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Indigenous Peoples’ Participation in Forest Resource Management: A Case in Palawan, Philippines


The Philippines has been adamant about protecting its natural resources. Through the years, several legislations have been enacted to safeguard the country’s biodiversity. In 1997, the Government enacted the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), which devolves some resource management rights to indigenous peoples in approved ancestral domains. However, conflicts between the Government and indigenous peoples (IPs) over the use and management of resources remain. Issues also arise in the resource management of IP areas that are not considered ancestral domains under IPRA.

This essay examines how indigenous peoples are situated in the policies on environment and forest management in the Philippines. Taking the island of Palawan as an example, this essay reviews gaps in the participation of indigenous peoples on the use and management of different resources and how these gaps affect the IP communities.

History of Exclusion

The history of environmental laws and policies in the Philippines are filled with exclusionary principles for the indigenous groups of the country. When the Spanish came in the 16th century, a marked differentiation was imposed between the Christian lowlanders, and the non-Christian tribes of the highlands (Dressler & McDermott 2010, p. 331). During the colonization, the Spanish imposed the Regalian Doctrine, which gave the Spanish crown dominion to all the public lands of the Philippines. In 13 February 1894, the Maura Law was enacted under the Royal Decree (Capistrano 2010, p. 455). This required all landholders to register their property within a given year. Unregistered lands were put under the ownership of the government. As a result of this, much of the lands of the IPs were considered public lands (Novellino 2000a, p. 50)

In 1963, the Public Land Act was amended to provide more rights to indigenous peoples (Novellino 2000a, p. 59). The act, however, was very specific and particular about limiting IPs to “public domain suitable to agriculture”. Practices apart from agriculture did not seem to be recognized.

Things turned into a more punitive state when the dictatorship regime came under the presidency of Marcos. IPs are said to have had little influence on forest management during this time (Guiang et al. 2008). Enacted laws during the 1970s led to further bifurcation of indigenous peoples from their land. They were relocated from their settlements and prevented from securing rights to their lands in mountainous areas.

After the dictatorship, the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) was enacted in 1992. It promotes the participation of IPs in resource management (Capistrano 2010, p. 455). Furthermore, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), under the Philippine government, no longer has jurisdiction to relocate or force indigenous peoples out of their domains without consent.

In 1997, a major breakthrough in the legal system was enacted that should empower and give more agency to the indigenous peoples. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997 gives rights to indigenous peoples to practice their traditions within their ancestral domains. IPRA recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to own their ancestral lands and water resource. It also allows indigenous peoples to practice traditional resource management. Finally, a Free, Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is now mandated through the IPRA for initiatives to be conducted within the ancestral domains. Through the IPRA, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) was created to manage, enforce and enact policies regarding IPs. The NCIP was also given the power and authority to process indigenous peoples’ Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles (CADT).

IPs, Resource Management and Environmental Laws: A Look at Palawan

According to Novellino (2000b, p. 347), conservation strategies in Palawan consist of prohibitions and zoning systems that prohibit IPs’ traditional forest management such as swidden farming. In 1963, the Kaingin Law (kaingin is the local word for swidden or slash-and-burn farming) criminalized all forms of swidden farming, including those that are practiced by the IPs. Laws were also more strictly enforced upon the IPs as compared to the lowlanders because of the political connections and financial contributions of the latter (Dressler and McDermott 2010, p. 338-339). Traditional farming, however, was (and still is) practiced for its cultural and subsistence functions (Dressler and Pulhin 2010, p.449).

In 1971, Presidential Proclamation 835 was declared. This established the St. Paul Subterranean River (now known as the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River) as a national park. It also claimed parts of the ancestral lands of two indigenous groups in Palawan, the Batak and the Tagbanua and curtailed their subsistence practices (Dressler & McDermott 2010, p. 337; Novellino 2000b, p. 356). The loss of ancestral lands further marginalized the Batak and Tagbanua who were pushed to the periphery due to the intensive migration of Visayans in the island since after World War II.

The Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) or Republic Act 7611 was mandated specifically for Palawan as a framework for sustainable development in 1992 (Capistrano 2010, p. 455; Seitz 2013, p. 9). Under SEP, the Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN) was created. It involved zoning mechanisms, which prohibited people from accessing certain areas in the forests considered as core zones. This constrained the livelihood of the IPs, which is tied to the forests (Novellino 2000, p. 353).
In 1993, the Tagbanua managed to procure a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claims, later changed into a CADT in 2002 under IPRA. Both the CADC and CADT promote indigenous peoples’ system of natural resource management in varying degrees (Bryant 2000, p. 693). In 1999, the Batak signed the Community-Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA) with the government to be able to access Non-Forest Timber Products (NTFPs) (Novellino 2011, p. 92). Eventually, they were able to garner a CADC from the DENR, which they are currently trying to process into a CADT through the NCIP.

