Tuesday, 22 February 2000

Malacanang creates still another task force to implement IPRA

By Gina Mission

"We don’t need it," said one member of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP)."It’s a duplication of the duties and functions of the NCIP," said another.

...The commissioners were reacting to the creation of a presidential task force on indigenous peoples by President Estrada. To concerned NCIP watchers, the task force looks like another creation by Malacanang meant to sideline the NCIP, which is the legal body created by law to implement the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Task Force

...On February 10, 2000, President Joseph Estrada, through Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora, issued Administrative Order No. 108, creating the Presidential Task Force on Indigenous Peoples "to ensure the immediate implementation of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) and defining the functions thereof."

...A February 14 letter to the Task Force members from Donna Gasgonia, Presidential Assistant and Concurrent Chair of the Presidential Commission on Urban Poor and Vice Chair of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), described the creation of the body as a "response to the urgent problem facing the indigenous peoples due to the delay of the full implementation of the IPRA."

...On Gasgonia’s "request", the seven members of the Task Force were sworn into office by the President on February 18 in Malacaņang. The event was attended by over 500 IPs from the different tribal communities in the country. However, although the attendance was impressive, some of them, when thrown random questions by CyberDyaryo, didn’t know what was happening in the Palace, or why they were there.

..."Ambot lang, basta, giingnan ra man mi nga moanhi diri (I don’t know, we were just told to come here,)," was the reply of an indigenous person from the Caraga Region who requested anonymity.

...Even William Claver, chair of the Task Force, thought he would be taking his oath as chair of the NCIP.

...The members of the Task Force have been dismissed by NCIP watchers as "unsympathetic"—to say the least -- to the sad plight of indigenous peoples (IPs). How will "ensure" IPRA’s implementation and "define" its functions? The question is begging to be asked.

...And even if the members of the Task Force live up to the expectations of those who appointed them, the "whereases" of AO 108 bear no relevance to their appointment. Instead, they open the matter of governing the IP problem to a host of contradictions.

..."It’s like saying that ‘if eyes are for seeing, then to forgive is divine’," described NCIP chair Atty. David Dao-as, of the provisions of the Administrative Order.

...For instance, a good part of AO 108 narrates how, because of a Supreme Court case questioning the constitutionality of IPRA, the NCIP has failed to perform as mandated by law, and thus, because of such "legal impediment," the Task Force should be created to take over the duties of the Commission.

..."The pendency of the case," reads the AO, "has resulted in the delay of basic services delivered to the IPs, and created an ambiguity regarding the protection and recognition of their ancestral domain rights.".

...Atty. Dao-as, however, is not impressed. "There is no legal basis for that because the Supreme Court has not issued a restraining order or a preliminary writ of injunction against the IPRA," he said. Following a popular legal doctrine upholding a law’s validity unless declared otherwise by a court of law, the IPRA remains constitutional and enforceable, he said.

...It is difficult to imagine that Gasgonia and Zamora, who are both lawyers, could have missed such a fundamental legal doctrine. Which is why the AO’s critics smell something rotten abroad.

Who’s the real culprit?

...AO 108 also states that, "the further delay in the delivery of basic services, especially those concerning the rights of IPs will defeat the purpose of the IPRA and the Estrada administration’s poverty eradication program."

...But who is really delaying the services to the IPs?

...On September 21, 1998, Zamora issued Memorandum No. 21, creating an Ad Hoc Committee to study the issues relative to the Constitution, administrative setup and operations of the NCIP.

...Gasgonia was appointed chair of the committee. The same Memo 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 the final resolution of the issues surrounding the Council.

...In a previous interview with CyberDyaryo, Gasgonia had explained that the release of NCIP funds had to be withheld to prevent NCIP commissioners from using them for self-serving purposes. The commissioners are currently under DOJ investigation.

...What is left of the NCIP after that September 21 memo is an office with more than a thousand employees and funds that are just enough to pay for their monthly salaries. Nothing more. Naturally, NCIP’s programs for the IPs have had to be put on hold.

...As Gasgonia asserted during the interview: "With the doubtful performance of the NCIP commissioners, the government should not release project funds. We are releasing operational funds - rents, salaries, but not project funds because until they liquidate their cash advances that are supposedly for the projects that they were supposed to have implemented, we don’t think that it’s prudent at all to do so. In fact, it borders on gross negligence to continue releasing the funds to them."

...Gasgonia stressed, "We did not want the indigenous communities to suffer the consequences because definitely the result was that there were no projects for the IPs. And the DENR, which could have filled in the gap, had some difficulty because of the IPRA law, although this is being questioned in the Supreme Court," Gasgonia continued.

..."With this legal problem, it was decided to create a Presidential Task Force on Ancestral Domains (PTFAD)," Gasgonia said. The PTFAD was created by virtue of Memorandum 52, "to assist the Office of the President, through the Presidential Assistant for Poverty Alleviation, NGOs and POs, in monitoring compliance to existing laws regarding the of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral domains."

...So, is it the pending Supreme Court case that is the cause of the "delayed" services to the IPs?

