Republic Act 8371 is an Act to recognize, protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Cultural Communities (ICCs)/ Indigenous Peoples or IPs. Section 1 of said Act notes, “the State shall take measures, with the participation of the ICCs/IPs concerned, to protect their rights and guarantee respect for their cultural integrity and ensure that members of said groups benefit on an equal footing from the rights and opportunities which national laws and regulations grant to other members of the population.”
Further Section 3 of the said Act stipulates that ICCs/IPs have rights to their ancestral domain or “areas generally belonging to ICCs/IPs comprising lands, inland waters, coastal areas, natural resources, therein, held under a claim, ownership, occupied or possessed by ICCs/IPs, by themselves or through their ancestors, communally or individuals since time immemorial, continuously to the present except when interrupted by war, force majeure or displacement by force, deceit, stealth or a consequence of government projects or any other voluntary dealings entered into by government and private individuals/corporations, and which are necessary to ensure their economic, social and cultural welfare.”
Based on the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) (with April 2016 as reference period), there are about 48,743 registered Indigenous People (IP) in the Bicol Region of the 213,311 estimated population nationwide. Among the six provinces in the region, Camarines Sur has the biggest number of tribal communities with 4,799 families or 26,199 persons.
I belong to the Agta tribe or one of the IPs, descendant of Negrito enthicity. Most of us reside at Mount Iriga in Buhi, Camarines Sur. IPs including the Agtas have been noted to be challenges to the government attributed to their poor health. Most of them do not have money and could not access hospital service easily. Inadequate social services specially water, lack of livelihood; little education/poor literacy rate; and discrimination.
While there are Agtas who are educated and currently employed, there are still many others who live a hand-to-mouth existence relying on fishing, hunting and farming.
It is disheartening however that the poor economic condition of these Agtas is being aggravated by the New People’s Army’s intervention. A portion of Agtas’ ancestral lands was forcibly taken by the NPAs. In many cases, the NPAs are asking from five to 10 percent from Agtas agricultural yields (coconuts, palay, among others).
Only a few stood pat not to give in to the NPA’s demands while others abandoned their lands for fear of reprisal. Due to abject poverty some of them are compelled to engage in illegal timber poaching converted to charcoal which is prohibited by the government. I am very lucky though to have a stable job.
Extortion imposed by the NPAs is just one phase affecting the Agtas in Iriga. The NPAs are sowing fear among Agtas, that has psychological and traumatic effect specially among children. There is no peace.
I highly believe in the government’s efforts to protect and promote the welfare of ICCs/IPs like the Agtas. Attesting to these efforts are: making education accessible for us where I was one of the beneficiaries; farm-to-market roads; being part of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps); provision of basic social services to include free hospitalization through zero balance bill policy, housing units; and priority lane for them to avoid discrimination.
While the government is pushing Agtas and other IPs to be in the mainstream of society, such efforts may become futile if there are people like the NPAs who are adding loads to their burden. I cannot blame President Duterte for his expletives against the NPAs and tagging them as terrorists attributed to their horrendous acts.
I am appealing to the NPAs to stop their interventions against the Agtas because these too deserve a decent and good life. — NIMFA SANTOSA, Volunteer for IPs in Camarines Sur