September 5, 2009

Who’s afraid of indigenous peoples?

The article by Mark Dowie, “Conservation Refugees*”, for the November/December 2005 issue of Orion magazine, is a critique of the environmental NGOs’ interventions in protected areas which lead to the displacement of indigenous peoples. In the name of environmental conservation, indigenous peoples, mostly in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, are summarily evicted from their ancestral lands. This is to eliminate the “harsh” human impacts in the hinterlands and leave unspoiled nature, who knows best, to heal itself.

This accusation is surprising, considering the supposedly untarnished record of the conservation NGOs in fulfilling the noble mission of looking after the welfare of the environment and the people. These NGOs include Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and World Conservation Society. Indigenous leaders collectively call them big international NGOs or BINGOs.

For years, the tribal communities have been engaged in a give-and-take relationship with their environment, its rhythms and harmonies so interwoven in the fabric of their culture, in their ways of life. Their songs, dances, rituals, and customs are reflective of their close affinity with nature. The breakage from this co-existence must only have come from outside interference of their social and economic affairs. Their misfortunes (in these 'cultural hotspot' areas) began with the institutionalization of national parks.

In recounting the unlikely travails of the Batwa people of Uganda and of other tribes in many other countries, Dowie is confounded by BINGOs' conservative and puritanical brand of conservation that is removed from the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. The implication is that conservation and its strategic manifestations (e.g., the creation of protected areas like natural parks and the imposition of restrictions inside it) has become the modern environmental contract. This contract explicitly pits indigenous peoples against their own place such that one cannot survive without eliminating the other in the picture. In so doing, the NGOs have become guilty of their very cause, conservation. But this is conservation in a convoluted sense: driving people away from their homeland and securing a place for the sake of securing it.

Indigenous peoples, in theory and in practice, belong to the marginalized sector of society. An empowered indigenous cultural community is almost a contradiction. Indigenous peoples have no clout. They do not have the benefit of formal education. They are not always able to articulate their discontents and cannot directly influence policies that regulate their ways. The burden of the indigenous people is their identity. The burden of identity is self-assertion. To assert one’s self or one’s tribe is to self-determine their sense of place. They must establish themselves in a static location and show proof of this habitation. Customs that are handed down by oral literature and never put on paper or never etched in cave walls are ephemeral. Laws such as the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of the Philippines are supposed to safeguard these rights. But even this law asks for concrete proof of ownership or claim, writ on paper, marked on ground. Tribes who learned to travel guided by the blow of the wind or the chirping of birds are lost in trying to find their boundaries.

Going indigenous is not a trend, it is a need (PCARRD, 1998), and environmental managers are slowly gaining acceptance of indigenous knowledge systems as the roadmap in protected areas. It just so happens that indigenous peoples, self-proclaimed original conservationists, get in the way of the “traditionally accepted” conservation measures. They are then to be sacrificed, displaced, and relocated. All the more because they are afraid of them. But who are they? Who’s afraid of indigenous peoples?

We should also ask why they are afraid of them. They are perhaps afraid of them because their education tells them so. Their education is higher than the know-how of a lowly native. Their ways are more “civilized”, more “humane.” This is the irony of knowledge. The better one knows, the more one knows nothing at all. Environmental managers are always after the best scientific and up-to-date information, not knowing that the knowledge they are going after is maybe as old as time itself, and that science is already ritualized in chants and meditations.

We are afraid of indigenous peoples because they occupy a large tract of productive lands, dwell in high-density forests, and fish in resource-rich waters. We see them as our competitors to the bounty of the environment.

We are afraid of indigenous peoples because we think our worldviews are superior to theirs. Our enlightened philosophies of capitalism and globalization are what makes us survive in the cutthroat world of supply and demand.

