Standing its ground: an indigenous community in the Philippines

Datu Cosme Lambayon is one of the tribal leaders of the Matigsalug-Manobo tribe of Kitaotao on Mindanao, one of the small islands which form the archipelago of the Philippines. The Matisalug-Manobo is one of the 110 ethnic groups of the Philippines. Their population totals approximately 50,000.

Indigenous Peoples rights- UNPHOTO/VIROTFrom his early childhood Cosme Lambayon was confronted with the discrimination and the ostracism faced by his people solely because they are indigenous. “I experienced racism and racial discrimination wherein most of the time my class mates called me Manobo instead of calling me my real name”, Lambayon said at “Voices – Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be told”, a daily side-event at the Durban Review Conference. “I was marginalised and treated like a second class citizen. Me and my fellow tribesmen seated on a separate row far from my classmates.”

The world’s indigenous population has been estimated at 370 million individuals living in more than 70 countries. They are described as having their own history, language, culture, political systems, livelihoods, beliefs and identity. There are 5000 different indigenous groups and almost the same number of languages used by indigenous communities worldwide. In many countries more than the 50 per cent of the indigenous population live in cities.

Although they make up five per cent of the world’s population, indigenous peoples represent 15 percent of the world’s poor. Over the last three decades they have moved from their traditional lands towards urban areas partly seeking opportunities for education and employment, partly because of human rights abuses and violations in particular to their land rights and partly for cultural survival. A plight that Datu Cosme Lambayon knows well.

From 1960 to 1975 and during the years of martial law under President Ferdinand E. Marcos, the largest portion o fthe Matigsalug-Manobo ancestral domains was occupied as pastureland by private logging concessionaries. For Lambayon’s community, this meant losing their livelihoods and traditions. The tribe, headed by late Datu Gawilan Sr., decided to claim their rights. “We filed several complaints regarding the displacement of our community members from our lands, to no avail”, Lambayon explained at the Voices event. For them the issue was not only the drastic measures of martial law, it was also discrimination. Lambayon further said that the tribe decided to stage an uprising to have their demands heard and subsequently several of the tribal leaders were imprisoned on charges of terrorism.

For the Matigsalug-Manobo regaining their lands was a question of survival. Says Lambayon: “We believed that when the lands would be recognized as our ancestral domain we would have the autonomy to exercise our own customs, traditions, beliefs and practices and be free from racism, racial discrimination and intolerance”. After two and a half months of protest, Marcos decided to cancel the loggers’ lease agreements and to grant amnesty to the tribe leaders. “During Marcos’ regime, our ancestral land was recognised. But there was no paper to prove it at that time. Since this was during martial law, every pronouncement by the president was considered law”, Lambayon adds.

After Marcos’ downfall, his pronouncement lapsed. The change in leadership also meant change in the Constitution. In 1987 Datu Cosme Lambayon and his fellow tribal leaders, along with other indigenous people’s organisations and non-governmental organisations, lobbied in Congress and Senate to incorporate provisions for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples in the Constitution of the Philippines. After the ratification of the Constitution, they also joined forces to ensure the passage of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act.

It was ten years later that the Government of the Philippines passed an act to legally recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. In its subheading, the Republic Act 8371 is defined as “an Act to recognise, protect and promote the rights of indigenous cultural communities/Indigenous peoples, creating a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, establishing and implementing mechanisms, and appropriate funds therefore”.

The ancestral domain on which the Matigsalug-Manobo dwell was eventually recognised by the Government of the Philippines in July 2003 under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act. They now hold a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title with a total terrain of over 100,000 hectares on the island of Mindanao. But Cosme Lambayon remains cautious: “There is a plan to amend the Constitution. We remain vigilant because some of the provisions protecting the rights of the indigenous peoples might be affected”.

One of the achievements in the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action was the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. The Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference “urges States to take all necessary measures to implement the rights of indigenous peoples in accordance with international human rights instruments without discrimination.”

22 May 2009