The month of October has been institutionalized as the celebration of Indigenous Peoples (IP) month coinciding with the religious celebration of Tribal Filipino Sunday. It was on October 29, 1997 when Republic Act (RA) 8371, the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), was signed into law by former President Fidel V. Ramos, a landmark laws in the respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of the IPs, especially to self-determination and ancestral domain.
The landmark legislation by Congress seeks to redress historical injustice committed against indigenous peoples and empowers them to fight for their rights to their ancestral domain. This law promised that abuses of government agencies and multinational corporations will no longer be repeated that will deprive indigenous peoples and their communities of the opportunities for self-determined development and well-being. The law empowers the IPs to claim their rights in a manner that strikes a balance between the protection of their ancestral domain and all resources therein from possible abuses and the chance to exploit, develop and utilize the rich resources within their domain not only for themselves but for the benefit of the greater majority of the Filipino people. It adopted the concept of free prior and informed consent (FPIC) as a form of self-determination in all matters that affect them. All parties, including government and private businesses, are required to seek the collective decision of indigenous communities, not just individuals or groups, before introducing any measure that affects them, be it a local or national legislation, policy, program, plan, or project. FPIC means the provision of adequate and accessible information to impacted indigenous communities before any development is undertaken in their ancestral domain, and consensus is reached through customary processes without any external manipulation, coercion or inducement.
The law also requires the appointment of Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representatives (IPMRs) in the different policy-making bodies of local governments to give them a voice in matters of legislation, especially in most parts of the country where they are deemed minority in number, and for IPs to be granted royalties for their stewardship of the environment where resources are being exploited, among other significant benefits which the IPs are now currently enjoying.
The Cordillera is one of the regions in the country dominated by IPs with over 92 percent of the inhabitants belonging to any of the different ethnolinguistic group in the region, according to the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. The region is also rich in natural resources exploited by multinational companies for power generation and mining, some since the early 1900s, but the region still remains as one of the less developed regions among the 18 regions in the country. It is ironic that multinational companies exploit the region’s resources but corporate income taxes are paid in the National Capital Region where their central offices are located, with local governments only getting real property and business taxes and their share from the national wealth tax, the latter not even being released on time.
We assert that host local governments, IPs and host communities should directly benefit from the exploitation, development and utilization of the resources within their domain. Unfortunately, some indigenous professionals had been taking advantage of their uneducated tribesmen to push for projects for personal gain over the objection of communities by manipulating the FPIC process resulting to community conflicts, even among families. The two decades of the IPRA has shown significant number of indigenous communities being marginalised in the development process, especially in environmentally critical projects, with manipulation of the FPIC process by so-called educated IPs themselves in cohorts with corporate interests. These bastardised IPs selling their own peoples just want personal material gain even at the expense of their communities and the environment.
We agree to the clamor of most IPs for the sustainable preservation and protection of the environment that we had inherited from our ancestors. While we also agree that there should be development projects within the domain of the IPs, it should not go to the extent of sacrificing the state of the environment because once nature has been damaged, we will be the ones to suffer the consequences. We had been witnesses on how nature will get back at us, not only here but in may parts of the world. Let us not wait for the worst case scenario to happen.
We should be vigilant now against our enterprising IP brothers and sisters who sell their own people and expose them for their narrow self-interests. Let us not allow their greed to prevail over our desire to preserve and protect our environment, the best legacy we can pass on to future generations.
We support the clamor for growth and development but not to the extent of ravaging our God-given resources and leaving nothing behind for the future generations of Cordillerans.