‘Badjaos can go home now’
(Last of three parts)
The siege of Zamboanga City in September last year displaced thousands of villagers belonging to the sea-dwelling Moro tribe known as “Badjao” from their settlements in the shallows near or within a stretch of mangroves facing the sea.
Some 190 people died in the fighting, while nearly 120,000 residents were left homeless, among them the Badjao folk living in the seaside villages of Rio Hondo, Talon-Talon, Santa Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Kasanyangan and Mariki.
Many were taken to evacuation centers, but squalid conditions—at least 102, mostly children, have died due to health ailments—are fueling attempts by the villagers to return to their homes and their old way of life.
Civilian authorities led by the Zamboanga City local government are citing security and environment laws among many other reasons why the evacuees could not return. These are outlined in flyers, posters and meetings in the evacuation center.
The laws mentioned include the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act of 1992, which sets restrictions on human activity in protected areas.
Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said the Nipas law did not necessarily forbid human settlement in protected areas.
“Just because a place has been declared a protected area doesn’t mean no communities would be allowed to settle there. This is precisely why the Nipas law identifies tenured migrant communities who may be allowed to live in those areas or to engage in economic activity there,” she said.
Republic Act No. 7586, or the Nipas law, defines “tenured migrant communities” as those “which have actually and continuously occupied such areas for five years before the designation of the same as protected areas in accordance with [this law] and are solely dependent therein for subsistence.”
The law states that these communities must also enjoy protection even within protected areas, along with “indigenous cultural communities,” referring to “a group of people sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions and other distinctive cultural traits and who have since time immemorial, occupied, possessed and utilized a territory.”
“The Nipas law respects indigenous peoples (IPs), and in fact, it is encouraged that IPs join the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) so their interest will be represented in the management plans for the protected area,” Lim said.
Within a protected area, there is a “strict protection zone,” where no activity is allowed, and a “multiple-use” zone, in which there may be settlement and economic activity, such as fishing or agroforestry, provided there is respect for the boundary of the strict protection zone, Lim said.
It is the PAMB that conducts zoning, taking into cognizance the resources available. “For example, if a certain marine area is rich in fish and coral, it will be within the strict protection zone, while fishing is OK in adjacent areas,” Lim said.
But the mangrove forest facing the Basilan Strait and straddling several villages in Zamboanga City is not, technically, a Nipas protected area, according to the DENR’s Regional Executive Director in Region 9, Arleigh Adorable.
The Zamboanga peninsula hosts a number of protected areas, including the Rizal National Park in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte province, the Buug Watershed Forest Reserve in Buug, Zamboanga Sibugay province, and the Siocon Watershed Forest Reserve in Zamboanga del Norte province.
Also protected are the mangrove areas from the village of Tagasilay to the mouth of Tigbao River, including east Vitali island in Sibugay Bay, Zamboanga del Sur province; and in Tumalong Bay, Bolong River and Pongao Bay in Zamboanga del Sur, as well as the islands of Sagayapan Tintauan and Sacol in Zamboanga del Sur.
Within Zamboanga City itself, only the Pasonanca Watershed Forest Reserve, which is inland, has been declared a protected area under the Nipas law.
Even so, “those mangrove forests [in Zamboanga City] still cannot be occupied because they are considered forest land under Section 69 of Presidential Decree 705,” said provincial environment and natural resources officer Tito Gadon.
PD 705, or the Revised Forestry Code, is a 1975 law which states that it is unlawful to occupy or destroy forest land. “So any human occupation of that area is de facto prohibited,” Adorable said.
The law further states that “strips of mangrove forest bordering numerous islands which protect the shoreline, the shoreline roads, and even coastal communities from the destructive force of the sea during high winds and typhoons, shall be maintained and shall not be alienated.”
“Such strips must be kept from artificial obstruction so that floodwater will flow unimpeded to the sea to avoid flooding or inundation of cultivated areas in the upstream. All mangrove swamps set aside for coast-protection purposes shall not be subject to clear-cutting operation.”
Penalties include a fine of not less than P500 or nor more than P20,000, and imprisonment of between six months and two years, and payment of 10 times the rental fees and other charges which would have been accrued had the occupation and use of the land been authorized under a license agreement, lease, license or permit.
Search for relocation sites
Gadon said an interagency committee led by the Zamboanga City council was now trying to decide where to relocate the displaced coastal villagers, including the Badjao folk.
“The situation is really bad in the evacuation centers now. There are people dying from respiratory ailments and other illnesses,” he said.
He said there was a proposal to put them in a former salt bed not far from the shore, but “of course, the villagers want the old system when they were allowed to occupy the mangrove areas.”
Most of the Badjao folk in Zamboanga City make a living by harvesting and selling agar-agar (seaweed), as they cannot compete with commercial fishermen.
The villagers, Gadon said, are not receptive to the proposal because they are concerned that if they move to the resettlement site, the agar-agar would be stolen, since they would have to go to the resettlement site about a kilometer from shore.
But Gadon said they could not allow the old villegers’ lifestyle to continue anymore “because of the environmental impact.”
“In one community there are about 500 families already, and there is a solid waste problem. There is fecal matter in the water. It’s a serious problem,” he said. “If they are only a few families, this might be tolerated. But now, they number in the thousands.”
Another problem is security, Gadon said. “It’s in those places where the rebels were able to get a foothold, and where they were able to smuggle their firearms. We don’t want the same thing happening again,” he said.
UNHCR backs returns
A cluster of international humanitarian organizations led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains that the uprooted should now be allowed to return, saying the emergency that prompted the evacuation had passed. The UNHCR cites the United Nations guiding principles for the protection of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) allowing the voluntary return of the uprooted to their original habitat.
However, Commission on Human Rights Chair Etta Rosales said the government was right to enforce environmental laws, particularly in protecting the mangrove cover of Zamboanga City’s coastline.
“The mangroves there are important because they shield the coast and the villagers themselves from tsunamis and storm surges,” she said.
But Rosales added that it was now the government’s responsibility to find suitable resettlement sites for the villagers, where they would be able to earn a living and enjoy government assistance, including access to health and education.
“It’s going to be very difficult but they have to accept this paradigm shift,” she said.
Local leaders must also include representatives from the Badjao folk in the decision-making process for their relocation, duly explaining and informing them of their rights and duties under the law, she said.
“It’s high time the government paid attention to the Badjao. The reason why they are in this situation is because they have been marginalized for such a long time,” Rosales said.
PART 1 OF THE SERIES
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