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  • Legal Rights Center

Sustainable development, not big business, will lift indigenous peoples out of poverty

According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. In the Philippines, an official census has yet to be made of its indigenous population, but estimates peg it at between 12 and 15 million. Of this number, majority is poor, living in the fringes of society.

“Indigenous peoples continue to be neglected by the government. They struggle to defend their territories against big agribusiness ventures, mining companies, real estate projects, and other forms of development aggression. Their sources of food and energy are insecure. They continue to suffer from a lack of access to basic social services such as education and health and government programs that support their economic empowerment,” said Norly Mercado, executive director of Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), on the occasion of the international day of indigenous peoples today, August 9.

But instead of sustainable development programs, the government is imposing neoliberal solutions that will worsen the plight of indigenous peoples.

“The statements[i] of President Rodrigo Duterte months ago to open up ancestral domains to investors are indicative of the neoliberal mindset of the government. The government routinely abdicates its responsibility to indigenous peoples by falsely pinning its hopes on the private sector. But indigenous peoples’ experiences have shown that large-scale development projects harm instead of nourish the way of life of indigenous peoples,” said Mercado.

For example, indigenous peoples who belong to the T’boli-Manobo S’daf Claimants Organizations (TAMASO) in South Cotabato are locked in a decades-long struggle with Silvicultural Industries Incorporated (SII) over a coffee plantation that has encroached on the ancestral domain on TAMASCO. SII is a subsidiary of the David M Consungji, Inc. (DMCI).

In December 2017, seven members of TAMASCO were killed, allegedly caught in a crossfire between the military and rebel forces. In an article in The Guardian[ii], TAMASCO connects the killings to their campaign to regain their land. In fact, a fact-finding mission earlier this year discovered that the dead bodies were found in different areas, hinting that the seven people who died were in fact targeted by the military, and not victims of a crossfire.

“Cases like this are rampant in the Philippines. Living in remote places of the country, indigenous peoples are vulnerable to the machinations of big corporations. It is tragic that oftentimes because of the economic contributions of large plantations, the government does not prioritize the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Mercado.

“The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) has become an apologist even of large corporations instead of representing the interests of indigenous peoples. That Mindanao, home to many ancestral domains, is still under Martial Law conditions the public to accept cases of violence like this,” said Mercado.

“We urge the government to revamp the NCIP, which has become ineffective in implementing projects for indigenous peoples. We also urge both military troops and rebel forces to withdraw from ancestral domains and leave indigenous peoples in peace. The members of TAMASCO were displaced because of the killings last year, and recently indigenous peoples in Surigao del Sur had to evacuate because of the presence of military troops in their area. The government and rebel forces must go back to the negotiating table and stop using ancestral domains as their battleground,” said Mercado.

“The government must also invest in sustainable development programs, such as climate-resilient agriculture projects, and support projects that indigenous peoples themselves choose. This is the principle behind the indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination,” said Mercado.

Photo: Participants of a previous State of the Indigenous Peoples’ Address, an activity that gathers representative indigenous peoples group leaders to come up with the national situation of indigenous peoples.


[i] President Duterte made these comments at a gathering on 1 February 2018 at the military’s eastern command in Mindanao.

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