The enactment of IPRA supposedly ensures the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights in managing their resources included in their ancestral domain (Guiang et al. 2008, p. 165). However, bureaucratization of the system makes it difficult for the Batak to procure a CADT (Seitz 2013, p. 14-15). Furthermore, environmental policies conflict with IPRA. For example, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park’s promotion into a UNESCO World Heritage expanded its boundaries from 3,901 ha to 22,202 ha, which included the ancestral lands of the Batak and the Tagbanua. The SEP zones were implemented in the park, which limited the indigenous group’s traditional livelihood activities such as rattan collection and prohibited them from practicing swidden farming (Novellino and Dressler 2010, p. 214). Although the ban on swidden farming in Palawan has been somewhat lifted to make room for ‘regulated burning’ (Novellino 2000b, p. 358; Seitz 2013, p. 17), it doesn’t allow them to utilize the lands they use traditionally for swidden farming (Novellino 2000a, p.63).

As one Tagbanua elder lamented,

“[The law] says we have rights, but they are telling us we don’t, that we can stay but we have no rights to the land…but it’s by the land we live!…Why isn’t Palawan also bald? How many centuries have we been here?…They say the park is only for wild animals! Don’t we have any value?” (Dressler & McDermott 2010, p. 344)

On the other hand, the Batak’s acceptance of the CBFMA completely prohibits them from practicing swidden farming. The CBFMA conflicts with the rights of the Batak through the CADC and contracts them to police their own people (Novellino 2008, cited in Seitz 2013, p. 17). Furthermore, the bureaucracy and technical skills required in the CBFMA cause further marginalization of the Batak as they are unable to meet standard requirement strictly imposed by DENR. Thus, even the collection of Non-Forest Timber Products has been constrained (Novellino 2011, p. 93).

By 2001, more than 50 varieties of traditional rice and crops had been lost due to the ban on swidden farming (Novellino 2000a, p. 64; Novellino 2011, p. 93). The production of crops fell and food shortages became rampant in the Batak communities (Seitz 2013, p. 16).

IPs’ Perception of the Environment

According to Novellino (2000a, p. 67; 2003), the Batak perceive the environment differently from experts and government officials. The Batak does not perceive the environment as separate from the people but as part of the social repertoire of the Batak. Eder (1997, p.10) points out that the Batak believe that spirits inhabit and protect the natural world. While the Batak are allowed to use these natural resources, they must do so through good relationships with the spirits. Environmental degradation occurs when the social relationships with the spirits are damaged.

The Tagbanua also have similar relationship with their environment. Angering the spirits, such as felling trees in mature forests, causes ill fate to the Tagbanua. Tagbanua swidden farming is also tied with other resource use, such as honey collection. According to Dressler (2005, p. 25) Tagbanua cultural beliefs are interlinked with resource use.

Novellino (2000b, p. 357) asserts that the indigenous cultivation practices of Palawan are more suitable to the area than the modern agricultural techniques. Paddy cultivation is difficult in the uplands because of the lack of nutrients. Seitz (2013, p. 13) also asserts that the traditional use of the forests is much more sustainable. The Tagbanua, for example, allow their fields to fallow for 15 years before cultivating them again, which allows ample time for forest regrowth (Dressler 2005, p. 28).

Through the years, the government-imposed policies on land and environment have marginalized indigenous groups. The legislation of IPRA in 1997 is supposed to safeguard the rights of IPs to their ancestral domains and traditional practices. While certain achievements have been met through the IPRA, marginalization of IPs has not been completely eradicated. Taking the indigenous groups of Palawan as example, it has been demonstrated how different laws and policies have affected their lives. Furthermore, the exclusion of IP knowledge on resource management has degraded the livelihoods of the IPs of Palawan and considerably affected their culture and traditions.

About the Author

Kert Tandog is a BA Anthropology graduate in University of the Philippines Diliman. She is now taking up a graduate diploma in Environmental Management and Development from the Crawford School of Public Policy in the Australian National University. Next year, she will be proceeding to Masters of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development in the same institution. Her interests include Archaeology, Conflict studies, film, and anime. She aims to try every type of beer and wine in Australia before she leaves.



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