from where the life-giving waters flow to the sea.

No to HB 9608! No to Charter Change! Yes to CADT and to self-determination of IP communities!

May God bless our efforts and make them fruitful for the common good and profit us of eternal life.

+ Valentin C. Dimoc, DD

Apostolic Vicar of Bontoc-Lagawe & ECIP Chairperson

+ Severo C. Caermare, DD

Bishop of Dipolog and ECIP Vice-Chairperson

+ Jose A. Cabantan, DD

Archbishop of Cagayan de Oro and ECIP Member

+ Prudencio P. Andaya, Jr., CICM, DD

Apostolic Vicar of Tabuk and ECIP Member

+ Jose Corazon Tala-oc, DD

Bishop of Kalibo and ECIP Member

+ Broderick S. Pabillo, D.D.

Apostolic Vicar of Taytay and ECIP Member

+ Bernardo C. Cortez, DD

Prelate of Infanta and ECIP Member

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