Friday, 26 May 2000

Indigenous peoples
shape their own lives
By Gina Mission

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—It was a day of contrasts. Of hope and despair, of joy and sadness, of visions of an immense wealth potential amid circumstances of abject poverty. It was a day of understanding between people wearing brilliantly colored attire and headdresses of various shapes and sizes, between people speaking different tongues. It was a wondrous day filled with promise. It was the day of the First Regional Indigenous Peoples' Forum.

___In an unprecedented gathering, indigenous peoples in Cagayan Valley—the Ibanag, Gaddang, Hawis, Apayao, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Ilongot, Isinai, and Ivatan groups—came together in Nueva Vizcaya to discuss issues and problems affecting them. Together, too, they tried to think up solutions to their problems.

___The forum, held on May 20 at the provincial capitol of Nueva Vizcaya, marked the end of two-weeks of consultations conducted in the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Isabela, Cagayan, and Batanes. The entire activity was organized by the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in partnership with Nueva Vizcaya’s provincial government, and with financial support from the Foundation for Community and Career Development (FCCD).

Poverty and land security

___Indigenous peoples in Cagayan Valley may differ in many things, but they have common problems, as a presentation on issues and problems showed. Foremost of the problems they share are poverty and land security.

___Fifty-seven-year old Corazon Pango, a Bugkalot from Barangay Alloy, Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, exemplifies the situation of many indigenous people. She has seven children and her family is solely dependent on farming for daily sustenance. It’s tough, she says, but at least, her family manages to eat three times a day.

___"If you work hard, you’ll never go hungry," she told PNI in fragmented Tagalog. At times, though, all they have on their dining table are boiled bananas.

___Hard as their life already is, their situation may become even harder. A man came to Corazon Pango's house one day and ordered the family to leave the land they are occupying. Pango cannot understand this, for what she knows is that the land she and her family till is ancestral domain, located within the Bugkalot Reservation Project, and, being indigenous people, they have a right to live off it.

___"Are we going to lose the only source of our livelihood?" she asks.

___She has learned from the provincial consultation that the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, or Ipra, gives her and others like her that right to the ancestral domain. Now, she is frankly worried her family might lose it.

___That isn’t all. Despite the existence of a law protecting their welfare, people like Pango do not find ample evidence of government support for them. They know there is a government agency—the NCIP—to enforce the IPRA and assist them in their struggle to achieve self-determination and establish ownership to their ancestral lands. But they also know, from the consultation workshops, that most of the agency’s funds intended to help them have not been released.

Plows and carabaos

___The NCIP funds apart, indigenous communities lack educational facilities, health services, social services, and representation in local governments, among other things. But more than these, as Pango points out, they need farming tools and materials, like plows and carabaos. She says they needed these more than an office representing them at the municipal hall.

___The reading of resolutions drafted during the different provincial consultations also highlighted the indigenous peoples’ forum. Most of these appealed to President Estrada to lift Memorandum Order 21, issued on September 21, 1998, which suspended the release of NCIP funds. The resolutions also called for the full implementation of the NCIP programs, designed to help improve their life.

___Government officials and NGO representatives who attended the forum expressed solidarity with the indigenous peoples in their pleas and sentiments. One of them, Nueva Vizcaya Gov. Rodolfo Agbayani, pledged to improve his current programs for indigenous constituents.

___Representatives of the Caraballo and Southern Cordillera Agricultural Development Program (Cascade) called on government officials to open their eyes to what is happening in the indigenous communities. Cascade is a seven-year-old undertaking of the government and the European Union to alleviate poverty among indigenous peoples through sustainable upland development.

National roadshow

___Even as the forum ended the provincial consultations, it also marked the start of a national "roadshow" to bring the indigenous peoples’ concerns to the seven ethnographic regions of the country. From Cagayan Valley, the roadshow moves to six other regions. At the end of the roadshow, the organizers hope to gather representatives of the seven regions at the NCIP national office in October, for a culminating event marking the third anniversary of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act.

___As in the first event, the succeeding regional activities will include the introduction and discussion of the IPRA and consultations with indigenous peoples to draw up programs of action from their perspective.

___Each roadshow will likely end in a colorful event, as it did in Nueva Vizcaya. But it wasn’t just the costumes that made the first event memorable. It was the spirit animating the gathering that made it so. For it marked the renewal of faith and commitment by people who share a vision with indigenous communities, working with them as the latter try to shape their own lives and develop themselves to their full potential. Even without the right funding, which remains frozen, courtesy of Malacańang, they have this unwavering faith that their vision, in the end, will turn into reality.

___As NCIP chair David Dao-as put it: "God works in many ways."