25 JUNE 1998
Tagbanuas Win First Ever Ancestral Waters Claim


THE BLUE-GREEN waters around this pristine paradise of sheer lime- stone cliffs, white sand beaches, and virgin forests are the site of the first-ever claim on ancestral waters by an indigenous community in the Philippines.

Last Monday, the Tagbanua of Coron island were awarded a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) over more than 22,000 hectares of land and sea. It is a victory for this community of 200 families struggling to protect their island and its surrounding waters from the destructive methods of migrant fishermen and a government plan to make northern Palawan a prime tourist destination.

Using satellite mapping equipment provided by a Manila-based NGO, the Coron Tagbanua were able to define the boundaries of their ancestral domain on a map that became the basis of their CADC.

The CADC is the title to the land and the sea that have sustained the community for centuries. It gives the Tagbanua the right to manage the area and preserve its rich marine and land resources. It also sets a precedent for other island tribes—the Molbog of southern Palawan, the Tagbanua tribes in the Bulalacao and Tara island groups in northern Palawan and the Badjao of Sulu - who are seeking ownership of ancestral waters.

Since 1994, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has approved 132 CADCs covering two million hectares of land throughout the country. But only the Tagbanua claim includes the sea.

The CADC provides the Tagbanua and other tribal groups the legal leverage to confront fisher- men and tourist operators who disregard indigenous culture and ancestral domain when encroaching on their territory. A new law, the Indigenous People's Rights Act (IPRA) approved last October, upholds the pursuit of ancestral domain rights and empowers indigenous peoples with the legal instruments and mechanisms with which to assert those rights.

Such a leverage is much needed by indigenous groups in northern Palawan, one of the last relatively unspoiled regions of the country. It is here where 15 ancestral domain claims in Palawan province are located. And it is in this area-several island clusters of breathtaking beauty-where a massive government tourism project is being planned.

The ancestral domain of the Coron Tagbanua, a fishing tribe distinct from the Tagbanua of main- land Palawan, covers the 236-hectare Delian island and the 8,000-hectare Coron island, an hour's boat ride from Coron town proper on Busuanga island.

Between and surrounding the two islands are three large formations of coral reefs and a scattering of smaller ones that are home to exotic marine life like octopus, sea cucumber, and an assorted variety of fish.

Coron island itself, with its vertical limestone cliffs, caves, mangroves, inland lakes, scattered strips of white sand beaches, and virgin limestone forest, has, been. classified one of eight protected areas all over the country for their "unique physical and biological significance." Republic Act 7586, also known as the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS), classifies these areas as natural habitats meant to be "managed to enhance biological diversity and protected against destructive human exploitation."

But the Tagbanua fear that the tourism plan called "Environmentally Sustainable Tourism Devel- opment for Northern Palawan" will only hasten the island's destruction.

The plan was the result of a 17-month study completed early last year and funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It will include an extensive infrastructure component - airport, hotels, ports, roads-in an area covering roughly 8,000 square kilometers north of Puerto Princesa City. Implementation of the plan, which will involve several government agencies as well as the private sector, is set for 1999.

To be sure, the Department of Tourism is treading carefully on Coron island. The JICA team recommended that "no tourism development should be allowed in and around Coron island except for aerial observation, while other developments should be properly guided within the specified physical accommodating capacities in accordance with development guidelines to comply with Environmental Management Area and local socioeconomic requirements."

"We want to limit the areas in Coron island where tourists can go in consideration of the concerns and issues of the community," says Cheryl Hulleza, the DOT's supervising operations officer for Luzon.

But this assurance brings little comfort to the Tagbanua. Already, aerial observations come in the form of chartered planes that fly low over the limestone cliffs to give tourists a view of the island. Tourist yachts and motor boats are moored in coves, letting tourists off at the white sand beaches or inland lakes.

So far, the only area on Coron that the DOT plans to develop is Kayangan lake, a freshwater lagoon nestled amid the towering limestone cliffs on the northwestern side of the island fronting Busuanga. But tourists manage to enter the other lakes and beaches, which are considered sacred by the tribe.

The Tagbanua can only shake their heads when they hear the din of tourists on Kayangan Lake. They know that the noise tourists make disturbs the balinsasayaw or swiftlet, the tiny bird that nests in the island's caves.

The edible birds' nests are the source of livelihood for Tagbanua fishermen who gather them starting December when the northeasterly (amihan) wind blows and keeps the inhabit- ants inland. The Tagbanua scale the jagged limestone cliffs toward cave entrances high above the sea. They would then make the stealthy and treacherous descent into the dark caves to gather the nests which they sell to Chinese traders in town.

