POSTSCRIPT / May 28, 2009 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Who protects aetas from landgrabbers?

CLARK FIELD — There is something worrisome about the grand presentation yesterday of a kind of communal title to balugas (aka aetas) over their ancestral lands in the hills north of here.

President Gloria Arroyo led the ceremonial awarding to the “Tribong Ayta” of a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) covering 10,684 hectares of the rugged terrain of Sacobia in the “Next Frontier” subzone being developed by the Clark Development Corp.

One wonders if the President is aware of the exploitation of Sacobia’s balugas, an endangered species.

Does the CADT have the legal integrity and force of a Torrens title to protect the balugas from operators maneuvering to control the potentials of Sacobia?

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SIDE EFFECTS: Some of us are worried that the CADT might confer a sheen of legality on the side deals that some individuals have imposed on unsuspecting balugas involving the occupation and use of their land.

Since the CADT covers the entire area, it might also give legal cover for non-balugas and opportunists who had grabbed land on the basis of dubious paperwork justifying their occupation of prime sections.

It is common knowledge here that the balugas have been abused one way or another, ironically sometimes by those who are supposed to take care of them.

Exploiters reportedly include some officers of Clark locator firms, indigenous peoples and non-government groups, as well as some past and present local officials – mostly for their personal benefit.

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BEAUTY & POTENTIAL: A visitor of Sacobia seeing its raw beauty and potential easily falls in love with the place and may want a piece of it.

Taking advantage of the poverty and lack of education of many of the balugas, some speculators had been able to badger them into selling their individual “rights” to the communal property, usually for a small amount.

An ocular inspection shows orchards of mango trees, for instance, that had been signed away to outsiders for a paltry sum. Ownership questions are likely to arise.

Some individuals, meanwhile, are rush-planting a large number of trees, very close to one another, in expectation of being paid for each tree when they have to be relocated.

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IRR READY: But CDC President Benigno Ricafort assured us that the implementing rules and regulations being drafted with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples will go beyond protecting interests of CDC which has jurisdiction over Sacobia.

“We are aware of our grave responsibilities to protect the rights of the balugas,” he said, adding that they would not shirk this duty while pursuing their socio-economic mandate.

Stressing his personal concern, Ricafort recalled that their family once had a baluga house help who was treated like family and was, in fact, interred beside his parents in the family plot in Sta. Rita town.

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BALANCING ACT: Ricafort is likely to have a tough time tangling with aggressive and influential individuals grabbing choice areas from innocent balugas or in connivance with tribesmen who are smarter than the others.

He said, however, that the CDC respects rightful claims of ownership and ancestral domain claims protected under the Indigenous Peoples Right Act (RA 8371). That will require delicate balancing.

While sorting out conflicting claims and fending off politicians, influence peddlers and landgrabbers, Ricafort will have to address simultaneously the urgent socio-economic needs of the tribe.

How will he satisfy their massive housing, education, and livelihood requirements?

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NEXT FRONTIER: Sacobia is part of what the CDC calls the Next Frontier, a hilly area north of Clark proper with baluga sitios that grew from the Marcos and Macapagal villages for squatters removed from outside the perimeter fence of then Clark Air Base.

Balugas are either “kulot” or “unat.” The “kulot” have kinky short hair, while the “unat,” presumably offsprings of intermarriages, sport straighter and longer hair and are generally taller than the “kulot.”

From the seventies, Sacobia has been under various agencies until, in 1996, it was placed under the Clark Development Corp.

But the parade of managers and do-gooders appears to have faltered in the human dimension of the problem — improving the quality of the lives of balugas.

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JMA SIGNED: The original Sacobia claim indicated in documents of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources involved only 5,515 hectares (of a total of 5,612 hectares) tended by 470 families of “Abelling Tribe” in Bamban, Tarlac.

But from 1997 to 2005, the area claimed grew to 10,684 hectares and the claimants swelled to almost 3,000. (Bamban, btw, has a territory dispute with the neighboring town of Mabalacat, Pampanga.)

In 2004, various agencies that included the CDC, the NCIP and the Department of Land Reform agreed to thresh out conflicts and issues by conducting a ground revalidation.

One result was the signing of a Joint Management Agreement on Dec. 6, 2007, by CDC, the NCIP and the Tribong Ayta.

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80-20 DEAL: Under the JMA, 20 percent of the net income from the rentals of ancestral domain areas goes to the Tribong Ayta, while CDC keeps 80 percent.

An advance deal was made on March 31, 2008, when CDC turned over 12 brand-new utility vans for the 12 baluga sitios and an AUV for their chairman. These are being used in emergencies, community activities, school service and transporting farm harvests.

The CDC also has drawn up programs for employment, skills development and livelihood projects.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 28, 2009)

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