It is the resounding voice in the wilderness worldwide - from Kalinga to the vast savannahs of Africa. Indigenous peoples, whose lives are synonymous with the land they till, are still faced with the daunting task of having that which owns them and their rights to it be recognized internationally.
While the recognition of indigenous peoples rights to land, the basis of all indigenous peoples struggles, have reached the halls of the United Nations since 1982, there is yet no guarantee that this inherent right will be enshrined in the books and policies of states.
Last year, the UN Commission on Human Rights drafted the proposed Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples during its 46th session in Geneva, Switzerland. This is an attempt to protect indigenous peoples from discrimination, state abuse and genocide. However, only the Philippines among all Asian countries is pushing for its approval.
The UNCHR is also appealing to the UN General Assembly for its approval. The Declaration however is facing rough sailing in the General Assembly since the United States, one of the leading and influential members of the UN, is against its approval. Their argument is that indigenous peoples' concerns are national in scope, and not a matter of foreign policy.
Back home, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), a network of various people's organizations in the Cordillera, has been carrying on with the indigenous peoples struggle in the UN since 1982.
CPA Secretary-General Minnie Degawan however says it may take years for the Declaration to be approved. But even assuming that it is passed, will it have substantial and meaningful effect on indigenous peoples, like those in the Philippines?
"Kung national laws (On indigenous peoples) nga halos hindi pa ma-implement eh, eto pa kaya (I doubt if it could even be implemented once it gets approved since national laws are hardly implemented in this country)," Degawan reacted.
Some of the salient national laws that affect indigenous peoples are enshrined in the Philippine Constitution.
"The State, subject to the provisions of this Constitution and national development policies and programs, shall protect the rights of indigenous cultural communities to their ancestral lands to ensure their economic, social and cultural well-being. The Congress may provide for the applicability of customary laws governing property rights or relations in determining the ownership and extent of ancestral domain," states Article XII, Section V of the 1986 Philippine Constitution.
This sounds idyllic but Congress has yet to pass the long overdue ancestral lands law.
In addition, it seems like the welfare of indigenous peoples is not exactly the heart of state policies when it comes to development.
The 1995 Mining Act or Republic Act 7942 is a case in point. In offering big concessions to foreign investors, the Act will be "bulldozing" whatever is left of the indigenous peoples ancestral lands in the Cordillera. One of its controversial provisions is the granting of the Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA).
Since its passage last year, there have already been 59 FTAA applications nationwide. Fourteen of these are in the Cordillera. These applications cover around 50 percent of the Cordillera region, which undoubtedly is covered by ancestral land claims.
Under the FTAA, foreign mining companies can invest a minimum of US$ 50 million in the local mining industry. In exchange, the investor is granted a minimum area of 81,000 hectares of mineral land to mine for a period of 50 years. In addition, the foreign investor is allowed 100 percent control of equity.
As if these concessions are not enough, RA 7942 also gives the foreign mining investor other generous benefits to guarantee their profitability. These include accelerated depreciation, an income tax-carry forward of losses for a period of ten years, 100 percent repatriation of profit, 100 percent repatriation of capital and exemption from realty taxes and other taxes for "pollution control devices constructed by the company."
To ensure their unhampered mining operations, these foreign firms cloaked by the Mining Act will be given water rights, timber rights, easement rights and entry into private lands and concession areas. When these rights are granted to these foreign investors, what is left for indigenous peoples who inhabit in these lands?
Countless accounts of so-called development aggression in the territories of indigenous peoples worldwide, or locally, are enough evidences to show that the destiny of indigenous peoples is anchored on their ancestral lands over which they have inherent rights. Remove them from their lands and you vanish them out of existence. Displace them and you vanish them from what they know as life.
However, the UN, according to the CPA secretary general, cannot solve all the miseries confronting indigenous peoples.
"The CPA harbors no illusions about the UN," Degawan said. "We believe that change will not come from the halls of the UN, Congress or the Senate."
The UN, she says, is just an avenue to project indigenous issues and the arena to link up with other indigenous groups worldwide. "It is for networking and strengthening of indigenous peoples organizations," she added. "There could be no strong indigenous peoples' voice in the world if there's no UN as a forum,".
Degawan explained that the Draft Declaration has reached the Commission on Sustainable Development for further discussions. The CSD is a UN body composed of government representatives. The CSD is tasked to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21, a UN agreement among nations which considers indigenous peoples a major factor for sustainable development.
Degawan said the CSD's working group will be meeting this October to lay down some principles for the Draft Declaration. As the Declaration is refined, the CPA projects that it could either work for or against indigenous peoples.
It could either be fast-tracked to limit the participation of indigenous peoples or it could drag on to give more time for indigenous peoples to give their inputs.
"(But I think) its going to drag on for years," Degawan observed. Anyhow, she added, indigenous people's groups in the UN will be monitoring the refinements in the Draft. "We don't know if governments will disregard the inputs of indigenous peoples to the Draft," she warned.
All that indigenous peoples want, the CPA secretary-general reiterated, is for governments to recognize that they have rights over the land that has sustained them for generations. For it is their life.
If the land could speak,
It would speak for us.
It would say, like us, that the years
Have forged the bond of life that ties us together.
It was our labor that made the land she is;
And it was her yielding that gave us life.
We and the land are one!
But who would listen?
Will they listen,
Who, from an unfeeling distance, claim
The land is theirs?
Because pieces of paper say so?
Because the pieces of paper are backed by men
Who speak threatening words;
Men who have power to shoot and to kill,
Men who have power to take our men and our sons away?
If the land could speak,
It would speak for us.
For the land is us!
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