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The Philippines: Indigenous Rights and the MILF Peace Process

Asia Report N°213 22 Nov 2011

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The indigenous peoples of the southern Philippines known as the Lumad are in a precarious position as the peace process between Muslim rebels and the government moves forward. If and when a settlement is reached, thorny questions about protecting their distinct identity and land will have to be addressed. Many of the tribes fear that because they lack titles for their traditional territory, they will be unable to claim the resources and exercise their right to self-governance after a deal is signed. The question is what can be done now to reassure them that they will retain control of their land. While the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) may be ill-suited to advancing indigenous rights because its structure and content do not prioritise these issues, the government and the MILF should take steps both within and outside the parameters of formal negotiations to respond more concretely to the concerns of the Lumad.

Roughly nine million Lumads live in the conflict-torn southern island of Mindanao where they can assert native title over large swathes of land known as their ancestral domain. Their rights need to be reconciled with the demands of the Muslims, called the Bangsamoro, who want to incorporate some of this land into a proposed autonomous “sub-state”, and the interests of millions of Christian settlers who moved to Mindanao over the course of the twentieth century. A settlement that ignores overlapping claims to land and resources will be a shaky foundation for peace and could well give rise to further claims of injustice. The issues at stake cut to the heart of many concerns about how democratic a sub-state would be. What protections would be in place for minorities, both Lumad and Christian? How would land disputes be resolved? Who would control the resources?

The MILF has consistently asserted the Bangsamoro right to self-determination and argued that the Philippine government needs to address their political grievances by granting them the highest form of autonomy possible. It maintains that the various tribes who comprise the Lumad will benefit from a political settlement that will end decades of armed rebellion. On the surface, it seems natural that Moros and Lumads would share common interests; both were pushed off their land as Mindanao was incorporated into the Philippine state. In practice, relations are uneasy. Tribal leaders are quick to point out that their ancestors were enslaved by Moros. They doubt that their communities will be better off under a Moro-ruled government, especially if it does not respect existing land titles. And even if such a government did respect ancestral domain titles, it is not impossible that other indigenous rights in national legislation could be curtailed.

Lumad leaders say that the Bangsamoro are not the only group in Mindanao with claims to self-determination. They are frustrated with the flawed implementation of the 1997 Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), which in any case does not apply in the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). They are also angry that they are not one of the parties at the negotiating table because they have not taken up arms against the Philippine government. Divisions within and between tribes have made it difficult for the Lumad to take a unified position. The vast majority are impoverished and marginalised while the handful of leaders who speak on their behalf struggle to be heard.

In August 2008, the last-minute collapse of the so-called Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) between the MILF and the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government deepened the mistrust. The agreement envision­ed the expansion of the ARMM through plebiscites, including in areas with many Christians who feared they would lose their land. Christian politicians protested to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the agreement was unconstitutional. Lumads shared these concerns about an expanded Bangsamoro homeland, particularly because they are minorities in the areas where plebiscites would be held. They also objected to the inclusion of “indigenous peoples” in the definition of the Bangsamoro because they saw themselves as distinct. This solidarity did not mask the differences among the tribes, some of whom were resolutely opposed to being included in an expanded Bangsamoro homeland, while others were resigned to their fate.

Since President Benigno S. Aquino III took office in June 2010, both the MILF and the Philippine government have been holding consultations with Lumad leaders. The tribes that will be affected by a peace settlement have also submitted position papers to the two panels negotiating on behalf of the government and the MILF. But these efforts have neither dispelled the fears of Lumads nor reassured them that their rights will be guaranteed after a settlement. Efforts to do so must address the issue of land because it is the bedrock of tribal identity and self-governance.

The Aquino administration and its partners in the ARMM government should make it a priority to implement existing legislation on indigenous rights in the autonomous region. Applications for ancestral domain titles from tribes who live in areas that may be included in an expanded Bang­samoro homeland should be processed without further delay. For its part, the MILF can dispel some of the suspicions of Lumad leaders by clarifying whether IPRA would apply in a Bangsamoro sub-state and how overlapping ancestral domain claims – and therefore control over resources – might be resolved.

Jakarta/Brussels, 22 November 2011