In the process of attaining their noble ends, do the BINGOs become the enemies of conservation themselves? Cultural diversity is not unrelated to biodiversity. The preservation of indigenous knowledge systems may hold the key to the identification of sustainable conservation practices. NGOs have strategized conservation to the point of commodifying conservation. Strategies sell, and the response of global transboundary conservation efforts is corporatization. NGOs tend to be fund-driven, and this makes them more readily responsive to outside priorities, or to their own priorities, than to local priorities (Eder and Fernandez, 1996). The global arena of the BINGOs is expanding to the point of elevating them as the new power player, a mega-stakeholder in the business of conservation. A new strain of David-and-Goliath syndrome is in-the-make.

Not giving indigenous peoples a chance to showcase their capacities for conservation is the major blunder of the BINGOs. In negating any heritage value or any non-marketable value of the unknown indigenous knowledge, we deprive the environment of fruitful conservation strategies. Dowie puts forward resource co-management as a possible solution to this conflict. The purist conservationist will learn to “compromise” with the indigenous settlers. Although a promising venture, Dowie still cautions about the uses and abuses of such schemes. Resource management is in itself already a compromise. The demands of capitalism will still push raw materials in the forefront of agenda. Men will still look after their interests.

Given the pervading paranoia of indigenous peoples and of what they are capable of, the ecocentric model will always be put forward as the strategia exemplar. Yet given the inhumanity of displacing the “enemies of conservation,” the ecocentric model will always be questioned as a valid construct. To illustrate this dichotomy, let us have a simple thought experiment called the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, developed in the field of quantum mechanics. A cat is put in a box with a radioactive substance. A measuring device which measures the amount of emitted radioactive material is attached to the box. When the measuring device tipped its scale, we are asked the question: Is the cat dead or alive? The paradox of the answer is that we will never know for sure unless we open the box and see for ourselves. The uncertainty lies in the observer not knowing the actual condition of the cat, and the act of observing actually contributes to the final outcome of knowing. Similarly, the old conservation model demands a state where the environment is free from any human intervention, and that any occupant (indigenous people) we place in it (or already in it) will surely degrade the closed system. But we are not even sure. The truth is that the occupant will both degrade the system and not degrade the system. We will only ever know the truth or falsity of our assumption when we open the box.

The problem with the present conservation model is its inherent bias against any occupant of a protected area. The pre-existing ethnocentric model, which is challenged by the BINGOs and extractive industries, may well prove to be the key to resolving the paradox: leaving the cat be, abandon the experiment.

If it is a question of compatibility of biological diversity and of human rights, then the argument is settled. Human rights and biodiversity enhance each other. They sustain both the diversity and welfare of man and other living things. Life support systems are respected when human rights are respected.

Maybe the solution that we are all striving for is the null hypothesis. Let us try to leave the tribes in their sanctuaries. That is probably the only way that such a place will truly be called a sanctuary. Maybe that is the only viable way to protect a protected area.

“Conservation refugees” is a strong term and its usage reflects the discontents of the times. For a moment then, let us be guilty of dangerous words, characteristic vocabulary of post-9-11 era. Indigenous warfare, weapons of mass extinction, ethnic racism, eco-terrorism, ethno-terrorism. Let us focus our attention on the latter two words. Ethno-terrorism may be defined as any serious harm dealt with an indigenous person or an indigenous cultural community. Eco-terrorism, on the other hand, is any serious harm dealt with the environment, the downgrading or reversal of its ambient quality or the further debilitation of a degraded environment. Eco-terrorism is exemplified by the irresponsible extractive activities of those in power: transnational corporations, big mining who disguised themselves as small-scale operators, public officials who invested in uprooting mangroves and cultivating fishponds in their place. It can be argued that eco-terrorism is a form of ethno-terrorism. They have the same effect in the long run because the destruction of wilderness habitats destroys the lives of indigenous peoples living in them. The subtlety of ethno-terrorism is that, in the guise of environmental protection, it has become accepted. Either it can not be easily detected or it can be tolerated by those who know of it. In some cases it is upheld, in most cases it is justified.

