When someone speaks of Palawan, jogging the memory would probably be the title “best island in the world”, undeniably because of its spectacular beaches, breathtaking views, bountiful biodiversity, unique culture, and warm-hearted people.
Apart from being a tourism haven, Palawan, the largest province in the country, is also home to several Indigenous Peoples (IPs) communities that play a great role in preserving the “last ecological frontier of the Philippines”. Without the IP’s significant contribution to environmental protection, Palawan would not have a rich flora and fauna to boast about.
However, now that the world is engrossed in fighting the threats of COVID-19, the IP communities are even more put behind obscurity while tackling issues magnified by the pandemic.
“Nothing much differed in terms of the struggles we face before-pandemic and today. The IP sector, although given the voice, is not heard enough,” Johnmart Salunday, Indigenous People’s mandatory representative and Nagkakaisang Tribu ng Palawan (NATRIPAL) (Union of Tribes of Palawan) president, tells Diinsider. Salunday is a member of the Tagbanua tribe residing in the central and northern parts of Palawan.
A cycle of challenges
Photo credits: Noriel Nueca, Palawan Moving Forward Facebook Page
1. Almost denied access to education
One of the major obstacles of the community is the transition to distance learning. Most of the schools in the IP communities in Palawan, which are in the mountains and remote locations, are often hiked by students and teachers but because of the lockdown, these learning centers were closed.
The Department of Education in the Philippines provided options as they continue classes despite the worsening of the COVID situation; there is online learning which makes use of gadgets to cater either live or recorded discussions prepared by the teacher for viewing, modular learning or the use of printed modules or manuals as an educational reference, or blended learning which is the combination of the two aforementioned approaches.
“Our tribes do not have the means to acquire gadgets and signal is difficult in the area, so it leaves us no choice but to continue with the modular learning. This distant learning aggravated the problem of lack of education among our people. Who would teach the kids then, if their parents don’t even know how to read and write?” Salunday explained.
2. The forest is their only means of livelihood
In terms of their livelihood, the IP representative believes that the forest could provide as much as the community’s needs for hand-to-mouth living. He wishes that the government would allow them to utilize and sell non-timber forest products which for them are their only way of life.
The transport of these products needs a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Salunday sees no problem abiding with that except that the process of acquiring permits is bureaucratic and complex for the tribes.
But NTFPs are also quickly diminishing in several locations and this is resulting in loss of income and increasing poverty amongst IPs. “So many bamboo groves and rattan-rich areas have been bulldozed by oil palm companies, even wild honey is now hard to find” says Romeo Japson, president of the local indigenous people’s coalition against land grabbing (CALG) and a member of the Pala’wan tribes of Bataraza.
3. Health in the mountains and coasts: policies vs. traditions
When asked about how they have been dealing with health issues especially that there is the threat of the virus, Salunday noted that the IP communities are cautious and compliant with existing health rules implemented by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
If there’s one health-related concern that needs to be considered, he said, is the “No Home Birthing Policy” which stemmed from the government’s belief that home birthing is the cause of high maternal deaths.
For the IPs, aside from the policy being punitive or anti-poor and having faulty assumptions, it is something that goes against the long-standing traditions of various tribes who believe in the traditional birth massage or “hilot”.
He cited his experiences, seeing women from his community who just gave birth doing chores while having enough strength to carry their children. He said that policies like this did not undergo ample consultation with the people and are inconsistent with the Philippines’ Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act of 1997, which was supposed to recognize and respect the traditions and culture that tribes are trying to preserve.
In addition to limited access to Government health services, the indigenous people of Palawan are now struggling to keep their health remedies alive. “Nowadays, due to the combined effect of forest destruction by mining and agribusiness firms, some IPs must walk long distances just to find the medicinal plants they need for curing themselves” says Romeo Japson. “When these plants will be lost, it will be impossible for us to transfer our traditional knowledge to the future generations” he adds.
“Never forget our people”
These are only a few of the problems that our indigenous peoples confront and this article only represents a portion of the IP communities in the Philippines which may also be suffering from similar or even worse situations such as land-grabbing, exploitation, killings perpetrated by military forces, just like what is happening in the Lumad communities in the southern Philippines, among others.
The Philippines has an estimated 14 to 17 million Indigenous Peoples from 110 diverse ethnolinguistic groups. In Palawan alone, there are seven major ethnolinguistic groups such as the Tagbanua, Pala’wan, Molbog, Batak, [these latter two are not ethnic groups in the real sense (i.e. are not indigenous people) but are ethnolonguistic groups)] , that reside in remote areas, mountains, and coasts of the province.
Going back to what Salunday stated, the IP communities, despite efforts of their leaders and members to raise their voices in issues that matter for them, are often unheard and portrayed differently. Indigenous peoples should be seen as more than just an aesthetic, they are not just part of our “tour packages”. They are the backbone of our identity.
Photo credits: Noriel Nueca, Palawan Moving Forward Facebook Page
They have been living on our island since time immemorial and worked in solidarity with one another. Now big industrial firms are contributing to split communities in pro-mining and anti-mining, in pro-oil palm plantations and anti-oil palm plantations, and this is breaking apart their solidarity and self-support mechanisms. They don’t demand to become “civilized” (in the sense of achieving the material wealth of mainstream society) rather they want their centuries old ‘civilization’ - which resisted Spanish colonization - to be respected and recognized. What they really need is equal treatment, fair recognition, and respect for their identity, beliefs, culture, and shelter.
As we relentlessly battle with the global pandemic that is afflicting everyone, may we not forget our Indigenous Peoples and their battles as well. Let us continue to give them the platform that they fully deserve and work on raising awareness to the public, and of course, embrace them without prejudices and ulterior motives.
cover photo credit: Inanc Tekguc/CALG 2015 Copyrights