Evicting the first Filipino settlers

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WHEN we speak of the indigenous people, we are actually referring to the first settlers in our land. They are the group in actual possession of the land which they occupied even before the Torrens titling system came to be. And it is for this reason that the lands they have occupied since time immemorial are at their disposal, use and maintenance.

However, with the onset of the Torrens titling system, wealthy individuals saw the opportunity to grab from the indigenous people the land that has long been theirs even long before these greed-driven people were born.

Taking the case of the Dumagat indigenous group at the Sierra Madre Mountain Range in Rizal Province, they have been settling there for who knows how long. They have been driven away many times in view of greed concealed behind “development.”

It is for this reason that their ancestral domain was reduced to what seemed too negligible an area – upland Rizal.

Interestingly, Dumagats, which form part of the Aetas, are deemed and recognized as the first known settlers in the country. A tribal community of no less than 27,000 families nestled at the southernmost tip of the Sierra Madre mountain range, however, are suddenly finding themselves with nowhere else to go in the midst of aggressive efforts to dislodge them from a place classified by the government as their ancestral domain, which they cleared using their bare hands, cultivated using improvised tools they made from what is available in the mountain, grown crops from what they have consumed, lived in, and formed a community that they are to date.

It was for this predicament that laws protecting them were legislated and enacted.

However, just a handful of the Dumagats would be able to understand these laws since most of them couldn’t even read or write. This is exactly the predicament of what remains of the Dumagats in the Province of Rizal.

The Dumagats of Rizal

An hour and 20 minute drive from Manila is Barangay Pinugay, an area that is being claimed by three Rizal localities – Antipolo, Baras and Tanay, where over 27,000 Dumagat families live in peace – until 2017, when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), then under the late Secretary Gina Lopez-Roy signed a Memorandum of Agreement designating businessmen engaged in big-ticket construction projects, as environment stewards.

According to the Dumagat tribal leaders forming part of the Kaksaan Ne Dumaget De Antipolo Inc., the officials behind the Masungi Georeserve are forcibly driving them away from their ancestral domain for accusing them as land grabbers, squatters and illegal loggers who were also responsible for the floods that hit Marikina City during the recent typhoons.

Masungi, together with the military, are forcefully intruding into our property and fenced it off as part of the Masungi last October 2020,” tribal chieftain Ernesto Doroteo said in the vernacular, adding that the place where they stand is what remains of their ancestral domain after being shoved away many times in the past by equally rich businessmen and politicians.

Enrico Vertudez, Kaksaan president and Alex Bendaña, chieftain of the Dumagats, shared the same sentiment, as they showed the map of their ancestral domain and the areas intruded and fenced off by Masungi, which includes their Sacred Grounds.

Stepping on the IPRA

The Masungi Georeserve, which is currently headed by Benjamin Dumaliang, President of BSCDC and operator of Masungi, the BSCDC has been lording over the upland areas of Tanay, Baras and Antipolo, using what the Dumagats claimed as dubious document signed by a former Environment official.

The document – a Memorandum of Agreement entered into by the late Environment Secretary Gina Lopez-Roy, ceded control over the Masungi Georeserve, a conservation area of about 300 hectares, to the BSCDC in 2017 covering 2,700 hectares or just about the size of the City of Makati.

According to lawyer Juancho Botor, the counsel for the Dumagats, charges in court will be filed against the Masungi for forcefully and illegally intruding the Dumagats’ ancestral domain. He explained that a mere memorandum of agreement between Dumaliang and the DENR in 2017 cannot supersede Republic Act 8371, or the “Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997” that protects the rights of the indigenous people.

The Dumagats have been issued their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT), which defines the borders of their ancestral domain. Under the same law and RA 11038, or the “National Integrated Protected Areas System,” the Dumagats are given the authority to protect, preserve and conserve the forest and the watershed within their ancestral domain, Botor explained.

Definitely, their ancestral domain is not and cannot be part of the Masungi, notwithstanding that the two distinct lands are bounded by a wide highway,” Botor pointed out.

Interestingly, records showed that in 2016 the municipal government of Tanay ordered the suspension of the operations of the Masungi for alleged various violations and charging excessive entrance fees to tourists and guests.

Indiscriminate Expansion

The ancestral domain of the Dumagats continues to shrink amid aggressive incursion of a business group masquerading as environmental steward in view of “indiscriminate” expansion by the operators behind the Masungi Georeserve. 

Lawyer Botor said that they have nothing against environmental preservation efforts. What they are against is the fact that there was wanton disregard of laws protecting the indigenous people’s rights.

He also deplored what he described as a document that literally allowed the operators behind the Masungi Georeserve to expand to areas of their choice, unmindful of the laws and displacing whoever gets on their way.

