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FOCUS December 2010 Volume 62

Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines: Continuing Struggle

Rey Ty

The Spanish and American colonialization of the Philippines institutionalized the distinction among peoples in the country into mainstream Christian/Muslim and peripheral tribal/minority/ indigenous populations. Through laws, the tribal/ minority/indigenous communities were deprived of the right to their ancestral domains. Through so-called “development” activities, they were dispossessed of the land they till for their livelihood. Their marginalization, dispossession and other forms of injustices continued long after colonial rule had gone.
This article briefly traces the historical development of the legal measures that led to the oppression of the indigenous peoples in the Philippines, as well as discuss the current measures that address the problem. To prepare for the article, the author reviewed the major laws as well as the political systems from the colonial period to the present, and analyzed materials related to the training programs at the Northern Illinois University that contain critical reflections that arose from the focused group discussions among representatives of indigenous peoples from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao who attended the programs.

Spanish Colonial Rule

Thriving communities existed (with political, economic, social and cultural systems) in the different parts of the archipelago (now called the Philippines) hundreds of years before Spanish colonization began. The Islamic influence that started in the south (Mindanao) in the 13th century had reached the north (Manila in particular) centuries later. But the arrival of the Spanish colonizers changed the course of history of the archipelago drastically. For the first time, a single political (and religious) authority ruled over major portions of the archipelago (including parts of Mindanao). Spanish settlements spread throughout the archipelago and merged with the major communities (Intramuros in Manila, Villa Fernandina in Vigan, Caceres in Naga for what is now Luzon area, and Santisimo Nombre in Cebu and Arevalo in Molo in the Visaya area).1
Communities were organized into towns (pueblos) under the rule of both Spanish colonial government and the Catholic Church. But the Spanish colonial government did not have enough personnel (or religious missionaries) to manage the communities, and thus it resorted to a system of land trust (encomienda) that gave lands to Spanish settlers. The system was first employed in “Spanish America in Columbus’s time.. and [L]and, with its inhabitants, was entrusted – not granted as private property – to an encomendero or trustee as a reward for his services to the king and for his support.”2
The encomendero had specific duties, despite not being a government official, to resettle the people – the original inhabitants of the islands – in permanent communities located in suitable places; establish a government for the people; and teach the people the Christian religion. In return, he was authorized to collect tributes, and recruit workers for public service (polo).3
The establishment of townships started the distinction between people who came under Spanish and Christian influence and those who refused to be so ruled. Eventually, those who remained outside the towns were driven further out into the forests and the mountains. With their traditional systems and practices intact, they were considered remontados (people who fled to the hills) and infideles (infidels).
Spanish laws were nevertheless imposed on those who refused to join the pueblos. All lands in the Philippine archipelago were treated as lands of the Spanish crown under the jura regalia doctrine (Regalian Doctrine). By the 19th century new Spanish land laws were governing lands in the Philippines. Land titles became the basis of grant from the Spanish crown. Those without the land titles had no legal right over the land. Thus, the people who remained outside the pueblos, now the indigenous peoples, and who refused to be covered by Spanish land laws had virtually no right to their own land.
With the Spanish-American War that led to the surrender of the Spanish forces in Manila to a U.S. naval fleet, a new colonial ruler from North America entered the Philippines. By virtue of the Treaty of Paris of 1898 that ended the Spanish- American war, and with a twenty million dollar payment to Spain, the Philippines became a U.S. colony.4 

U.S. Colonialism

The U.S. colonial government kept the Regalian Doctrine and implemented a series of land laws to govern the so-called “public lands” (previously lands of the Spanish crown). It wanted uncultivated and unoccupied public lands that could be classified as agricultural lands to be distributed to those who wanted to use them – U.S. citizens included. These “uncultivated, unoccupied public lands” covered the ancestral domains of indigenous peoples. The Public Land Act of 1902 governed the disposition of the lands of the “public domain.” Claimants could apply for homestead, or buy or lease, or confirm titles (acquired during the Spanish era) to the land. A corporation or association could lease or buy up to 1,024 hectares of land. This law had a provision regarding designation of “any tract or tracts of the public domain for the exclusive use of non-Christian natives,” by which each member could apply up to four hectares of land for his own use. The same provision declared null and void any conveyance or transfer of right to land by the non-Christian natives (including “sultans, datus, or other chiefs of the so-called non-Christians tribes“) if they were not authorized by either the previous Spanish colonial government or the U.S. colonial government. The 1902 Land Registration Act No. 496 proclaimed that all lands were subject to a land title system and gave power to the government to issue proofs of title over a piece of land to legitimate claimants. The 1903 Philippine Commission Act No. 178 classified all unregistered land as belonging to the public domain and that the State alone had the power to classify and use it. The 1905 Mining Act gave the American colonialists the right to mine public lands.
Other laws allowed big American agricultural corporations to access the fertile lands of Mindanao, belonging to indigenous peoples, and to establish vast agricultural plantations.

Postcolonial Philippines

The effect of the U.S. land laws continued after the Philippines became an independent state in 1946. While many of these laws were subsequently amended by the Philippine legislature, they retained their basic objectives and features. It was in the 1987 Constitution that, while keeping the Regalian Doctrine, “the rights of indigenous cultural communities within the framework of national unity and development ”5 were recognized, and t he autonomous regions of Muslim Mindanao and in the Cordilleras were created.6 To implement these constitutional provisions, Republic Act 8371, also known as Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), was enacted in 1997.
The law defines “ancestral domains” as 

all areas generally belonging to ICCs/IPs [indigenous cultural communities/indigenous peoples] comprising lands, inland waters, coastal areas, and natural resources therein, held under a claim of ownership, occupied or possessed by ICCs/IPs, themselves or through their ancestors, communally or individually since time immemorial, continuously to the present except when interrupted by war, force majeure or displacement by force, deceit, stealth or as 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. It shall include ancestral land, forests, pasture, residential, agricultural, and other lands individually owned whether alienable and disposable or otherwise, hunting grounds, burial grounds, worship areas, bodies of water, mineral and other natural resources, and lands which may no longer beexclusively occupied by ICCs/IPs but from which they traditionally had access to for their subsistence and traditional activities, particularly the home ranges of ICCs/IPs who are still nomadic and/or shifting cultivators. (Section 3a)

IPRA initiated the new era of settling land claims, this time by the indigenous peoples in relation to their ancestral domains. But the establishment of such claims did not always end their land problems. Another law was enacted two years before that affected the claims of indigenous communities to land where minerals exist. The Philippine Mining Act of 19957 was enacted with the full recognition that ancestral lands would be affected. It defines ancestral lands, provides that such lands would not be opened for mining operations “without the prior consent of the indigenous cultural community concerned,” and in case the community gives its consent “royalty payment, upon utilization of the minerals shall be agreed upon by the parties.” While these provisions recognized the right to land of the indigenous peoples, actual application of the law adversely affected their communities. Additionally, the 1992 National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act, meant to protect endangered plants and animals, challenges the social, political, and cultural systems of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Peoples Today

Indigenous peoples in the Philippines belong to different ethnic groups and reside in different parts of the country. There are more than one hundred indigenous communities (NCIP, 2010), about 61% of whom are in Mindanao, 33% in Luzon, and 6% in the Visayas. The indigenous peoples in the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon are called Igorot. They belong to different ethnic groups, such as Bontoc, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Isneg, Kalinga, Kankanaey, and Tingguian. The Gadang, Ilongot, and Ivatan are found in the Cagayan Valley, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, and Quirino. The Negrito groups are found in North, Central, and Southern Luzon. They include the Aeta and Dumagat.
The Mindoro island has seven distinct Mangyan groups. Palawan islands have the Batak, Palawana, and Tagbanwa. The indigenous peoples in Mindanao, collectively called Lumad, do not consider the Bangsa Moro and the Christianized Filipinos as indigenous peoples in view of their adoption of non- indigenous religions. The major Lumad groups are (1) the Monobo, (2) the Bagobo, B’laan, T’boli, and Teduray groups, (3) the Mandaya and Mansaka groups, (4) the Subanen, and (5) the Mamanwa. 

