NCIP to get its funding – finally
By Gina Mission

Finally, there is good news at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

___After a year of existing with neither power nor adequate funding, the NCIP is getting its rightful and legally-deserved development fund, which has been withheld from its officers for a year now.

___The suspension of the fund was ordered by Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, in a September 21, 1998 memorandum, otherwise known as Memorandum 21, which directed the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to "withhold the release of funds to the NCIP, except for operational expenses" like salaries and rent, "until after final resolution of the issues surrounding the Commission."

___The suspension of the release of the NCIP development funds virtually crippled the Commission. It paralyzed NCIP projects, foremost of which are the processing of applications for ancestral domain claims, organizing of indigenous cultural communities (ICCs), as well as holding proper consultations with the indigenous peoples (IPs) in order to get their prior and informed consent to any mining activities being planned in their areas.

___For instance, when the Commission was confronted with a classic ancestral domain dispute involving the application of Mindoro Resources Limited Gold Philippines, a Canadian mining company, to mine one of the country’s biggest gold deposits, the NCIP did not have the funds to send its personnel to investigate the case.

___In an earlier interview with CyberDyaryo, Donna Gasgonia, Presidential Assistant in charge of matters concerning indigenous peoples, among other positions, explained that the release of the NCIP funds were withheld to prevent NCIP commissioners from using them for self-serving purposes. The commissioners, upon the recommendation of a committee headed by Gasgonia herself, are currently under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

___According to the Gasgonia committee report, Commissioners David Daoas and Erlinda Dolandolan have unliquidated cash advances in the defunct Office of the Northern Cultural Communities (ONCCs). Commissioner Castillo Tidang, Jr. was deemed disqualified for the position because he was still the mayor of Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya when he was appointed to the NCIP. Commissioner Mai Tuan’s appointment was found to be violative of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) because he occupies the same ethnographic region (Central Mindanao) as Commissioner Saway. Commissioner Cesar Sulong was found guilty of several cases of malversation of public funds. Only Commissioner Victorino Saway was cleared of any wrongdoing.

___Up to now, however, the DOJ has yet to come up with its findings.

___But this did not stop Gasgonia from changing her mind and endorsing the release of the NCIP’s frozen funds. To be sure, the release of the funds comes at the right time, when the NCIP seems doomed to failure, and most of its people have lost hope that the Commission will ever get to do what it has been mandated to do.

___"It was September 2. Chairman Daoas was defending the NCIP budget for year 2000 during a budget hearing in Congress. And then Donna, who also attended the hearing, endorsed our budget and the release of our frozen funds," related Claro Esoen, the NCIP’s Director of Finance.

___Since September 1998, the unreleased development fund has reached a total of P60M. Esoen, however, clarified that P5M of this will go directly to a multi-purpose power irrigation project for the Bugkalot people who have been affected by the Casecnan multi-purpose power and irrigation project located at the boundary of the provinces of Quirino, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, and Aurora.

___Aside from endorsing the NCIP budget and the release of its funding, Gasgonia also endorsed the NCIP’s staffing pattern of 1,608, recently submitted by the Commission’s placement committee to the DBM. Earlier, the NCIP submitted a staffing pattern for 1,859 positions, but Gasgonia only approved 1,197, which, if implemented, could displace some of the Commission’s existing staff, which currently totals 1,337.

___The DBM allowed the NCIP to appeal Gasgonia’s decision. But at the September 2 hearing in Congress, she finally endorsed the 1,608 positions proposed by the Commision.

___"All this is good news to us," said Esoen. "The unreleased funds, and now the employees," he added.

___Obviously pleased by Gasgonia’s recent actions, Daoas said, "Whatever made her change her mind is none of my business. I won’t even question the propriety of her decision, considering that Memorandum 21 was explicit in saying that it’s only the DOJ’s favorable decision that could cause the release of our development funds. But this is very good news to all of us. It’s possibly the best Christmas gift President Estrada can give the indigenous peoples."

___As a token for their commitment to the IPs, Daoas said that the commission would use some of the funds to pilot its One-CADT-per-Region project. The CADT, or certificate of ancestral domain title, legitimizes the ownership by an indigenous cultural group of its ancestral community. Daoas is targeting early November to start the said project.

___Noella Zuñega, NCIP Planning Director, however, is not very optimistic. "Until I see the funds released, I better not expect anything," she said. But most of the NCIP personnel, who have seen enough deprivation in the Commission, are hopeful that it is going to be a merry Christmas for the IPs after all.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.09.23