...Dangerous precedent

...One of the concerns of the NCIP commissioners is that the new Task Force, like the old one, will "create confusion" among IP communities. As Helen Mabandoz, a Mandaya from Davao asked: "Who will the IPs follow, the NCIP or the Task Force?"

...In fairness, the Administrative Order creating the new Task Force is clear about the group’s function which is, "to assist the NCIP in the formulation of a comprehensive and integrated sustainable development plan for the indigenous peoples, focusing on the development of ancestral domains, particularly those that are covered by Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claim issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and such other official tenure instruments."

...Still, NCIP sympathizers view the Task Force as another strategy of mining advocates to derail the implementation of the IPRA during the term of the present NCIP commissioners, who are all appointees of former President Fidel Ramos.

...Dao-as remarked that, for a body that is supposed to "assist" the NCIP, not even once did the first Task Force consult the Commission on any matter concerning ancestral domains.

...Another point worth noting is Zamora’s February 11 Memo to Chairman Dao-as ordering the maintenance of the status quo regarding the NCIP chairmanship, to give the "Presidential Task Force on Indigenous Peoples sufficient time to study the matter and make appropriate recommendations to the President."

...But nowhere in AO 108 does it say that the Task Force has all that power.

...Perhaps Davao LAMMP Congressman Roy Lopez is right. "The law did not create the Office of the Presidential Assistant to implement IPRA. It created the NCIP to do that," he said during a House committee hearing on the NCIP problem.


Christian highlanders-turned rebels rap government for unfulfilled promises

By Gina Mission

pic_0222_01.gif (22367 bytes)

The Mindanao Allied Composite Command Generals: "No to Presidential Task Force on Indigenous Peoples."

They're brave, they're armed, and they're angry.

Members of the Mindanao Allied Composite Command (MACC), a unified Christian-highlander group in Mindanao are in Manila to protest the recent creation of the Presidential Task Force on Indigenous Peoples.

Said Benion Lucas, who holds that rank of major general of the MACC, the Task Force only reflects the insincerity of the Estrada administration in upholding the rights of the indigenous peoples (IPs). It also shows, he added, the President's lack of seriousness in fulfilling its promise to "uphold the rights of the IPs."

MACC, an organization duly registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, is the first of its kind in the country. Its members, who are former ranking officialsand members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), are members of indigenous tribes from different parts of Mindanao who have been assimilated to the mainstream culture. Thus the term "Christian highlanders."

"We are tribal people but we have already adopted the lifestyles of the non-IPs," explained Virgilio Seņara, a Higaonon from Bukidnon.

The MACC idea arose from the government's failure to fulfill its promise of "mainstreaming" former MNLF combatants. J4 Virgilio Seņara narrated how some 25,000 former MNLF revolutionaries believed and waited for a promised job in the government, only to wake up everyday with no job in sight.

"When you have become so used to war, you can't really be that suspicious. So almost everybody thought that they would get a job, as promised," Seņara said. It is not true, he said, that former revolutionaries cannot go back to life in the mainstream. "It's the government that seems to find it hard to accept us. We feel we are not welcome in the community," he added.

The MACC's ideals are simple. They don't want their lands, which their people have held since time immemorial, to be taken away from them. They don't want their people to be exploited by politicians during election time and be forgotten on most other days. In short, they want to have the same rights enjoyed by every Filipino.

"We are people, too. Why should the Muslim MNLF members get government support while we don't? Why should" Christians be superior to us?" asked Brig. Gen. Romeo Rapal.

One thing stands out among MACC members--at least, the ones who are presently in Manila: All of them speak good English. But as was later revealed, it isn’t at all surprising. All of them are well-to-do, and have their own businesses in Mindanao. They have taken it upon themselves to "fight so other IPs may enjoy what they rightfully deserve."

But they want to clarify something. The MACC members are not aiming for the moon. The organization wants to help disseminate information among highlanders and christian MNLF, as well as their sympathizers, about the promised government programs embodied in the final peace agreement between the government and the MNLF. MACC leaders help ordinary members identify viable activities and assist them in sourcing funds for livelihood projects, as well as in organizing cooperatives. If there is assistance available from government and foreign sources for these projects, they would want to avail of them, too.

In addition, they conduct lectures, seminars, training and general information drives on the need for self-sufficiency in IP communities. In line with the government's effort to fight poverty, Lucas said that the rights of IPs, as provided in the Indigenous People's Rights Act (IPRA) should be respected. Government's promises, he said, should be fulfilled.

"But how can the government enforce the IPRA properly when it could not even get past the issue concerning the NCIP leadership?" asked J7 Deogracias Raez, himself an NCIP director on ancestral domains.

The MACC generals stressed that the current administration should respect the law. And the law says that the NCIP is the agency that should implement IPRA, and not any task force. "Either the government follows the law, or there would really be trouble in Mindanao," Brig. Gen. Jerry Bontilao warned.

Photo courtesy of MACC

i_ppr_down.gif (11302 bytes)