Looking back, the Masungi Geo-Reserve “conservation area” was conceptualized and developed as a socialized housing site for the employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and its line / attached agencies. But for some reasons, the project was shelved after houses were built in the area.

Taking a closer look at the MOA, the document doesn’t even have a detailed technical description on the area that has been “awarded” to Masungi Georeserve for its “ecological conservation.”   

Masungi Georeserve doesn’t have a Torrens title. So are the Dumagats. Torrens title is the certificate of ownership issued by the Register of Deeds, naming and declaring the owner of the real property described therein, free from all liens and encumbrances except such as may be expressly noted thereon or otherwise reserved by law.

The law specifically says “otherwise reserved by law.” This is what makes the Dumagats far more legit than the construction company known for transforming a 105-hectare watershed area at the border of Antipolo and San Mateo into a dumpsite in the early 90s until it was ordered closed before former President Joseph Estrada was removed from office sometime in 2000.

But what made the Dumagats legitimate is Presidential Decree 324 which excludes the ancestral domain of the Dumagats from the Marikina Watershed Area. To be perfectly clear about this one, the law recognizes the tribal group as the de facto owner and steward of the area encroached by the Masungi Georeserve.

Masungi Georeserve is being operated by just one family — Benjamin Dumaliang and her daughters.

To cut the long story short – the area encroached by the Masungi Geo-Reserve belongs to the tribal community, and not land-grabbers or squatters as Dumaliang would call the Dumagats who have been there, long before we all were born.

From how it looks, Dumaliang can’t encroach on the land at the other side of the area which he claims as “conservation area” because he’s no match to the political kingpin in possession of those parcels. That explains why he’s trying to bully the Dumagats.

15% of the Ph population

Dumagat’s Council of Elders composed of chieftains sought the help of the media since 2017 but their calls were decimated by a well-oiled PR machinery believed to be bankrolled by the BSCDC.

Again, we are seeking the help of President Rodrigo Duterte and the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) and DENR to uphold the rule of law and not to believe the lies peddled by Masungi. We, as the legal and real stakeholders, are culturally and legally-bound to preserve and conserve our ancestral domain.”

Indigenous peoples are said to comprise some 15 percent of the Philippines’ population of 110 million, or some 16.5 million people. Collectively, they are often referred to as nomads and are commonly distinguished from lowland Filipinos.

The Philippines’ Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997 is said to be one of the most progressive laws of its kind with respect to the treatment of indigenous people in the world. It was a direct result of a progressive provision that was enshrined in the Constitution of 1987, which was created and ratified after the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Section 5 of Article 12 of the Constitution states: “The State, subject to the provisions of this Constitution and national development policies and programs, shall protect the rights of indigenous cultural communities to their ancestral lands to ensure their economic, social, and cultural well-being…The Congress may provide for the applicability of customary laws governing property rights or relations in determining the ownership and extent of ancestral domain.”

Rights Under IPRA

The Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), passed 10 years later, provided that indigenous peoples had the following rights to their ancestral domain:

  • Right of ownership over lands, bodies of water traditionally and actually occupied by them, sacred places, traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and improvements introduced thereon;
  • Right to develop lands and natural resources, subject to pre-existing property rights within the ancestral domains;
  • Right to stay in their territories, except when they have given their free and prior informed consent, and subject to the Philippines’ power of eminent domain;
  • Right to be resettled in suitable areas should they be displaced through natural catastrophes;
  • Right to regulate entry of migrants;
  • Right to safe and clean air and water;
  • Right to claim parts of reservations; and
  • Right to resolve land conflicts in accordance with the customary laws of the area where the land is located.

Whatever the deficiencies of IPRA when it came to implementation, it was a major step forward in terms of legal recognition and protection of the rights of indigenous people. 

The Philippines is one of the few countries where the tenurial rights of indigenous people are explicitly protected by law. IPRA was, in fact, quite radical, for it “sought to give effect to the profound philosophical shift from previous conceptions of indigenous peoples as recipients of State grants who would eventually be assimilated into broader society, to self-determining groups vested with inherent decision-making rights that the State was bound to respect.”

In the two decades since the IPRA’s adoption, 221 CADTs have been issued spanning some 5.4 million hectares.

IPRA is one of the world’s most advanced laws when it comes to the rights of indigenous people. 

It clearly states that lands and forests that they have traditionally used for their existence, as well as the resources under them, belong to these communities. 

The problem lies in the implementation of the law, which has been subverted by powerful external interests circumventing provisions of the law or the contradictions of the law with other laws or simply used force to displace these indigenous peoples. 

When there comes into existence a relatively progressive government that puts its authority in support of indigenous peoples, then IPRA will become an invaluable mechanism to preserve and advance their rights and interests.

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