Who will fight for the rights of indigenous peoples?
BAGUIO CITY—An anecdote goes about a man and his first encounter with ancestral land titles in Baguio City. Acquiring land in Baguio is complicated, owing to a colonial American city charter that puts all alienable lands in the townsite up for auction.
So when a townsite applicant heard that the government has issued Certificates of Ancestral Land Titles, he said: “Who invented ancestral lands anyway and where do I get one?”
True or not, the story expresses how Filipinos misunderstand Republic Act No. 8371 (Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 or Ipra), which has legally empowered indigenous peoples for the last 15 years.
Each time the government addresses the progress made by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), it sums up the ancestral land titles issued by the agency.
But in reviewing the NCIP’s performance between 2002 and 2009, organizations like the World Bank (WB) also noted the interagency conflicts, the perennially low budget and the legal challenges which the NCIP had to overcome.
Given the agency’s much bigger mandate to uphold IP rights, the studies also point out that it focused its resources on land titling and, recently, facilitating conferences to secure the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of tribal communities to allow mining firms to operate in their areas.
Ipra studies undertaken recently by the University of the Philippines-Baguio’s Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) put the blame on presidents who direct the NCIP’s behavior.
“The NCIP’s overall dismal performance in implementing the Ipra is in part shaped by the ambivalence, if not indifference, of past presidents toward IP issues,” writes UP Baguio political science professor Alejandro Ciencia Jr. in a paper, “Governance Issues and the NCIP.”
Ciencia, CSC director, and seven other UP Baguio professors presented the CSC findings on World Indigenous Peoples Day on Aug. 9:
Fidel V. Ramos (1992-1998). He signed RA 8371 into law on Oct. 20, 1997, two years after he signed the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, and 10 years after the 1987 Constitution institutionalized indigenous peoples rights as part of the country’s body of civil rights.
This was the era of “Philippines 2000,” Ramos’ program for turning the country into an industrialized nation by the turn of the 21st century and he believed that Ipra and the mining law were reconcilable policy positions, Ciencia says.
“[But] the passage of the Ramos-supported Ipra would not only pit mining interests against indigenous peoples, it would also lead to interagency squabbles,” Ciencia says in his paper, citing the adversarial relationship between NCIP and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) over land titling powers, and the contentious IP assertion over mineral resources in ancestral lands.
Joseph Estrada (1998-2001). “A cursory appraisal of some of [Estrada’s] policy pronouncements would give the impression that he was pro-IP rights and antimining. Scrutiny of his actions would however suggest otherwise,” Ciencia says.
On Sept. 21, 1998, then Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora issued Memorandum Order No. 21, which froze the NCIP’s operating budget on its first three years of existence pending a performance audit. Seven days later, retired Justice Isagani Cruz challenged the constitutionality of Ipra before the Supreme Court.
“The Estrada presidency was short-lived but it paved the way for the institutional emasculation of the NCIP,” Ciencia says, beginning with promining NCIP guidelines, in exchange for raising tribal community shares from mining revenues from 1 percent to 2 percent.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010). The IPs expected great things from Arroyo, who assumed the presidency through a second “people power” revolt. On Feb. 20, 2001, she issued Executive Order No. 1, which placed NCIP under the supervision of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Indigenous Peoples, which was led by former Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican Howard Dee.
Dee said Ipra was “the litmus test of the Arroyo administration and the President is relying on the newly constituted NCIP to make good her promise of awarding ancestral domain titles to 100 indigenous peoples communities every year for the next three years to complete this process in 2004,” Ciencia says.
But the NCIP never got the budget to fulfill these reforms. Arroyo issued a Minerals Action Plan in January 2004, the same year a financial crisis required the rebuilding of the mining industry, Ciencia says.
“This begs the question: ‘Why has government not abandoned altogether its support for IP rights?’” Ciencia says.
The answer: A $1.14-million WB grant in 2004 and a $1.45-million program funded by the US Development Program and the New Zealand Agency for International Development revealed that pro-IP policies had brought more revenues to the government, he says.
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