Forty-year-old Norlito Languyod remembers that in his youth, he would hie off to the clan cave and bring down as many as 50 nests. These days, he is lucky if he can find three.

Languyod says the balinsasayaw are now disappearing, driven to quiet nesting places far from the din of tourist planes and boats and tourists themselves. As a result, there are fewer nests for the Tagbanua to gather.

"Kung magpapaubaya lang kami, pati ang Tagbanua ay mawawala na rin (if we allow things to continue, even the Tagbanua will disappear)," says Tagbanua leader Rodolfo Aguilar, chairman of the Tagbanua Foundation of Coron Island (TFCI).

Dr. Lope Calanog, co-director of the DENR's National Integrated Protected Areas Programme (NIPAP), blames the Tagbanua themselves for the unrestricted entry of tourists into Coron island. The tribe, he says, has repeatedly refused help from agencies like NIPAP which have the power to impose restrictions on tourists. Instead, the Tagbanua insist on managing the island themselves.

Such an attitude by the Tagbanua could easily be misconstrued as narrow-mindedness and a bias against government, which indeed the tribe is accused of, for opposing the tourism plan—an ecotourism project—that will benefit poverty-stricken northern Palawan, without neglecting the environment.

In reality, the Tagbanua are at a loss on how to deal with the phenomenon of ecotourism, which clashes with tribal norms and values. For hundreds of years, their only contact with foreigners was mainly the Chinese traders who bought birds' nests and sea cucumbers from the Tagbanua. More importantly, ecotourism itself is a concept alien to the Tagbanua who climb the caves only to hunt for nests and venture into the sea only to fish. Tourism—going to a place to do nothing but relax and bask in its beauty—is incomprehensible.

So far, none of the tourist developers in the area have bothered to consult the tribe about their encroachment on its territory. Some Tagbanua members are learning from experiences of the past when several islands were bought from Tagbanua clans, one for as low as PI 2,000 in the early 1990s, and are now off limits to Tagbanua fishermen and nest gatherers.

Today the Coron Tagbanua refuse to be rushed into making a stand or formulating a program on tourism. Aguilar asserts: "Hindi kami umaayaw sa turista. Pero kailangan ma-approve muna ang aming CADC. At saka na kami magkakaroon ng isang Ancestral Domain Management Plan. Pero sa ngayon pinag-uusapan pa namin yan. Kung sila'y talagang para sa ecotourism, maghihintay sila (We are not against tourists, but we have to have our CADC first. Only then will we come up with an Ancestral Domain Management Plan. But right now we are still formulating it. If they are really for ecotourism, then they will wait)."

There is as yet a smaller number of tourists going to northern Palawan than to other tourist destinations in the country. 1995 estimates were at 54,000, equally divided between local and foreign tourists and representing only 1.3 per cent of the total number of tourists in the country that year. But that figure is expected to increase eightfold by the year 2010 to 400,000.

A tourism boom will surely benefit northern Palawan but the Tagbanua are skeptical that it will ever reach them. "Papasok ang dolyar, pero hindi sa amin mapupunta, kundi sa mga tourist operators (The dollars will come in but they will go to tourist operators and not to us)," Aguilar foresees. Addressing these concerns, the DOT has involved the Tagbanua in tourism planning to make sure the tribe's way of life is respected and it gets a fair share of the rewards from any government project.

The TFCI, along with other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations in Palawan, is part of the Kayangan Lake Management Project trying to develop a plan and policies acceptable to all. In the meantime, the DOT is firming up guidelines on ecotourism for the develop- merit of sites and tourism activities.

As they grapple with the idea of tourism, the tribe is also trying to find explanations and solutions to another baffling concept: large-scale commercial fishing.

"Kung hami-kami lang, di namin kayang ubusin ang isda sa dagat (if we were left alone, we cannot consume all the fish in the sea)," argues Tagbanua fisherman Edip Apolinario. But he laments that migrants have overrun the seas around their island and depleted its resources, leaving almost nothing to the Tagbanua.

Tagbanua fishermen remember when they would venture out to sea and bring home 30 kilos of fish, which they caught using nothing more than a bamboo fishing rod or spear. These days, five kilos is considered a jackpot, and they have to sail farther away from shore to get it.

