The Resource Curse of S’bu or the Lake of Paradoxes

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Land is central to the struggle of indigenous peoples worldwide. Now, this struggle is compounded by risks from climate change. Since many of the territories of indigenous peoples are fragile, and many indigenous communities are highly dependent on natural resources and the integrity of the ecosystems they inhabit, land use policies of the State greatly affect individuals and communities. In Lake Sebu town, where 63.14% of the population are indigenous Tboli, Ubo, and Manobo, majority of whom depend on the forests for their economic activities, encroaching land policies in the guise of development further disadvantage them.

Governance and management of these natural resources, rooted in the colonial history of the country and tied to post-colonial policies, is a major issue in indigenous territories in the Philippines. In pre-colonial “Philippines,” land and resources are considered common resources. Their use and conservation, therefore, are the responsibility of the whole community. Traditional land ownership, for example, is through clearing or t’miba, and planting. If a person clears a forest and plants on it, that person has rights on that plot for the duration of the land’s optimum fertility, which usually lasts 3-4 years upon clearing.

The story of mass migration to Mindanao of peoples from the islands of Luzon and the Visayas finds roots in the story of Western colonialism in the country. In my attempt to discuss issues in the governance of resources in Lake Sebu, it is necessary to also tell the story of State-sponsored migration to Mindanao island, altering forever the natural and social landscape of this land.

Lake Sebu itself has been largely unperturbed by the colonial rulers of the Philippines, the Spaniards, and the Americans. Although the entire island of Mindanao has been included in the Philippine Commission Act No. 2259 of 1913, or the Cadastral Act, which “institutionalized systematic land surveys and facilitated the inventory of titled lands vis à vis the lands that can be alienated for government purposes,” Lake Sebu remained impenetrable. On the same year of the Cadastral Act, the Philippine Commission Act Nos. 2254 and 2280, also known as the Agricultural Colonies Acts, invited Christian settlers to Pikit (the first to be carved out of the Cotabato town of the late Spanish period), Glan (known today as Sarangani), and Pagalungan (at that time a part of the old Muslim district of Midsayap, which is in turn part of the general region of Dulawan and Pikit). The arrival and success of Cebuano migrants in Glan, at the southernmost Buayan-oriented areas, presaged the arrival of Ilocano migrants into the neighboring Kiamba in 1918, and into Malungon in the 1930s and onwards. Kiamba was populated by the Tboli who lived in proximity with Maguindanao coastal communities that were also spread out along Malungon’s seaward areas, among the scattered homelands of the Blaan people.

These American Colonial Acts would commence the series of State policies that would ultimately culminate in the Land Resettlement Acts of Manuel Quezon, a massive program to resettle the restive and landless farmers of Central Luzon to Mindanao. The Commonwealth Act No. 441, or the Act Creating the National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA), was passed on June 3, 1939. General Paulino Santos was named head of the incipient National Land Settlement Administration (NLSA). The new body was organized based on recommendations of a three-man committee tasked to study the Quezon presidency priority of land resettlement in Mindanao for Luzon and Visayas. The NLSA was to supersede the work of the Inter-island Migration Division of the Bureau of Labor, which, from 1918 to 1939, resettled 30,000 to 35,000 individuals from Luzon and the Visayas, into Mindanao. General Paulino Santos led the first group of 200 migrants from Luzon and the Visayas to the Lagao area of Allah Valley to form six settler communities in what was, in previous centuries, the contiguous homelands of the Muslim Maguindanao, and the animist Blaan, Teduray, and Bagobo peoples.

Today, much of the control of natural resources and environmental wealth in Lake Sebu lies with the national and local government, with IP communities having little actual control. The Philippine Constitution provides that the State has full control and supervision of natural resources. This State-imposed form of resource governance to a people who have, for centuries, been governing their lands, may only be described in the Marxist terms of “capitalist exploitation and internal colonialism,” where the Tboli have been forced to comply with foreign laws concerning their ancestral land. Settler capitalism changed the landscape of resource governance in Lake Sebu.

With the settlers from Luzon and Visayas came also the logging and mining operations. Armed with logging and mining permits issued by the national government, local and foreign corporations cleared hectares of forests for timber and minerals. The height of the logging exploitation happened during the years of the Marcos administration. In 1979, logging concessions in Mindanao has been said to cover five million hectares, nearly half the land area of the island, and were mainly in the territories of the IPs and the Moros. Timber exports to Japan and the USA were to a large extent sourced from Mindanao. The mountains of South Cotabato were not spared from this Marcos logging spree. Timber License Agreements were granted to Marcos cronies, retired generals, and veterans, to secure their continued loyalty to the Marcos administration. 

During the Martial Law years, the rate of forest destruction in the Philippines was about 300,000 hectares annually. In the ancestral territories of the Tboli people alone, the forests and mountains in T’boli town and Barangay Ned in Lake Sebu were the first to fall. Now, these places host mono-crop plantations by multinational companies like Sumifru, Dole, San Miguel, and Consuji that continue at present to be contentious undertakings of the national and local governments.

Another issue that complicates the governance of resources in Lake Sebu is the presence of multiple legal systems that puts tension between national, local, barangay laws, and customary laws that govern resources. The Tboli communities in Lake Sebu have a long history of customary laws and traditional governance mechanisms (adat), as well as a western (common law) legal system established during the colonial period in the Philippines and imposed upon the Tboli during the internal colonization of migrant settlers to Mindanao. A large part of the municipality of Lake Sebu is now covered by a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) no. R12-LAK-0110-155, supposedly granting the Tboli a level of autonomy to govern their ancestral domain. The recognition from the State of their “indigenous-ness” gives them authority emanating from the State. But to what extent does it empower Tboli communities to govern the natural resources within their ancestral domain?

The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (Republic Act no. 8371 or IPRA) is the national legislation that recognizes and promotes Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Section 57 of chapter 8 of the IPRA states that: “The ICCs/IPs shall have priority rights in the harvesting, extraction, development or exploitation of any natural resources within the ancestral domain. A non-member of ICCs/IPs concerned may be allowed to take part in the development and utilization of the natural resources for a period of not exceeding twenty-five (25) years: provided, that a formal and written agreement is entered into with the ICCs/IPs concerned or that the community, pursuant to its decision-making process, has agreed to allow such operation: provided, finally, that the NCIP may exercise visitorial powers and take appropriate action to safeguard the rights of ICCs/IPs under the same contract”. This provision has been seen as a reinforcement of the Constitution’s Regalian Doctrine, the constitutional mandate that “all lands of the public domain belong to the State. But instead of protecting the rights of the IPs to their ancestral domains, Section 57 strengthens the argument that all natural resources found in ancestral domains belong to the State. In this sense, the IPRA does not give true autonomy and power to indigenous peoples to govern resources within their ancestral domains.

The State, through legal instruments such as the Mining Act of 1995 and the Revised Forestry Code, and institutions, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), govern like the metaphoric Leviathan over lives and resources, perhaps even like the monster Duyung in the T’boli story, devouring the sun in its sky-journey.

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