The Philippines opened the 30th Southeast Asian Games this year with a performance celebrating the country’s indigenous cultures. A day earlier, indigenous Aeta communities were given a notice evicting them from their ancestral lands. These Aeta families – up to 500 of them according to a local indigenous association – are among those being displaced to give way for New Clark City (NCC), a 9,500-hectare development that is supposed to become the Philippines’ “first smart and green metropolis.”
The Aeta of Tarlac are one of several indigenous groups threatened since Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016. The government under his presidency has been described as an “illiberal democracy” or even “authoritarian.”
“Toleration or encouragement of violence” and “Readiness to curtail civil liberties” are among key indicators of authoritarian behavior according to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Duterte has exhibited both with regards to indigenous issues:
Since Duterte took office, there has been a brutal dispersal of indigenous protesters, while Duterte himself has threatened to bomb schools of the indigenous Lumad peoples. The island of Mindanao, home to the Lumad peoples, has been under martial law since the 2017 Marawi Siege. Lumad leaders have been calling for the lifting of martial law in an effort to stop military attacks and harassment of their communities.
Struggles of indigenous peoples (IPs) in the Philippines are not new, however. Different groups have faced neglect, and hostility from both government and private sectors over the years.
While these problems did not begin with Duterte, their further deterioration under his administration highlights the Philippines’ failure to properly include IPs in its democratic spaces.
Institutions for IPs: Where Are They?
The Philippine government did create institutions to ensure that indigenous peoples are represented, and their rights and cultures respected. The state, according to the current Philippine Constitution, is supposed to “protect the rights of indigenous cultural communities to their ancestral lands to ensure their economic, social, and cultural well-being.”
In 1997, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) was passed into law, creating the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). The IPRA and NCIP vision was for “genuinely empowered ICCs/IPs whose rights and multi-dimensional well-being are fully recognized, respected and promoted towards the attainment of national unity and development.”
The goal was democratic: ensuring IPs are properly represented in Philippine society without the loss of their cultural identities. What happened?
When Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, groups of IPs gathered to call for a review of IPRA. They believed that the law had failed to protect their rights in the 19 years it has been active.
Among the problems that affect the earlier mentioned Aeta are the NCIP approving development projects without free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from indigenous communities, as well as difficulties for groups trying to secure Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT).
The Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA), in charge of converting land formerly used by US Bases (including New Clark City), has denied eviction of the Aetas, claiming that “no indigenous community has been displaced.” However, researchers have estimated that up to 20,000 Aetas and 15,000 farmers will be displaced by the development.
The BCDA can make their claim because they have approval from the NCIP, who refused to acknowledge the Aeta Hungey group’s application for CADT in 1999. The Aetas of Tarlac continue to struggle for recognition, for their voices to be heard, only to be denied and silenced by the government. And the Aeta are not the only ones experiencing this.
“Those who need electric lights are not thinking of us who are bound to be destroyed. Should the need for electric power be a reason for our death?”
These were the words of Macli-ing Dulag, an elder of the Butbut tribe of Kalinga province. In 1974, the Philippine government, then a dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, was set on constructing a hydroelectric dam along the Chico River. The dam would have submerged large areas of rice terraces and displaced thousands of indigenous Kailnga and Bontoc peoples. Led by Dulag, they resisted the dam project.
In 1980, Dulag was assassinated by soldiers of the Philippine military. This only united and escalated the nationwide opposition to the dam, eventually pressuring the Marcos regime to cancel the project.
Why is this story relevant today?
This year, preparations have begun for the construction of a large dam along the Kaliwa River, meant to prevent a potential water crisis in the country’s National Capital Region. However, this dam also threatens to submerge the ancestral domain of the Dumagat peoples in the Quezon region, displacing entire communities and depriving them of homes and livelihood. Like with the Chico Dam, the indigenous communities were not consulted.
The Duterte administration seems to be railroading the project, supposedly in the name of “the greatest good for the greatest number” despite opposition groups calling attention to the lack of proper environmental impact assessment, and proposing safer alternatives.
The displacement of IPs from their ancestral lands for the benefit of another group is a crime that goes back even before Marcos, long before the Philippines was an independent Republic.
What we call “development aggression” today has much in common with disruptive policies from the Philippines’ colonial past, like reduccion (forced resettlement) under the Spanish and US military reservations under the Americans. The effects on indigenous people are the same: loss of land, livelihood, and culture.
IPs in the Philippines are recognized as such because they were able to assert and defend their distinct cultures and ancestral lands amidst the colonial-era transformation of the country. For the Philippine government to allow attacks on IPs to continue constitutes a failure to learn from historical experiences and should raise concerns over the state of indigenous rights and representation in Philippine democracy.
Land and Life
Political Theorist Robert Dahl saw the ideal “democracy” as a system “almost completely responsive to all its citizens,” where citizens are “political equals” with opportunities “to have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of government” – a contestable and inclusive government.
IPs constitute 10-20% of the 100 Million+ Philippine population, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). Though not all are under attack, we have seen that historically and institutionally these groups are vulnerable. How can the Philippines strive closer to that democratic ideal when thousands of Filipino IPs are threatened and silenced by the government?
National development should not come at the expense of the homes and livelihoods of IPs. Violating their rights and threatening their existence in the name of “development” or “progress” is neither democratic nor humane.
While the Duterte administration continues to take an authoritarian bend, it is doubtful that they will make the much-needed reforms on institutions that are supposed to protect and promote Filipino IPs. The government has instead become more aggressive toward certain IPs.
For many indigenous groups in the Philippines, land is life. It is not real estate with a deed to be traded or sold, but a home and source of livelihood passed down to them over generations. It is their legacy, their history, which they have defended for centuries against colonial rule and will continue to defend for the sake of their livelihood. Whether they succeed this time is now up to the Filipino people.
As with the resistance to the Chico Dam in the 1970s, a collective effort from Filipinos in solidarity with IPs will be required before the government changes its stance. It is important that the struggles of IPs are not forgotten even as Duterte intensifies attacks on other sectors of Philippine society. They are Filipinos too.
If the Philippines is to celebrate the diverse cultures of its indigenous peoples, as in the SEA Games, then it should also recognize their struggles and stand with them in defending their land and rights. Doing so would be an important step towards a more inclusive and more democratic Philippines.