World Rainforest Movement

The Philippines: Indigenous Peoples’s Rights-based Approach to Conservation

The Philippines has been regarded as one of the most active and progressive countries in Asia in terms of developing policies and laws recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and ensuring their participation in protected area management and decision-making. However, it is indigenous peoples’ themselves that are finding the adequate ways for ensuring conservation and respect to their rights.

The National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act was signed into law in 1992 with the objective of developing a comprehensive protected areas system and integrate the participation of indigenous and local communities in protected areas management and decision-making. The participatory approach is supposed to happen mostly through the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), which is composed of government officers, NGOs, and local community representatives.

Indigenous peoples’ rights started to be more explicitly recognised in 1993, with the issuance of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Administrative Order No. 2 (DAO 2), which allows for the delineation of ancestral domains and the issuance to indigenous communities of Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC) and Certificates of Ancestral Land Claims (CALC). These claims are not titles but provide that indigenous holders have some degree of control concerning what is going to happen in their territories. These right-based provisions were further strengthened in October 1997 with the proclamation of the long-awaited Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) by President Ramos. One of the IPRA’s features is the granting of a collective right to land through the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) and of individual rights through the Certificate of Ancestral Land Title (CALT).

Since the passing of these laws, both their strengths and weaknesses have been pointed out. The NIPAS Act has improved the participation of indigenous and local communities in protected areas management and decision-making in many cases. Several NGOs and Community-based Organizations, however, point out that in several cases the PAMB has not been functioning effectively due to a number of limitations, varying from lack of documents in local languages and resources for meetings and workshops, to the fact that the PAMB’s chairperson is a government officer and that local people are usually shy to voice their concerns in the presence of government officials, leading to the decision-making power remaining still firmly in government hands.

Concerning IPRA (the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act), while many indigenous groups still consider it a legal instrument that can be used to protect their rights, some others have called for the repeal of the law. Apart from the theoretical and practical ambiguities of the law, one main criticism has been that the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) does not truly represent the indigenous peoples as some of the commissioners were mostly appointed by the President without proper consultation and – especially under the Estrada administration – were either corrupt or inefficient, or both. The NCIP underwent radical restructuring during 2001 and a new set of Commissioners selected through a more participatory process at the provincial, regional and national levels, was instituted in mid-2001.

With new infused enthusiasm, President Gloria Magapagal-Arroyo announced in her Presidential Address to the Nation that 100 000 hectares of “Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles” (CADT) would be awarded yearly. But due to lack of appropriate budget and other internal weaknesses, only two CADT were awarded by the end of 2002. The Chair of the Commission has been replaced again at the beginning of 2003. While there is still hope among the Philippine indigenous peoples that the NCIP will truly work in the interest of indigenous peoples, there is also a feeling that unresolved issues still need to be ironed out and that the NCIP must be strengthened in terms of human, institutional and financial resources.

One particular case study that is particularly illustrative of the positive way in which the IPRA can be used, but also of the possible conflict between the NIPAS Act and the IPRA Act is that of Coron Island, Calamianes Islands, North Palawan.

The Tagbanwa indigenous people of Coron Island have been living on a stunningly beautiful limestone island surrounded by water once rich in marine resources, their main source of livelihood. By the mid-1980s, not having secure legal tenure over these environments, the increasing encroachment by migrant fishers, tourism entrepreneurs, politicians seeking land deals, and government agencies interested in controlling various resources of the island, meant that they were fast losing control over their terrestrial and marine resources to the point that they were facing food shortages.

They reacted by setting up the Tagbanwa Foundation of Coron Island in 1985 and applying for a Community Forest Stewardship Agreement (CFSA). They were awarded a CFSA covering the whole island and neighbouring, small, Delian Island, (for a total of 7748 hectares) in 1990.

Soon after, however, they realised that their main source of livelihood, the marine waters surrounding the island, were being degraded at an alarming rate by dynamite, cyanide and other illegal and destructive fishing. Through the use of DENR’s DAO2 and the help of a national NGO, the Philippine Association For Inter-cultural Development (PAFID), in 1998 they managed to obtain the first CADC in the country that included both land and marine waters, for a total of 22,284 hectares. They produced high quality mapping of their territories, an Ancestral Domain Sustainable Management Plan, and followed up the development of the IPRA law successfully, using it to obtain a CADT in early 2001. However, given that all CADT were put under review with the restructuring of the NCIP in mid-2001, this title is also under review.

The CADC and CADT were put to prompt use when Coron Island was selected as one of the 8 sites under the National Integrated Protected Areas Programme (NIPAP). The ultimate intention of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was (and still is) to gazette the whole island as a Protected Area, but this has so far not materialised because the Tagbanwa fear that they would once more lose control over the island. Having gained a CADT over the island they prefer to stick to their right-based approach to resource management rather than accepting an uncertain participatory approach through the Protected Area Management Board. One of the main reasons mentioned by the Tagbanwa for their refusal of the NIPAP project was the fact that Coron Island was selected as one of the 8 sites for the project without any consultation with them and without seeking their free and prior informed consent. Several other indigenous communities in other parts of the country are looking at CADT over land and water as a tool to secure their rights to land and marine resources.

This case aptly illustrates the potential conflicts between the NIPAS and the IPRA. The Coron Island case could actually also be seen as the use by an indigenous community of a rights-based law (IPRA) to support a community-conserved area (CCA) versus the use by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of a participatory protected areas law (NIPAS) to push for a state-declared Protected Area. This brings to the fore important questions in conservation policy: how can the conservation efforts of local communities (such as CCAs) be recognised and protected? Do they need legal recognition? How can they complement, or in certain cases be preferred, to the more conventional state-declared Protected Areas?

The case of the Tagbanwa of Coron Island illustrates that when an indigenous community is strongly determined to protect its natural resources and rights, given the right support (such as available laws and supporting NGOs), it can effectively take action to obtain recognition of its rights and to protect the ecosystems on which it depends. It also shows that for indigenous peoples it is worth investing time in using a rights-based approach to biodiversity management to obtain a private community title through IPRA, rather than accepting a participatory approach as offered by NIPAS, as this is still beset by problems related to the issue of who really holds power within a participatory arrangement. This case also illustrates the dichotomy between official (state-declared) protected areas versus community-conserved areas.

The Tagbanwa used an innovative law that recognises indigenous peoples’ property rights and customary law (despite its limitations) in an initiative that could be broadly defined as a community-conserved area (CCA) and rejected a government plan to gazette the island as a Protected Area (PA). It is actually a case of conflict between CCA and PA, which could be avoided or settled if governments started to recognise and accept the value of CCAs and see them as a valid complementary approach to conventional PAs.

By: Maurizio Farhan Ferrari, Forest Peoples Progamme, e-mail: , and Dave de Vera, PAFID, e-mail:

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