Indigenous peoples’ (IPs’) ancestral land rights are a powerful idea whose time has come, but unless we restrain extravagant claims by dubious claimants, that time shall have come and gone too soon.
Tourists visiting Baguio City for the holidays may have missed the news reports that many of its landmarks are now covered by ancestral land titles: Portions of Wright Park and the President’s Mansion compound, the Botanical Garden, the Philippine Military Academy and the Loakan Airport. Earlier this year, had it not been for a last-minute restraining order, a historic hotel would have been evicted after certificates of ancestral land title over its location were issued to a claimant family.
There’s really nothing wrong in these if the claims are fully validated. But the improvident issuance of ancestral land titles in Baguio has now led to the cancellation of several such titles, the Inquirer reports. The reasons cited are the stock-in-trade in Philippine land-grabbing disputes—namely, the old scourge of original documents lost while in the custody of government agencies. The larger debate, on the other hand, is increasingly worrisome, as indigenous peoples in the Philippines strive to right ancient injustices using the modern tools of law and in an increasingly commercial world.
This is not an argument against the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (Ipra) that admirably vindicates centuries-long grievances. Rather, it is a plea for us to keep faith with the law’s noble goals by ensuring that only bona fide claimants enjoy its benefits, and the first item on the agenda is for the government to clarify exactly what the law says.
To start with, how can ancestral titles be issued over Baguio lands when the Ipra effectively exempts the city from its coverage? “The City of Baguio shall remain to be governed by its Charter and all lands proclaimed as part of its townsite reservation shall remain as such until otherwise reclassified by appropriate legislation.”
Moreover, the Ipra contrasts its “indigenous concept of ownership” with the more familiar Torrens system of land registration. Under the Ipra, the ancestral domain is “private but community property which belongs to all generations and therefore cannot be sold, disposed or destroyed.” Yet the Ipra grants individual IP members the option to transform their ancestral claim into a Torrens title.
This short-circuits many cultural and environmental safeguards. One, what began as inalienable property held under the concept of stewardship is suddenly transformed into absolute title where the owner is free to sell the property, indeed even to a buyer outside his IP community. Two, whereas it takes a law to “convert” public land and make it alienable (so it can be sold as private property), the Ipra allows conversions even without such a law, and indeed even as regards mountainous slopes normally reserved as public land. In other words, the Ipra provides legal shortcuts around the very concept of stewardship that it espouses.
Worse, we risk facing bogus claimants: Who are the real IPs? Reports say that an IP group has claimed the Malampaya gas deposit as part of its “ancestral domain”—as if the profit-sharing between the national government and the province of Palawan weren’t complex enough. Finally, the ancestral domain was central to the aborted 2008 Bangsamoro peace agreement and today is actually still part of the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law pending before Congress. Yet only genuine IPs, and not the bulk of the Muslim population, are entitled to the ancestral domain.
The irony is that the rights of Cordillera peoples over their unregistered lands were long ago affirmed by no less than Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the US Supreme Court when the Philippines was still an American colony. Holmes argued against the “denial of native titles—for the want of ceremonies which the Spaniards would not have permitted and had not the power to enforce,” lest we would have “meant by ‘property’ only that which had become such by ceremonies of which presumably a large part of the inhabitants never had heard.”
“For want of ceremony”? We solved it a century hence by creating the novel Ipra legal ceremony. The ensuing confusion is understandable because the Ipra is a bold experiment, but it has been a decade and half since a deadlocked Supreme Court upheld the law. That is enough time for us to learn our lessons—among them, that the careless issuance of ancestral titles and their quick revocation do not do anybody any good.
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