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The Cry of the Forest - the indigenous Higaonon Community in the Philippines


Arthuso Malo-ay, indigenous fellow from PhilippinesGENEVA, July 2007 - What's in a name? Arthuso Malo-ay has two names: the one on the passport that enabled him to travel to Geneva and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the one given to him by ancestral tradition. In his community, the Higaonons of the mountainous southern Philippines , Arthuso is known as Datu Pignanawan, meaning "leader of peace, and love and care for his community". It's a name that may point the way to Datu's destiny and the future of his people.

For centuries, the Higaonon people, or "forest dwellers", have been living in harmony with the once luxuriant flora and fauna of Mindanao . Theirs is one of the 118 ethnic groups that make up that small but densely populated archipelago. Today the 300,000 indigenous people of the Higaonon communities account for 0.35 per cent of the total population.

With the arrival of private logging concessionaries from other parts of the country at the beginning of last century, the strong ancestral bond between the forest dwellers and their land and natural resources was broken. In exchange for their land, the Higaonons were given cloth and food items. Not enough, in the opinion of many, to replace the invaluable hardwood trees taken from the worshipping grounds or the sacred places. "The migrants expanded the land they occupied without the consent of the indigenous people", Arthuso says. "My people were pushed deep into the mountains because they need to live in the forest for their survival".

Philippines was under Martial Law from 1972 to 1982, a period that saw the Higaonons flee the area only to return in the late eighties. The Tribal Council decided then it was time to secure the area, but this task has proved difficult without the consent of all communities. Now, new loggers have appeared bringing with them old problems. "Right now we just want the migrants to stop discriminating against us and to consider us as equals. That is a big challenge".

As more and more forest is cut down or converted into arable land for mass agriculture, the dwellers lose their means of subsistence, their traditions and the structure of their society. According to Arthuso, only 20 per cent of his tribe perpetuate traditional healing methods, against the 80 per cent who have adopted Western medicine. "Many Higaonon children can not speak their own dialect and have turned to Christianity", he says.

Arthuso's goal today is to protect what is left of the forest in the ancestral domain of his tribe by promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. This is why he applied for the OHCHR Indigenous Fellowship Programme, a human rights training that aims at empowering indigenous peoples through designated representatives. Familiarising himself with the international human rights mechanisms and legal instruments will help him empower his people, alleviate their poverty and raise awareness of the importance of their cultural integrity when he returns.

Previously, Arthuso volunteered to help bring his tribe's communities into a federation and form a non-profit registered cooperative, the MAMACILA (Mati,

Manibay, Civoleg, and Langguyod communities) Apo Ginopakan Higaonon Tribal Council Incorporated. Most of their work consists of fundraising to assist the marginalised, but also seeking to obtain a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title to protect the communities' ancestral land against further exploitation. Developing partnerships and networks with governmental and non-governmental organisations, and raising awareness among indigenous youths are also major strategies.

Arthuso's volunteer work was a way of thanking his community for the opportunity he got to continue his studies. In 1998 his community, led by the tribal chief, helped a number of high school graduates continue their education. Arthuso was one of two students chosen to go to university; in 2001 he graduated from the State College of Claveria Misamis Oriental as an environmentalist. Arthuso returned to his community, but his fellow student did not. "The other one decided to work in the capital [ Manila ]. Even if volunteering is hard because I have a family to take care of, I had to give back to my community".

When he finishes his fellowship at OHCHR, Arthuso will start an internship with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Manila . "It was very hard for me to convince my community to support my application for this [fellowship] programme and let me go for five months. Before I came here I had very little knowledge of human rights. I'd like to apply what I have learnt here to my community, or even work with other non- governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country. This fellowship is a real stepping-stone for my organisation, but it was also an eye-opener for me".

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights