Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Indigenous Rights: Are They Non-Existent?

by Marciano Paroy Jr.

October is Indigenous People’s month in the Philippine calendar. The spotlight shed on indigenous communities, most notably those in the Cordilleras and those in Southern Mindanao, once again brought out the question on whether or not the rights of IPs are indeed being enjoyed by the concerned themselves.

Kalinga province, as one proud vessel of unique indigenous culture, is especially targeted by human rights groups. Why not, the province – and its IPs – are constinuously being wooed by mining companies that wish to tear open the province’s rich gold reserves.

Wasn’t there a law passed several years back that caters to IPs?

An important step towards the full realization of the rights of indigenous people was taken by the Philippine government with the adoption of RA 8371 – the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997. This constitutes the principal framework, after the Constitution, in which indigenous rights must be considered.

Many of the provisions of IPRA are intended to enable and promote the full enjoyment of their rights. Nevertheless, some analysts have pointed to weaknesses in the law which may lead to contradictory or ambiguous interpretations that do not fully favor indigenous rights. They also mention the fact that other laws (such as the Mining Act of 1995) include other provisions that make the application of IPRA difficult.

Indeed, the major concern seems to be not so much the text of the law itself, as the difficulties of its implementation. This appears to be a challenge that must be met squarely by government agencies and the judiciary, as well as by Philippine society in general, if the objectives of the Act are to be truly attained.

Implementation depends not only on political will but also on the institutional effectiveness of the government agencies that are responsible for it. This means in first place the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples which takes a specific role and leadership in the promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights within the framework of the administration.

The NCIP is the lead agency in protecting and promoting indigenous rights, as well as implementing government policy with regards to the indigenous communities and improve its coordination with other government agencies such as, in particular, the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources.

Indigenous knowledge systems, particularly regarding environmental management and subsistence agriculture, have come under increasing pressure from outside economic forces in recent years. Indigenous communities are justly proud of their traditional knowledge and concerned about its preservation and protection. This is part of their cultural integrity, considered to be an important and justiciable human right. The intellectual property of indigenous peoples should be a matter of high priority at all times.

Non-acknowledgement and recognition of the cultural and social specificity of indigenous peoples is also a form of latent discrimination, as has been noted by the World Conference against Racism. This latent discrimination can only be overcome by adequate educational and cultural policies, and in this respect the curricula of the schools and the contents of textbooks have been mentioned as deserving careful revision in order to do justice to the true history of indigenous peoples and their contribution to national society.

Economic and social development are urgent tasks of our time, particularly when more than half of the world’s population lives in dire poverty. Among these, the indigenous peoples have been acknowledged as being particularly vulnerable. But the United Nations have agreed that if development is to be at all effective even in purely economic terms, it must be a human rights centered development. The full enjoyment of human rights by all the people concerned are as important, if not more so, than growth rates, productivity and profits.

The commitment of the Philippine government to the human rights of indigenous peoples has been underlined by President Macapagal-Arroyo’s decision to establish and chair herself Task Force 63, which is concerned with emergency situations involving indigenous peoples.

- with readings from The World Conservation Union

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