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Pinoy Kasi
Ancestral domain

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:35:00 08/13/2008

Filed Under: Mindanao peace process, Minority groups

MILF. BJE. MOA-AD. We often protest the many abbreviations imposed in our lives, but they can also be mnemonic, meaning they help us to remember complicated lists and issues. Let?s look at the latest batch of abbreviations as they relate to the strife in Mindanao.

We start with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for many years now to establish a Bangsamoro homeland. A few days ago, the headlines exploded with news of an agreement between the Philippine government and the MILF to establish a BJE (not JPE, who has also been making other headlines).

BJE means Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, which will have vastly more powers than the current ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) but, its proponents claim, still remain part of the Philippine Republic.

In the weeks ahead, we will hear more about the stories behind the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement), from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s political ambitions to US and regional politics, but as an anthropologist, I want to focus on the issue of ancestral domain. After all, the controversial agreement is often abbreviated as MOA-AD, an abbreviation of its full name: ?Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain Aspect of the GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace of 2001.? (GRP means Government of the Republic of the Philippines.)


The MOA begins by citing past agreements between the Philippines and the MILF, as well as UN conventions, and Republic Act 6734, which strengthened the ARMM. Strangely, there is no reference to Republic Act 8371 passed in 1997. That law is often referred to by still another abbreviation, IPRA, which means the Indigenous Peoples? Rights Act. IPRA has clear definitions and provisions on ancestral domain, and is considered a major breakthrough for the rights of our indigenous peoples (IPs) and indigenous cultural communities (ICCs), Muslims included.

It?s important to look at why IPRA had to be passed, what it provides for, and what it could mean for this new MOA with the MILF.

The IPs number about 12 million in the Philippines (but IPs themselves say the censuses tend to under-count them). There is a very long definition in IPRA of who the IPs are, but it is the last part of the definition that is most important, at least in relation to the MOA: ?ICCs/IPs shall likewise include peoples who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, at the time of conquest or colonization, or at the time of inroads of non-indigenous religions and cultures, or the establishment of present state boundaries, who retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, but who may have been displaced from their traditional domains or who may have resettled outside their ancestral domains?.?

The MOA with the MILF invokes the term ?First People? to emphasize that the Moros had rights of ?self-governance? tied to ?ancestral territoriality.? It is this same principle that forms the rationale of the IPRA, which is recognition that in different parts of the Philippines there are land areas that had original settlers who have since been displaced. The IPRA was meant to compensate for that often conflict-ridden and bloody displacement, and to give security to the IPs through a system of Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles and Certificates of Ancestral Land Titles.

Mindanao accounts for about half of the country?s total IPs, including Muslims and non-Muslims. (Non-Muslims in Mindanao sometimes use the generic term lumad.) Most of the IPs have occupied particular land areas for many years, some even centuries, but do not have land titles. One reason is cultural, the concept of ownership being defined by customs and traditions which emphasize communal, rather than individual rights.

Land titles are missing as well because of legal discrimination against the IPs. In 1903, under US colonial rule, the Philippine Commission declared all traditional land grants of sultans, datus and other indigenous leaders null and void. With growing population pressure in lowland areas, a Public Land Law tried to encourage Filipinos to move to new frontiers through a system of homesteading, but the law favored Christians, who could own up to 24 hectares, while non-Christians were allowed to own only up to 10 hectares. (In 1936, homesteading limits were reduced to 16 hectares for Christians and 4 hectares for non-Christians.)

Mindanao was a land of promise for several waves of mostly Christian settlers, who knew the legal system and could claim rights. In other cases, there was the use of outright force to evict the IPs.


IPRA opened new possibilities for IPs to protect their home territories and their communities. A Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) gives many rights to the community, including the control of land, air and sea resources, the right to stay in the territory, even the right to regulate entry of migrants. With their certificate, the community could also avail itself of a government Ancestral Domain Sustainability Development and Protection Plan, which is a package of economic and social services.

But progress has been slow with IPRA, even from the demand side, meaning the applications made for a certificate of ancestral domain. This is because some IP communities are uncomfortable with this idea of titles. For those who do want to get such a certificate, they have to prove that they have lived in the area ?since time immemorial.? There are various options here but all rest on written documentation for proof, including anthropological accounts.

As of last year, only 57 Certificates of Ancestral Domain had been issued, covering 1.2 million hectares and 300,000 families.

Now comes the MOA with the MILF, which would lead, after a plebiscite, to the designation of a huge area in Mindanao and Palawan as the Bangsamoro ancestral domain. With the MOA?s omission of the IPRA, I?m wondering now if that means the MILF would be exempted from proving their claims to the territory, as other IP communities have to.

It is not surprising that so much of the opposition to the MOA comes even from Muslims, who could challenge the MILF?s claims over particular land areas. Other non-Muslim IPs in Mindanao could also question the First People claim of the MILF. After all, Islam was introduced to the Philippines from the outside, so that many Filipino Muslims actually share common ancestry with the ?lumad? IP groups, the difference being that the lumad did not convert to Islam. Technically then, Mindanao?s First People were the lumad.

There is one last important catch to this whole ancestral domain issue, if we are to go by the existing law. The IPRA begins by stating that the state ?shall recognize and promote the rights of ICC?s/IPs? but is clear in qualifying that this must be done ?within the framework of national unity and development.? Proponents of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity will have to prove that framework exists.

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