The Tagbanua's problems began in 1985 when migrants from the Visayas began streaming into nearby Delian island, which is part of the tribe's ancestral domain. Today, a deluge of migrants has practically swept the Tagbanua families away from Delian.

The tribe accuses these migrant fisherfolk of dynamite fishing and of spraying sodium cyanide on the coral reefs, the fish's natural habitat. The migrants are also accused of conducting muro-ami fishing, a dangerous method which involved as many as 300 people in Cebu, where it has already been banned.

The muro-ami operations in Tagbanua territory require much less-only 50 persons-which is why it has been given the name "baby muro-ami." Nevertheless, divers still lay giant nets and pound on the coral reefs to flush out the fish toward the nets, which is harmful to both diver and the coral reefs.

In the town proper of Coron, there is a thriving live fish industry, run mostly by rich Chinese traders who favor the huge lapu-lapu and lobsters. The traders buy the live lapu-lapu for as much as P 1,000 per kilo. The fish are then stored in styrofoam boxes and shipped to Manila for export to Hong Kong. Every day, light planes make several flights out of Busuanga airport with their cargo of live fish, despite a ban on the export of live fish.

The lucrative trade is what is pushing migrant fishermen toward illegal fishing methods that destroy Coron's coral reefs. "Hindi naman sila taga-rito kaya wala silang pakialam (They are not from here so they don't care)," says Aguilar. This has prompted members of the TCFI to patrol the coastal waters and confiscate illegal fishing gear from migrants at sea.

Such greed for the bounty of the sea is foreign to tribal ways. Here, they fish just enough for a day's meal with a little left over to share with neighbors. In lean months, when Tagbanua women forage for wild tubers, they make sure they dig only a shallow hole, leaving a portion of the root crop to grow back. When water sources are discovered in the limestone forest, they leave markers for the rest of the tribe to see.

Indeed, Coron Island retains its beauty because the tribe does not abuse the island's rich marine and land resources. "Kaya nananatiling maganda (ang Coron), kasi hindi nila pinapakialaman (The reason Coron remains beautiful is that it was left alone)," says Dave de Vera, executive director of the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID), which is supporting the Tagbanua's application for a CADC.

"We (outsiders) are looking for a magic and spiritual formula called indigenous resource manage- ment, but that's all there is to it. You just don't touch something that you have no business touching," de Vera says.

The boundaries of the Tagbanua ancestral domain are not randomly set points but are the areas within which they and their ancestors have fished and foraged for generations. The territory, though, was undocumented and unmapped. With the help of PAFID, the community defined its borders and translated it into a map, which was then submitted to the DENR as part of the CADC application.

PAFID personnel used what is known as the global positioning system (GPS), a satellite-based mapping system developed by the US Department of Defense. The system has since been made available to civilians around the world. With this, PAFID helped track the exact latitudes, longitudes, distances and bearings of specific corners of the Tagbanua domain.

The map does not only delineate the coastal boundaries. It also identifies the areas vital to the preservation of their way of life. It shows the exact location of the coral reefs where the Tagbanua fish, the caves and beaches which are ancestral burial grounds, the sacred grounds which are home to the giant octopus much-feared by the Tagbanua, caves where the balinsasayaw nest, water sources, and villages where the tribe lives. It is one whole ecological system that has existed for centuries.

The map did not pass the approval of local environment officers who wanted to reduce the Tagbanua's claim to only 100 meters from the shoreline because it overlapped with municipal waters. The local DENR also insisted that all beaches and lakes, as well as migrant-occupied areas, be ex- cluded since these were not actually utilized by the tribe.

The tribe argues, "Walang saysay ang lupa kung wala ang dagat (The land is meaningless without the sea)" because both the land and the sea are vital to their existence.

But the IPRA resolves these concerns. The law stipulates that ancestral domain rights include "the right to claim ownership over lands, bodies of water traditionally and actually occupied by the (tribe), sacred places, traditional hunting grounds, and fishing grounds," The IPRA also awards to the tribe traditional lands now occupied by migrants, and even gives the tribe "the right to regulate the entry of migrant settlers and organizations into the domain."

Early this month, the DENR Central Office in Manila overturned the recommendations of the provincial and community ENR officers on the Tagbanua claim, on June 22, 1998, Secretary Victor Ramos, in one of his last acts as DENR chief, signed the first-ever ancestral waters claim.

After five years of persistent lobbying, the Tagbanua were finally granted their CADC, a legal document that may yet spell their survival as a tribe.

us your views and comments
about this article.


Web pcij.org

Search our Site
powered by FreeFind