COMMENTARY: Save Mindanao?s remaining forests

The first wave of ecological colonialism occurred in tandem with the political subjugation and marginalization of indigenous peoples by Spain, the United States, and briefly by Japan. It was marked by unbridled exploitation of lands, forests and other resources to feed the colonizers’ craving for cheap raw materials and agricultural produce for industries and markets in their own countries, their greed constrained only by available technologies at the time. In Mindanao, whole coastal and forest-dwelling communities were uprooted to give way to plantations, pastures, mines and logging. As a result, tribal peoples were forced to move to the highlands to avoid confrontation, coercion, and slavery.

Aside from resource exploitation, the colonizers also introduced western land ownership systems which are incompatible with customary land rights. These systems have become so embedded in the country’s laws in a manner that has made it extremely difficult for indigenous peoples to assert prior proprietary rights even with the passage of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (Republic Act 8371). It is somehow safe to say that two land rights regimes exist in the country today: one based on laws handed down by colonialism and another much older one based on actual, primordial occupancy, or occupancy since time immemorial, to use the language of the IPRA.

Simultaneous with the physical displacement of tribal peoples was the imposition of Christianity (Spain) and educational system (US) as ideological weapons against potential unrest, ranging from local revolts to uprisings of greater magnitude that plagued the colonialists to the end.  And so it came to pass that the indigenous inhabitants of Mindanao lost not only their lands and resources to the colonizers and later to the major beneficiaries of post-World War II governments, but also much of their colorful, diverse cultures, reverence towards spirits and ancestors, and links to land and nature. The colonial setup obliterated cultural practices and belief systems that pre-dated it for many centuries and which were shaped by the forces of nature, of sun, rain and wind, and of agreements done in the traditional spirit of sharing.

It may thus be said that the rapacity with which the colonial and post-war governments appropriated Mindanao’s lands, forests and other resources for their own ends went hand in hand with the systematic repression of local cultures and social structures. The state of Mindanao’s forests, or what remains of these, suggests a correlation between deforestation and vanishing cultures. The previous century saw the rapid conversion of forestlands in the island into plantations, ranches and settlements for migrants. The onslaught of globalization spells further doom for the environment in general and the forests and indigenous cultures in particular if no immediate, concerted actions would be undertaken.

GREEN Mindanao has recognized the urgent need to initiate a campaign that seeks to mobilize communities (tribes) as defenders of their forests and future in conjunction with the efforts of other relevant actors – government, civil society, church, artists, and even armed groups (New People’s Army, Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front) that exert control or influence in certain forest territories where their involvement is a practical option. The campaign rests on the belief that the most crucial part in protecting Mindanao’s remaining forests is the communities’ conviction to defend the lifeblood of their survival, not conventional domestic and global conservation projects or programs. It started in July 2006 and aims to protect one million hectares of remnant forests. The target sounds ambitious, although not necessarily unrealistic in the light of a growing environmental consciousness among various sectors in the island. (The author is the executive director of Green Mindanao Association, Inc.)