February 4, 2013

Filipino indigenous group fights for land rights

This story was published in 2013 when we were known as CFCA. In January 2014, we changed our name to Unbound. Check our website often for stories about the families we serve around the world and the news that impacts them.

Deep in the lush mountains of the Philippines, an indigenous community lives in harmony with the land. They are dependent on Mother Earth for their survival. For them, all forms of life are considered a gift of nature.

Dumagat tribe
At the ceremony recognizing their ancestral domain, the Dumagats perform a traditional ritual.

The members of this community are known as the Dumagats.

They once lived in the lowlands but were slowly pushed into the mountains of the northern Philippines. They have lived there for a thousand years, but never had official rights to their lands. As a result, they were vulnerable to outside land claims and illegal logging that could take their home away from them at any time.

In November, after eight long years of paperwork, interviews and much research, the Dumagats obtained government recognition to the last refuge of their ancestral lands. In a few months, they will complete the process and be able to receive the official title.

"This certificate will serve as our shield to those who have interest to [take] our land from us," said Rogelio, father of a CFCA sponsored child and a chieftain of a Dumagat community. "This certificate recognizes that we have rights and our own habitat on this Earth."

Facing the problem

In 1997, the Philippines passed the Indigenous People's Rights Act, which said the nation would protect indigenous communities' rights to their ancestral domains and ability to govern according to their customs. The law addresses the economic, social and cultural well-being of indigenous groups.

Once this law was passed, the Dumagat community had the opportunity to protect the land they called home, but with a lack of economic resources and no proper advisement it was difficult to begin the process.

CFCA-Antipolo began serving the Dumagats in 1999. Through working with the community in education and literacy programs as well as monthly meetings, CFCA began to understand the challenges the Dumagats faced over their ancestral domain, said Malou Navio, CFCA's Antipolo project coordinator.

Their home was growing smaller, their rivers were overfished and their forests became bare. They resolved to work on attaining legal title to their ancestral lands.

"We joined them in 2004 to begin with the documents and proofs and all other needs required by law," Navio said.

Working together

There were many obstacles to achieving the government recognition of their ancestral lands.

"There were challenges, especially proving their real ethnicity," said Sister Ynah Alpay, a CFCA social worker. "Almost eight years in lobbying and deliberations and then they won. As they won, we felt the same; we won, too."

The National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) awarded the recognition of ancestral domain to the Dumagats on Nov. 12, 2012, in Antipolo city, Philippines. Recognition of the Dumagats' lands would not have happened without the tireless efforts of local CFCA staff and many other local and government agencies that lent their assistance in the process.

Rogelio and kids
Chieftain Rogelio plays a tune for his grandson, Erick, right-center, and two other children, Myrna, left, and Joshua, far right.

"We believe this recognition will provide them the seeds of empowerment and their rights for social equity," Navio said. "We are in solidarity with them that this triumph, felt at present, will be felt as well by the next generation."

'A new history'

Now that the community has received this recognition, its members can continue to observe their customary laws and protect their natural resources.

"I am very happy," Chieftain Rogelio said. "This is a new history for the Dumagat tribe."

A new history that CFCA-Antipolo helped the community achieve by persevering and keeping hope alive.

The goal of CFCA sponsorship is that children, youth, aging friends and their families may live with dignity, achieve their potential and participate fully in society.

"The Antipolo staff strongly believes in supporting those living in poverty, as well as supporting the environment and the Filipino way of life," said Trisha Pitts, CFCA project director for the Philippines. "We celebrate the achievement of all these goals with the awarding of title to their ancestral land to the Dumagat people. This recognition has been the restoration of dignity for this indigenous group."

Domingo, overall chieftain of the Dumagat indigenous cultural community, was present at the award ceremony and was pleased with the recognition his people received.

"I am very happy," he said. "This certificate recognizes our ancestral domain and will clarify to all that our tribe is the true owner of our lands. … God listened to our prayers."