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9 August – International Day of the World’s Indigenous People 2008 – Organizing out of poverty: indigenous peoples in the Philippines

There are more than 5,000 different indigenous peoples living in some 70 countries in the world. About 70 per cent of them are in Asia and the Pacific, mostly in rural areas. They often lack control over land and resources and face high levels of discrimination and poverty. ILO Online reports from the Philippines where indigenous peoples were able to organize themselves to have a stronger voice.

Article | 07 August 2008

LAKE SEBU, Philippines (ILO Online) – Lake Sebu is known as the summer capital of the Philippine province of Southern Mindanao due to its cool climate, panoramic view and rich cultural heritage.

Yet, amidst its beauty and serenity, Lake Sebu has also seen the struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their land, their rights and their culture.

Lake Sebu is home to the T’boli tribe – one of the 110 tribal groups and indigenous peoples of the Philippines – which comprises 70 per cent of the total population here. Recent paving of the roads leading here from the national highway has made Lake Sebu more accessible for migrants and tradesmen from the cities.

“My father used to own 15 hectares of land. Migrant settlers and lowlanders tried to make friends with my father. They gave us canned goods. Then, they asked my father if they can use a small portion of our land for gardening, not knowing that they will expand to a wider area”, explains Blino Odon of the Federation of Lake Sebu T’boli Ancestral Domain and Lahit Tribal Development Association.

As a result Blino Odon and other members of the tribe lost their land.

“We can’t do anything. We don’t even have the money to hire a lawyer or file a case. Migrant settlers and lowlanders abuse indigenous peoples. They take advantage of the low literacy level and use illegal land grabbing”, Mr. Odon says.

Indigenous and tribal peoples ending up landless is a common problem.

In Lake Sebu, tradesmen lend fertilizers to indigenous farmers and tribal peasants with high interest rates until the lending reaches a point when they can no longer pay their debts. In return, traders request them to mortgage their land.

“Traders and lowlanders have business experience. They lend money to us and from land owners we became tenants of our own land”, explains Mr. Odon.

As a result, in almost every country where they live, indigenous peoples belong to the poorest of the poor, have the lowest income levels and limited access to basic education, health care and other services. Indigenous peoples represent 5 per cent of the world’s population and over 15 per cent of the world’s poor.

Recently, the Embassy of Finland in the Philippines and the International Labour Organization renewed their commitment to reduce poverty and promote human rights among indigenous peoples in Lake Sebu and launched the third phase of an already existing project.

“Our people first had doubts about this project. There were projects before which tried to help us but nothing happened”, says Datu Ponciano Bandalan of Barangay Bakdulong, Lake Sebu. Datu is a royal title conferred to respected leaders or members of a royal family.

“Our people were not merely treated as beneficiaries. They were directly involved in planning and identifying their needs even in implementing this project. The project helped us in developing our community,” he adds.

According to Datu Bandalan, the tribal house is used to display and sell indigenous products such as the Tinalak, a tie-dyed and hand-woven abaca fiber, brassware, handicrafts, beaded jewelries and other native products. The tribal house serves as a venue for traditional ceremonies, meetings and even as a place to settle conflicts and disputes in the community.

The T’boli tribe also learnt about the rights of indigenous peoples under ILO Convention No. 169.

In order to protect and promote the rights of the 370 million indigenous and tribal peoples worldwide, the ILO has adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). It covers a wide range of issues, including land rights, access to natural resources, health, education, vocational training, conditions of employment and contacts across borders.

“We ensure that indigenous peoples have a say in building their communities and shaping their own future. We encourage them to organize. Individual voices count and rights are respected. It is important to listen to their priorities and recognize their culture”, says Linda Wirth, ILO Subregional Director for South-East Asia and the Pacific. “The ILO is committed to promote the ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 in the Philippines. We believe that this is a platform for action and dialogue. It is a way to protect vulnerable groups such as indigenous and tribal peoples and help people to work their way out of poverty”, she adds.