20 January 2010
It was a happy day and a happier event for hundreds of the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines. They were gathered in the covered basketball court of Botolan, Zambales, to be recognized as the rightful inhabitants and owners of 15,000 square kilometers of ancestral domain.
Many of them had walked thirty or forty kilometers from the edge of their ancestral domain, Mount Pinatubo, the volcanic mountain sacred to these peaceful people who first inhabited these islands thousands of years ago before land bridges from the Asian mainland submerged leaving only the islands.
The guests began to arrive, government officials, NGO lawyers and social workers, all who helped make it possible. We took our places behind the long table on the high stage, with huge banner, with a photograph of the mountain and the message declaring that it was their right and the rights of all indigenous people to occupy what is rightfully theirs without interference. It stated the obvious of course, but in the Philippines the obvious is not much recognized, not where there is vast mineral wealth beneath the lands.
The speeches were made, some long, especially those of the politicians running for office and some were short. My speech was very short, a message to the officials to more or less read the message on the big banner. I said the government was not giving them anything that was not already theirs by natural law and the law of the land. The government was merely recognizing their rights. The indigenous leaders understood it and nodded in understanding but the officials were bowed, as one would think in prayer, not so, they were just busy checking their emails or text messages, but the people applauded and waved.
Such declarations of rights are very necessary these days when land grabbers, miners invade, and loggers climb the highest peaks to cut the remaining trees, defying law and common sense. The people are not ignorant, illiterate tribal dwellers. Nowadays, indigenous people are wise to the ways of the lowlanders, the exploiters, the loggers and the politicians. They have sent their children to school and college. Back in the village, these educated young people can give you an eye-opening presentation with charts on how climate change is destroying their ancestral environment and threatening their lives and lands. Equally outspoken are the leaders and council of elders when it comes to the encroachments of mining corporations on their ancestral lands.
On the adjacent mountain in Maporac village, Cabangan, last August 29, 09, a local engineer Alfredo Bartido, an employee of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) allegedly entered the ancestral lands of Maporac with a group carrying surveying equipment and began to survey. The people of the village gathered and protested and told the group that they were trespassing in ancestral domain and need to get out. They kept the surveying equipment as evidence of the alleged illegal activity and trespassing.
Previous to this, bulldozers had entered the land and began open pit mining until the people called in the authorities and stopped it. So it was clear to the people that the survey could be used to make a claim on the land and get some kind of official approval for mining to resume.
Engineer Alfredo Bartido immediately filed charges of robbery in the provincial capitol in Iba, Zambales against the people. He is claiming almost one thousand dollars in damages to the equipment and a loss of income. The people have counter-charged and the battle goes on.
This is just one incident of thousands nationwide that get the people agitated and disturbed. Much more has to be done to support the indigenous people and help them protect the environment and stop the illegal logging and mining. They are the protectors of the remaining forests. It’s all we have left for future generations.