Human Rights Violations

The indigenous peoples, to a large extent “forgotten” by the government, are in the midst of problems. Physical isolation does not shield them from being caught in the crossfire in the on- going armed conflicts in the country, many suffered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and some killed or detained and tortured as suspected members of the armed opposition groups. Lack of access to basic social services, education, sustainable livelihood, farm-to-market roads, and health services contribute to their continuing poverty. In many cases, the onslaught of commercialism and modern culture came at the expense of maintaining their own culture and tradition (and thus their identity).
The Copenhagen-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs8 noted that the Philippine government approved the Certificates of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT), which “now help indigenous communities to assert control over their territories and they create the incentives to sustainably manage and protect their forest and other natural resources.” Indeed, in some indigenous communities, such as the Subanen, indigenous leaders were able to participate “in local government” as well as “titling of ancestral domains” as “part of the overall goal of strengthening self-governance of ancestral domains.”
However, there are other issues that have remained unresolved. Reports by various human rights organizations show human rights violations relating to mining operations in ancestral lands, while other human rights of indigenous peoples continue to be violated in general.9

Lumads in Mindanao

Indigenous participants from Mindanao of the two batches of Northern Illinois University’s Philippine Minorities Program held in 2010 and the program titled “Cultural Citizens and the North-South Dialogue” held in 2008 reported several cases of violations of the rights of the Lumads. Common problems include non-representation at all levels of society, lack of education, poverty, and discrimination. Their struggles against development aggression, which lead to loss of ancestral domain and self-determination as well as to environmental destruction, are met with harassment and human rights violations, including political killings.
A Talaandig woman from Bukidnon reported that their ancestral domain was grabbed, despite their efforts to fight against it through legal means. In the process, a leader and other community members were killed. Many Talaandigs ended up working as laundry maids or domestic help in neighboring barangays (communities), sugarcane plantation workers, and laborers.
A Manobo teacher from Surigao del Sur reported on the existence of illegal logging and mining that caused loss of farmlands as well as flash floods. A Teduray community organizer from Maguindanao said that his tribe fell victim to internal displacement due to recurrent armed conflicts. In addition, illegal logging caused environmental destruction. Due to poverty, many go abroad, specifically to the Middle East, to work as domestic help.
A Tagacaulo from Sarangani said that his community was worried about the intrusion of settlers into their ancestral lands. Corrupt politicians aggravate their problems, as the politicians receive payoffs from parties having interest on the ancestral lands and support the latter’s actions. A Blaan agriculturist said that the operations of a multinational pineapple company were destroying not only the environment of South Cotabato but also jeopardizing the health of the people who work and live in the plantation and its surrounding areas. Hazardous chemicals are extensively used as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Children and adults inhale these chemicals, and fall ill. As they lose their ancestral lands, they leave the highlands and seek economic opportunities in the lowlands.


Each indigenous community is different. But all indigenous communities struggle for the right to self-determination and to their ancestral domain. Pursuant to the stipulations of the 1987 Constitution, IPRA undertakes to improve the situation of indigenous peoples. But laws, such as IPRA, have to be effectively implemented in light of the existence of other laws that violate the rights of indigenous peoples. Finally, the resolution of the problems of the indigenous peoples relates to the elimination of the deep- seated discrimination against them, a task that remains difficult to achieve.

Mr. Rey Ty works at the International Training Office, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois, U.S.A.

 For further information please send message to this e-mail address: rty@niu.edu; or visit www3.niu.edu/intl_prgms/history.htm


1. Jose Arcilla, “Spanish Conquest,” Kasaysayan – The Story of the Filipino People (Hong Kong: Asia Publishing Company Ltd., 1998), page 61.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. For the terms of the treaty visit: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/sp1898.asp
5. Article II, Section 22, 1997 Constitution
6.  Article X, Sections 15 to 19, 1997 Constitution
7. An Act Instituting a New System of Mineral Resources Exploration, Development, Utilization, and Conservation.
8. International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Annual Report 2009. (Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2009), pages 16 and 19.
9. See for example, Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2009: State of the World’s Human Rights (London: Amnesty International, 2009). Retrieved 24 December 2010 from www.thereport.amnesty.org/en/regions/asia-pacific/philippines#indigenous-peoples-rsquo-rights, and Cultural Survival, Philippines: Stop mine on indigenous lands. Retrieved 23 December 2010 from www.culturalsurvival.org/take-action/philippines-stop-mine-indigenous-lands.