In the Philippines, when the rest of the population goes to sleep, a reclusive community of indigenous people prepares for another restless night of fear and uncertainty.
Far away in the dense, dark forests of Occidental Mindoro, where Mangyan people are scattered in remote, small settlements, tribal leaders now routinely contemplate their future in feverish debates that usually last until daybreak.
"We are petrified that big mining companies will take over our ancestral land. If the government gives them license to operate, our land and heritage will be lost forever," says Juanito Lumawig. The 62-year-old supreme leader of all seven tribes of Mangyan is a worried man. For him, it is a battle for survival for his people, who for centuries have inhabited the rough and hard-to-reach highlands of this Philippine island.
Over 40,000 hectares of land, including vast swathes of forest is claimed by Mangyan as their ancestral domain. To mining corporations, the land potentially holds reserves of gold, natural gas and minerals worth many millions of dollars. The stakes are high and Mangyan are against all odds. In numbers, they are an ethnic and linguistic minority group of less than 25,000. Not only are the Mangyan physically and socially isolated from the rest of the Filipino population, but they are also among the poorest and most marginalised.
A Mangyan family earns on average just $0.34 a day. Nine out of ten Mangyan have poor access to safe drinking water and the majority are illiterate. Historically nomadic and forest gatherers, the tribes often struggle to feed themselves, particularly during the rainy season which lasts four months. It is such a routine part of their life that they refer to it as "hungry period" like any other season of the year. The consequences are obvious as 60% of Mangyan children are malnourished and infant mortality rates are so high that a child is considered fortunate to reach the age of 10.
Generations of isolation, discrimination and historical encroachment of their land by others have left Mangyan untrusting and fearful of the outside world. "First the lowlanders invaded our land and forced us to move to highlands and now we might be driven out again. Only this time we have nowhere to go," says Yagay Sebastian, leader of Buhid - one of the seven Mangyan tribes.
According to the government regulations, all indigenous peoples including Mangyan tribes must prove their ownership of the land they claim as rightfully theirs through title deeds and legally valid documentation. Given that majority of Mangyan are illiterate with limited contact with the outside world, their ability to support their claim is fraught with great challenges. Furthermore, majority do not even have an identity document due to lack of birth registration, rendering them even more vulnerable.
"The threat of commercial exploitation of Mangyan`s ancestral domain is real. Mining activities can pose threat to local environment and this may also result in displacement of the indigenous people," says Reynante Luna, Provincial Officer of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.
The Commission, set up by the national government, is mandated to promote and protect the best interests of the indigenous people. It was created after the Philippines government passed the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act to recognise indigenous peoples` communal and individual rights to their ancestral land along with their rights to self-governance, empowerment, social justice and human rights. However, nearly 15 years after enacting the law, very little has changed for Mangyans. "They remain among the poorest of the poor, still at the fringes of national priorities," says Diana San Jose an anthropologist who is supporting Mangyan tribes compile evidence for their legal claim.
In the absence of a legal title, it will be a greater struggle for Mangyan tribes to challenge commercial use of their land. Luna confirms there are three pending applications related to commercial mining in the Provincial Office record alone. However, he assures that these applications will undergo field based investigation to determine if they overlap with any ancestral domain. "It will also be referred to the concerned local government for any existing moratorium on mining," he says.
This is no reprieve for Mangyan people. Even with all caveats, overlapping jurisdictions of local municipalities and national government have created gaping legal loopholes that make the situation worse for Mangyan. Ask Ed Gadiano, mayor of Sablayan – the largest municipality by area in the whole of Philippines. "Four years ago Sablayan declared a moratorium on large scale mining for 25 years. Despite this, the national government granted exploration permit to a mining company on 9700 hectares of land," he says. With Gadiano`s administration refusing to accept the occupation fee, the mining company has deposited 2 million pesos in a local Court.
The scenes in Mindoro are heart-rending. Tribal leaders wear a dazed look on their faces as they try to make sense of how rapidly their world is falling apart. Already battling with severe poverty and exclusion, excessively private Mangyans are finding themselves in a morass of overwhelming bureaucracy. Most cannot comprehend that the land they have inhabited, tilled and worshipped for centuries now requires a proof of ownership.
Sadly, Mangyan`s plight is not an exception. There are an estimated 350 million indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide and many are facing similar challenges. Over centuries, indigenous peoples have retained their unique social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are apart from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Even though they have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands and resources; yet throughout history, their rights have been violated.
In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples making it the most comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed. It upheld collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law.
However, despite the progress made in recent decades, indigenous people are among the poorest, most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. They routinely face discrimination, displacement, violence, dispossession of their land and resources, and poor access to all development indicators. Since most indigenous communities live in some of the world`s most fragile environments, they are also in the frontline of climate change consequences.
Faced with extreme challenges, indigenous peoples are increasingly relying on support from local and international non-governmental organisations. Mangyan, for example, are being supported by global child rights and community development organisation Plan International. Since 2005, the organisation is engaged in running various development programmes for Mangyan. For title claim, the organisation with support from the European Union is assisting Mangyan to survey their land, create 3D maps of their domain and document their oral history which is replete with references to geographical landmarks.
Securing the title, however, is just the beginning of challenges for the Mangyan as they head for even more testing times ahead. Leader Lumawig laments, "Our people have been offered bribes and some have ended up signing consent forms seeking commercial use of our land. We feel helpless and totally powerless."
Frustration is growing among Mangyan but just like the forests they inhabit, their dissent is remarkably peaceful. "Non-violence is part of our beliefs. Our ancestors told us that God created the forests for Mangyan. I am sure they will protect us," hopes Lumawig. Shaken, the Mangyan leader is invoking the spirits of his ancestors and resting his hope on prayers. That is his last and, he has come to believe, only resort.