In Palawan, traditional ancestral zones (TAZ) are recognized as one of the zones in environmentally critical areas network (ECAN), the main strategy of Republic Act 7611 or the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan Act. In tribal ancestral zones, as well as in core zones, traditional activities of indigenous peoples such as almaciga-tapping and honey-gathering are allowed. A memorandum of agreement between the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the implementing agency of SEP, and National Council for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), the implementing agency of IPRA, is being negotiated to iron out gaps between the ECAN and ancestral domain claims delineation.

Since the promulgation of IPRA, there have been success stories such as that of Tagbanwa in Coron, Palawan, who were able to obtain their certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT). The Tagbanwas are able to apply for a CADT through the lengthy process outlined in the law. Their awarded claim covers not only two islands, Coron and Delian, but a substantial portion of ancestral waters as well. Their success, however, can be mainly attributed to outside help coming from an NGO, the Philippine Association for Intercultural Development (PAFID).

The Coron CADC is a rare case. History has proven, and is still proving, that the recognition of ancestral domains in the Philippines is taboo. The root of the problem lies in the intrinsic contradiction of Philippine legal system of land ownership, a Western-based system, with the customary laws of indigenous peoples (Molintas, 2004). IPRA is admittedly one of the best things that happen to the indigenous peoples for a long time, but it is far from perfect. Undermining its provisions are several laws like the Mining Act of 1995. The 1992 National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS), also a Western concept, has some provisions on the recognition of indigenous rights. Section 13 clearly states:

Ancestral lands and customary rights and interest arising shall be accorded due recognition. The DENR shall prescribe rules and regulations to govern ancestral lands within protected areas: Provided, That the DENR shall have no power to evict indigenous communities from their present occupancy nor resettle them to another area without their consent: Provided, however, That all rules and regulations, whether adversely affecting said communities or not, shall be subjected to notice and hearing to be participated in by members of concerned indigenous community.

The free and prior informed consent (FPIC) is already outlined here prior to the promulgation of IPRA in 1997. Any transaction of a project proponent with an indigenous cultural community prescribes the securing of FPIC. The negotiating table, however, has offered many variations on psychological manipulation and tactics. The battle for FPIC can be said to have produced two distinct breeds of indigenous peoples: the pan-tribal group and the quasi-indigenous group. The former refers to the group of people who have tried to adapt to outside intervention (usually the state through state-sponsored laws such as IPRA) and the whims of political will. McDermott (2000) suggests that their emergence is inevitable and it may lead positively to the consolidation of efforts of indigenous community, thereby uniting them. However, this can also be interpreted as a negative triumph, because the indigenous peoples are subsuming themselves under the jurisdiction of laws that are strange to them. The deculturation process is also inevitable when they start negotiating as political players.

The latter kind of indigenous peoples, the quasi-indigenous group, are not really a legitimate group of indigenous peoples. They may only be migrants who proffered themselves as natives of the land for any political or economic benefits they may get from meddling in the issue. Quasi-indigenous groups, in a way, also have some rights, but these are not as valid or as paramount as the rights of the true indigenous groups.

The emergence of other kinds of indigenous peoples is indicative of their evolving modern predicament. At the fundamental level, they seek more than recognition. They seek more than being given the tenurial instrument to their land and waters. They want, ultimately, to be understood. So that no entity, conservationist or extractive, will ever be afraid of them.

*The link is to an abridged version of the original article. 


Eder, J. F., and J. O. Fernandez (Eds.). 1996. Palawan at the crossroads: Development and the environment on a Philippine frontier. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 170p.

McDermott, M. H. 2000. Boundaries and pathways: Indigenous identity, ancestral domain, and forest use in Palawan, the Philippines. Ph.D. dissertation. University of California, Berkeley. 413p.

Molintas, J. M. 2004. The Philippine indigenous people's struggle for land and life: Challenging legal texts. Arizona Journal of International & Comparative Law 21: 269-306.

Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources (PCARRD). 1998. People, earth and culture (Readings in indigenous knowledge systems on biodiversity management and utilization). Los Baños, Laguna: PCARRD – NCCA. 303pp.

Republic Act No. 7586. National Integrated Protected Areas Act of 1992.

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